I was going to save this particular post for Mother’s Day, but seeing that the director has a new movie coming out shortly, I felt obligated to revisit this most recent entry in his small (compared to some), but respectable career and give my thoughts on it.
Ah, Wolf Children. The beautiful, moving story about how truly difficult and thankless motherhood is.
…I have very mixed feelings about this film.
Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who brought us one of my favorite anime films, Summer Wars, Wolf Children tells the story of a young woman named Hana who falls in love, only to discover that the man is a werewolf. While being initially shocked speechless, Hana succumbs to Miyazaki Syndrome, a frequent disorder in Studio Ghibli films in which a character, usually a child, is relatively unfazed by something that would make a real human being run away screaming. Hana has two children, a boy and a girl, before her love dies in a tragic accident and she is left to raise two wild, young half-werewolves on her own.
Afraid that society will turn them into freaks at best and science experiments at worst, Hana moves her children out to a remote countryside and attempts to raise them on her own. Slowly, the neighbors pitch in, and the children themselves get better at hiding their wolf-ish transformations in front of people. The older sister, Yuki, though initially a literal wild child, grows to love human company and wants to fit in with her normal peers, and the younger brother, Ame, quiet and shy, closes himself off from humans slowly but surely and embraces solitude, nature, and self-sufficiency.
It’s a great story; wonderfully animated and deeply moving. And, like one of my other favorite anime films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, something about it feels so real despite the fantasy elements leaking into the slice-of-life.
Maybe because it feels so real, the ending leaves me feeling so full, and yet empty.
I am not a mother. I hope to be one someday, but I am nowhere near close to being ready. I get the sense that motherhood is thankless, but, for some, endlessly rewarding at the same time, and that is a paradox that I hope to grasp when I finally take the first step into such unknown territory.
Right now, it makes no sense to me.
Without spoiling anything, I will tell you that the ending is the most bitter-sweet thing I have ever seen. And while I praise it for that, it also leaves me feeling horribly unsatisfied. Here is my attempt to explain why:
If a good person undergoes pain, it’s very hard to make that genuinely comedic, especially if you don’t dig the kafkaesque. Generally, we only tolerate a good character undergoing undue pain and strain if they rise above it in the end and get something that we believe that they truly deserve (think Cinderella). It’s cathartic for us because it makes us feel good, and reaffirms our belief that there is some sort of justice in the world; that bad things can happen to good people, but it isn’t without reason.
Sometimes I think that is the adult equivalent of believing in Santa Claus.
But regardless, it’s almost an instinctual thing for people, myself included. You watch a good person struggle only because you want them to succeed. And watching Hana go through so much struggle and misery, just to be rewarded with intangible vagaries like “personal growth”, or “the knowledge that she’s done all she can and her kids will be fine hopefully”, feels more sad than it does gratifying or empowering.
Her children never once thank her or consider her before doing anything. It seems odd, especially because a lot of Japanese anime and movies perpetuate the “respect your elders” ideal, and have something I call “the guilt mentality;” i.e., whenever a character guilts another character for “making them worry”, or for not considering how their actions affected other people. Neither of these are particularly bad things, and it’s easy to see that the children love their mother in the movie, but Hana never guilts or even explains to them all of things she has had to go through alone, while supporting them, even once they are old enough to understand better. And they never ask her about what she has been through.
On top of that, she can’t even publicly mourn her husband because he dies in wolf form and gets carted off in a dump truck right in front of her.
In the end, her children find their own paths, and it feels like Hana is left alone.
That is why I think this movie is realistic, and my sense of justice and connection with Hana as a character made me long for an unrealistic, “happy” ending. An ending not brought about by guilt or bitterness or remorse, but by deep family connection and understanding.
This film helped me come to grips with an unrealistic ideal (nay, expectation) of love, but it still leaves me unsure if I want to watch it ever again. Maybe once was enough.
But it is definitely worth seeing at least once. John Oliver’s “Paid Leave” episode of Last Week Tonight didn’t give me nearly this much painful insight on motherhood, and that is a show about the real world. I learned so much from a movie that has freaking werewolves in it.
As usual, Hosoda gives us sweetness, warmth, and slice-of-life, but this is even more potent, powerful, and heartfelt than even The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. He may not be in Studio Ghibli, but in my opinion, his work deserves a place of honor on that same level.
*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to Hosoda, Toho, Studio Chizu, and Studio Madhouse. Nothing belongs to me.