Parental Thoughts About THE WOLF CHILDREN
This month, Manga UK and Madman Australia released Hosoda Mamoru's The Wolf Children, finishing up that title's worldwide home-distribution in English-speaking regions. The eighteen months since the world premiere have been a victory tour of critical acclaim, the film scooping up awards and money by the boatload.
Distributing it now isn't bad timing either, as this is almost the perfect holiday movie to watch as an adult. December is always associated with spending time with your family, and I know of few films that manage to pinpoint what it means to be part of a family, and more: what it means to be raising one. Hosoda's film is not just good: it's excellent, and shows a side of parenthood not often covered in popular entertainment. Being a parent of two children myself, the film resonated with me on several levels, some of which I'd like to point out here.
But let's start with the film. The story of The Wolf Children is simple yet intriguing: Hana is a student who falls in love with a mysterious man in her college class. He turns out to be a werewolf, but she accepts him for what he is and the young couple start living together. In the years after, Hana gets two children: Yuki, a girl, and Ame, a boy.
But shortly after Ame is born, the werewolf father dies and Hana is left to raise the children herself. As both kids are werewolves as well, they cause her lots of trouble. Fearing that her children will be taken from her, Hana keeps their true nature a secret and moves to the remote countryside. Here, living a hard live of manual labor and endless self-sacrifice, she tries to give Ame and Yuki a chance to grow up and make the choice for themselves: to be human, or wolf.
Hosoda Mamoru created his own studio, Studio Chizu, especially for making just feature films and nothing else. And thankfully The Wolf Children turned out to be financially successful enough to see at least one other film coming out of this team in the future.
With the same character design as in his previous two films (which are The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and the excellent Summer Wars), The Wolf Children goes a long way in establishing an "auteur" signature for Hosoda Mamoru, even though THAT part of the production is actually done by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, who also designed the characters for Neon Genesis Evangelion. However, The Wolf Children is a significantly different film compared to Hosoda's previous two. For starters, it is specifically aimed not at the teenage crowd, but a slightly more adult audience group: parents, or those planning to soon become parents.
In a recent interview with Hosoda Mamoru (which The Lady Miz Diva was kind enough to let us publish earlier this year), he states that one of the reasons he made The Wolf Children was to show, and I quote him: "...how great it is to raise a child and be a parent."
With that in mind you might expect the film to be somewhat sugar-coated with respect to its depiction of parenthood. Well, surprise surprise, it is not. In fact it is brutally honest in showing the unrelenting diligence which is necessary to keep your kids alive and safe, even when things are normal. It's a well known fact that in your first year of being a parent, you grow a third arm and, on the back of your head, a third eye. Hosoda does not shy away from showing this process.
When I became a father, it was without a doubt the biggest change in my adult life. The impact on me and my personality was far greater than graduating, getting a job, or even marrying. Every other change had room for compromise, loopholes which allowed me refuge into what I considered to be "a normal life". But getting a baby? End of story.
Me and my wife managed to adapt to the new situation mostly thanks to self-sacrifice and some kick-ass planning (hell, this was something we both wanted and had worked towards), but I'd be lying if I said it was easy. The amount of adapting was doable, but the standard exhaustion that came with it was grievously underestimated. And that was with just one, healthy, child.
It isn't just the fact that you have to hold watch and be responsible for a helpless someone, it is mostly the fact that it's a constant burden and there is no reprieve. As a new parent, you laugh at hearing childless friends complain about "lack of time", until you realize that you yourself were similarly misinformed only a short while ago. And whatever splinters of your old life you still had time for disappear totally when the second child arrives.
On the plus side, being a parent is pretty damn great, although why that is the case is a lot harder to describe. It can give you literally everything you'd hope from it. It's just that most of your apprehensions are justified as well. And you'll be tired. God-awfully tired.
This is exactly what The Wolf Children shows, and then some. Hana gets the odds stacked against her pretty quickly. An intelligent young woman, she is regretfully forced to stop her education and career when she becomes pregnant. When her husband dies she doesn't even have time to grief, having to cope with two young children by herself. She doesn't have friends or family who can help, no money either, while the people surrounding her become hostile when her children turn out to have special needs. And on top of that you see the endless vigilance, the endless exhaustion, which so often prevents her from being able to do something about her ongoing problems.
When Hana decides to leave the city and move with her children to the remote countryside, the bleakness lifts somewhat. Indeed, the theme of a young single-parent family discovering a life in the country has earned this film a lot of comparisons with My Neighbour Totoro, but up to this point you'd be forgiven to find more connections with Grave of the Fireflies. The relentless realism of Hana's struggles make it seem as if you're just watching her being destroyed, until through (more) back-breaking labor and (more) perseverance she starts to earn the respect of the locals. And even then, that's basically all she gets. To keep in anime terms: while the children do indeed enjoy some Totoro moments, for Hana there isn't even an Only Yesterday moment ahead of her.
Indeed, you might even say Hosoda Mamoru leans a bit too much on the massive effort and brutal grind you suffer as a parent, and focuses far less on the joys. You see scenes of the family having fun together, but the price which is constantly being paid by Hana, and Hana alone, puts a layer of sadness underneath it all. And the finale is a bit demeaning, with Hana endangering herself and her children by (rather obviously) running after the wrong one, leading to a very sentimental near-death sequence where she is told "she did well" by a voice from beyond. As the film ends she is still very much alone though, heartrendingly so. If Hosoda indeed wanted to spread the word on how wonderful parenthood can be, this ending somewhat lessens the impact of this message.
The Wolf Children is hailed often as a masterpiece, but I do not think of it like that. I love how Hosoda Mamoru is evolving as a filmmaker, and I love how he turned a difficult project like this into a good film, a beautiful film, and a profitable one even, but it is not a masterpiece in my mind. It's not even his best film. It is slightly too long and a smidgen too manipulatively sentimental in places. But it shows him getting better, and unafraid to tackle adult subject matter.
Despite decades of counter-evidence, animation is often regarded as something for children. And even "edgy" anime is often aimed at the teen crowd. Well, this one isn't.
Me, I cannot wait to see what Studio Chizu will be producing next. Judging from his last three films, I count Hosoda Mamoru as the true hope of quality anime in the future.
Because he dared to make The Wolf Children a film which is, first and foremost, for the parents!