Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki

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"The Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki"

Of all the directors who have been singled out as "The next Miyazaki" - including the one who calls the original "Otou-san" - Hosoda Mamoru the one who probably comes closest to being a candidate to fit the bill.  I've written about this subject quite a bit - I expect it interests me rather more than than most people.  But for all the improvement Goro Miyazaki displayed with Kokuriko-zaka Kara, he hasn't shown the gifts of a true auteur yet (and seems to have limited interest in being a full-time writer/director).  For all the unparalleled visual brilliance Shinkai Makoto has displayed, he's much more of a poet than than a master of prose - an iconoclast whose work seems likely to thrill the serious anime community rather than become part of the public imagination.  Only Hosoda, it seems to me, has both the gift of genius and the common touch - the potential to rival Miyazaki Hayao's ability to create works of great art that also connect with viewers worldwide, even non-anime fans.

Of course that's a blessing and a curse, because the last thing Hosoda-sensei needs or deserves is to be judged against the works of Miyazaki when he's proven himself to be a singular talent at a relatively tender age.  He's directed extensively for television and several movies (mostly for Madhouse) but he's effectively done three films that represent his own vision - The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and now Ookami Kodomo.  All have been massive critical successes and all have been major commercial successes (especially Summer Wars).  Rather than compare Wolf Children against anything any other director has done, then, it makes sense to judge it against those other two films if anything - and even more, on its own merits.

I saw this film in raw form in a Shinjuku Theater in October - in fact, it was the very first weekend after I arrived in Tokyo.  I was very interested to see how my feelings about the movie would change after seeing it subtitled, and I'm surprised by how little they've done so.  This might be because this was an especially good film to see raw - it's far and away Hosoda's most dialogue-free movie to date.  He tells his story mostly through images here - in fact, I would go so far as to say Ame and Yuki is an astonishingly simple film.  As such it seems a poor choice to burden it with a long and detailed analysis; rather, I think the best course is to speak in simple terms about the emotions the film elicits in me as a viewer.

As I said, this is really at heart an extremely straightforward and simple film.  What could be more elemental as a basis around which to construct a story than a mother's love for her children, to begin with?  That spare sensibility extends to the visuals, too, which are beautiful in a faintly impressionistic way.  This is not the hyper-realistic "God's Eye" of Shinkai (who, in truth, I consider unrivalled in anime as a visual artist) nor is it the restless, spectacular creativity of Hosoda's Summer Wars.  This is if anything a series of interconnected still-lifes, depicting the odd little family at the heart of the movie as they progress in their journey through their life.  Yet, for me it's undeniable that the two most impressive scenes in the movie rely strictly on visuals, dialogue-free: a montage depicting the growing disassociation of brother Ame from sister Yuki as they spend their first years in school, and a wildly exuberant scene depicting the children and their mother as they rejoice in the wonders of their first snowy morning in the mountains.  The ability to communicate so much through his eye alone is a talent that Hosoda has never shown to this degree before, and it implies great promise about his future as a director and the evolution of his vision.

Structurally, Ookami Kodomo is effectively a film in three acts.  The first is a love story, depicting the warm and genuine but tragically short time together of young college student Hana (Miyazaki Aoi, truly superb) and a young man (Osawa Takao) whose name we never learn.  The second is the chronicle of Hana's years struggling to raise daughter Yuki (Ono Momoka) - born in the snow - and son Ame (Kabe Amon) born in the rain.  And the third is the chronicle of those children beginning to find their own way in life, in unusual and challenging circumstances.  All are charming in their way and each offer a unique pleasure to the viewer, but it's in this middle section where Ame and Yuki really achieves transcendence - these scenes are beautiful both visually and emotionally, and the story they tell is the most approachable and involving.

The premise around which Ookami Kodomo is framed is that Hana's lover is a wolf man - a descendent of the last wolves of Japan, capable of changing from human to wolf form virtually at will.  The fact that this is never really explained might be an issue for some, but I'm comfortable with Hosoda's choice here because it suits the story he's trying to tell.  This mixed heritage that Ame and Yuki share is the crux of the story - surely it's metaphorical (and likely somewhat autobiographical) in the sense that Hosoda is trying to make a statement about the heartbreaking necessity that children choose a path that leads them away from their parents.  But it also works as a conceit in and of itself because of the unique challenges it poses to Hana, and because of the places it takes the narrative and the opportunity it gives Hosoda to speak to the importance of acceptance, both of others and of our true selves.

