“. . . The old haunts of [bears and wolves] are now turned into plowed fields,
and where they once roamed in unmolested freedom,
you find in their stead children playing;
where two decades ago you heard the hungry howl of wolves
and the angry growl of bears, you hear the sweet notes of school songs.”
– Nitobe Inazō, May 1906
|The Lost Wolves of Japan (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books)|
An extended version of the above quote appears in historian Brett L. Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan, which explores how wolves went from being revered creatures in ancient and medieval Japan to being hunted to extinction during the modernization period of the Meiji Restoration. Mamoru Hosoda’s 2012 anime feature film Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪/ Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki, 2012) suggests that the wolves did not become extinct; but instead survived into the modern age becoming half human.
The story is narrated by one of the wolf children, Yuki (Haru Kuroki), who recollects how her parents met. Her mother Hana (Aoi Miyazaki) was a university student (the buildings are recognisably based on Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo) when she found herself drawn to a mysterious fellow student (Takao Ōsawa). The man, known only as “Kare” (he/him/boyfriend), is a reluctant suitor but Hana’s kindness and patience wins him over. Finally he reveals to Hana that he is actually an Ōkami-otoko (wolf man) and she accepts him for who he is. Unlike the European werewolves of legend, who transformed under the light of a full moon and attacked humans, the wolf men of this tale are merely the result of interbreeding for survival. The Ōkami-otoko in this film has shape shifting-abilities similar to the tanuki of Studio Ghibli’s anime Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994), who take on the guise of humans when their natural habitat in the Tama Hills is destroyed by urban sprawl. The wolf-human hybrids in Hosuda’s original tale take on the shape-shifting abilities associated with foxes and tanuki of Japanese folk legend.
Hana and Kare move in together and have two children Yuki and Ame (Snow and Rain) without the assistance of medical care, for fear that the doctors will discover the family’s secret. They live in domestic bliss until one fateful day when Kare does not return home. Hana takes the children out in the heavy rain to find him and discovers that he has had an accident and died in the river. Hana struggles on her own as a single mother, unable to seek help because the children are prone to transforming into wolves whenever emotions run high - which is often with children. The neighbours complain about the noise the children make when they play like wild animals in the apartment and howl. Soon, the local authorities are becoming suspicious about the fact that the children have no public records.
Fearing that their secret will be revealed, Hana moves with the children to the countryside. After a time, they are accepted by the community but as the children get older they each have to come to terms with their dual identities. Can they control their wolf instincts in order to integrate into human society or will the call of the wild be too great? Each child takes their own path with unexpected results.
Wolf Children has a gentle pace that will seem slow to anime fans used to action-packed weekly drama. It is a film that invites us to reflect on our role as humans in the environment and how communities can function to either include or exclude people who are different or eccentric in some way. Some parallels could be drawn between the struggles of the wolf children in the community and the struggles of people who are biracial to fit into society. Can one be both identities or does one have to choose?
Above all, Wolf Children is a truly beautiful animation. The wolf children are super-cute with and fun to watch at play – thanks mainly to the work of prolific character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, etc.). The film’s depiction of idealised rural Japanese landscapes are reminiscent of another Studio Ghibli animation: My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988). The film is the first that Mamoru Hosoda under the auspices of his own animation studio, Studio Chizu, which he founded in 2011 with the aim of making feature film animation (Source). Wolf Children was successful at the box office in Japan, beating out Pixar’s Brave in its first week, and went on to win Animation of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards and Best Animation Film at the Mainichi Film Concours. This suggests we can look forward to more auteur fare from Hosoda in the near future.