The first major example of this is also perhaps the first time Ookami Kodomo reaches the level of greatness, and that's with the integration of Hana and her family into the isolated mountain community where she's chosen to raise her children free from prying eyes and child welfare bureaucrats.  Hana rents a fabulously atmospheric but derelict old house and sets about trying to make a life for her family at the fringes of society.  The locals are understandably skeptical, and have seen city folk pack it in and quit on numerous occasions, but there's something in Hana's determination that catches the eye of Nirasaki (Sugawara Bunta) the curmudgeon who acts as a sort of unofficial elder statesman for the locals.  When he finally gives his grudging help to Hana, who's failing miserably in trying to raise crops, it signals that she's a part of the community - an irony as she fled the city to try and keep Ame and Yuki away from potential discovery by others.  Surrounded by people Hana was alone, and in the wilderness she's not - this is surely an intentional observation by Hosoda-sensei, who grew up in rural Japan before his career took him to Tokyo.

As Ame (now played by Nishii Yukito) and Yuki (Kuroki Haru, who also narrates) grow to school age, it appears that Yuki will be the one who embraces the lupine side of her heritage.  She's bold and fearless, forever restless and forever exploring.  Ame, by contrast, is a shy and withdrawn boy who seems both afraid of his wolf lineage and of the way wolves are feared and vilified by humans, and mostly wants to stay close to his mother.  But Yuki also desires to explore her human side by going to school, and resolves to blend in - which she does with mixed success until an encounter with transfer student Souhei (an excellent performance by 14 year-old Takuma Hiraoka) leaves him seriously injured and Yuki abashed and humiliated.  Meanwhile Ame's perspective clearly changes based on specific moments in his life.  An impulsive attempt to hunt a kingfisher on that snowy morning.  A lonely old timber wolf caged at the nature park where his mother takes a job for a pittance of a salary.  And an encounter with a wild creature who, like Ame himself, is much more than it appears to the eye.

It becomes clear soon enough that Ame and Yuki's hearts are pulling them in directions that are quite different than what we might have expected as the middle section of the film was unfolding.  When I watched Ookami Kodomo raw, I felt that the lack of exposure to Ame's perspective was a rare flaw in the film - the impact on me at the time was that his actions in the final act seemed to come on quite suddenly, and that the ending of the movie was rather jarring.  I thought this might to some extent be a function of my limited Japanese comprehension, but in truth it's clearly a conscious choice on Hosoda's part.  The movie is told in Yuki's voice and mostly from Hana's perspective, but in truth it winds up being a chronicle of Ame's journey.  I feel now that Hosoda kept us mostly in the dark about Ame's inner conflicts quite intentionally.  In part, I think this was to help us understand how distant he grew from his mother and sister.  Whether it was a wise choice will be up to the individual viewer to decide - as to Ame's decisions I do feel as though I understand them better upon a second viewing, though the subtitles have nothing to do with that - it's strictly a matter of time and reflection on my part.

The ending has certainly proven the most controversial part of Wolf Children, and it's easy to understand why.  There are elements here that seem to me mysterious by design, because there are so many things Hosoda chooses not to share with us.  Do Ame and Yuki age at a normal rate, or are they to some extent living the life of wolves?  Yuki seems quite the normal tween, and an obviously deliberate contrast is painted between she and Souhei, desperate to be grown-up but feeling like children, and Ame.  At age ten he's still very much a child in his mother's eyes, yet he seems remarkably mature for a boy of that age both mentally and physically (there's a quite memorable scene where Yuki learns the terrifying reality of this).  Perhaps the message here is that every child is unique, and so is the path they must walk.

That's a hard lesson for a mother to learn, and make no mistake about it - the ending of the film is heartbreaking (in fact. as a whole, this is one of most heartbreaking anime I've seen in many years).  Yet it might be seen to be a happy ending as well, depending on your perspective.  I've seen quite vicious and vitriolic criticism leveled at Ame, but while my heart aches for Hana, I think his actions make perfect sense in the context of the story Hosoda is trying to tell.  Ame has made his choice - he tried to tell his mother as a human, but her heart refused to let her see the truth.  Ame finally trusts in his mother to understand him for what he is, and to accept him.  As well, he trusts her to understand what he's telling her about his feelings for her - and I think it's very clear that she does.  It's an unconventional ending and a difficult one, bittersweet to be certain, but probably the only possible one Hosoda could have written.

While Ookami Kodomo doesn't attempt to match the exuberant energy of Summer Wars or the youthful defiance of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, I think it takes Hosoda-sensei to deeper emotional waters than any of his earlier work.  It's certainly his most subtle and reflective film - filled with moments of great joy but ultimately a more difficult work that explores the painful path that leads children away from their parents.  Without question, Hana stands out as one of the most extraordinary characters of this or any anime year.  She's a hero in every sense of the word - both for what she does for her children and for what she doesn't.  Anime doesn't celebrate motherhood all that often when you think about it, and Hosoda has righted that wrong in glorious fashion with Hana.  Her labors are not tales of Herculean grandiosity, but no less heroic.  She simply gives everything of herself for Ame and Yuki - she takes herself where she thinks she must for their sakes, and gives them everything that's in her power to give, emotionally and otherwise.  She smiles through her troubles and never allows her children to feel alone, right up until the moment where she realizes that for Ame's sake, she has to act against every instinct and imperative in her being.

That Ookami Kodomo hasn't proved to be quite as big a blockbuster as Summer Wars is hardly surprising - this is a film whose charms require a little more investment on our part to fully appreciate, and which asks more understanding of the audience in embracing its conclusion.  The art of finding the profound in the simple is what separates great writers from good ones a lot of the time, I've always felt, and that's what Hosoda has done here.  It's a different sort of brilliance than he's shown us in the past, and perhaps surprising in that sense.  Yet I think it's a testament to his talent that his vision is continuing to evolve, and that he's trying to find new ways of challenging both himself and his audience.  He's truly one of the giants of anime, and has already proved himself worthy to be one of its standard-bearers - if he should emerge as the next singular voice of the medium, films like Ookami Kodomo give substantial reason to believe he'll be up to the challenge.

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19 comments:

  1. I was just thinking if you would write a post on this movie, and bam...thank-you so much Enzo, and it is another brilliantly written post...I can't agree more with your analysis and thoughts.

    I have watched this movie twice -- both yesterday and today -- and now I totally understand why you chose this movie to be your Best of 2012 anime movie. I love all the simplicity in the story and the storytelling because beneath the simplicity, it's totally heart-wrenching, and you totally can ripe it apart and decipher the different meanings and messages conveyed. To me, this is the power of great writing.

    Now, I am torn...I don't know if I like Wolf Children better or Summer Wars. I guess I would say Wolf Children for now simply because I am still emotionally touched, but, that again, both movies are very different, and I am not comparing apple to apple... I guess, like you said, this movie simply shows another great vision and talent of Hosoda Mamoru...he's really versatile.

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    1. Thanks Ron. Indeed, it would be hard to choose between this and SW (I do prefer both to TGWLTT) because they're so different.

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  2. Nice write-up.

    You're right with regards to the subtlety of it all, though I felt the final third was a bit weak, as if Hosada and crew were trying to force tears out of the audience. That's the impression I got, at least.

    For me, this was better than Summer Wars but not quite up there with Toki o Kakeru Shoujo.

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  3. I'd rank this on par with Summer Wars in terms of enjoyment. I think it's very.....wrong...in a way, for lack of a bad word, to compare between Shinkai, Hosoda and Miyazaki in terms of potential as they are all brilliant in their own right. Personally, I connect better with the works of Miyazaki and Hosoda. I love Miyazaki for the magical world he crafts through incredible details, honesty, and a sense of wonder. And Hosoda, I love the sentimental touch he adds to all his otherwise quirky stories without dragging them through melodrama. His potential is simply boundless, it's not often we see a director who can tell a story with both style and genuine emotion, while still striving to explore more grounds with each film. There is a sense of Hosoda in every film, yet He doesn't get trapped in his own way of thinking, that's talent right there. As for Shinkai, I think you need to be in certain moods to watch his films, which are more like art pieces than straight forward narratives with well defined interactions. It's hard to deconstruct his films the way you could with Miyazaki and Hosoda's works, you have to look at it as a poetic whole.
    Long rant, but yeah anyways, I love this heartfelt movie from beginning to end, so I'm totally looking forward to Hosoda's next film. Thanks for the great analysis Enzo!

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    1. for lack of a better word**
      This tells me to proof read before posting.

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  4. Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo is still my favourite anime movie even after watching Ookami Kodomo BUT

    If there was ever an anime piece that I wanted to have a western live-action counterpart of so that people here can appreciate how deep and beautiful and poignant the anime medium could be it would be Ookami Kodomo.

    The scenes of Hana trying to reach her dead husband and of Ame and Yuki growing up in side by side classes and beginning to truly seperate (both without any dialogue) were by far one of the best scenes, I have ever seen in anime and for that I raise my glass to you Hosoda-sensei. A true reminder that anime should be considered dynamic art.

    Masterpiece is an understatement

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    1. Also the people who criticize Ame need to review because they've just wasted an hour because they've completely missed the point of the movie: To understand and accept (something I find humans are finding harder and harder to do)

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  5. Good timing, I was just wondering when you were going to revisit this movie now that the subs are out.
    Well, I can't say if I liked it more than TGWLTT( I'd say I like them both, just for different reasons), but it was an extremely touching, beautiful, involving watch, down to ending lullaby. I agree about it being subtle and an hymn to both maternal love and acceptance, and growing up.
    On this latter thread I wonder if one day Ame will follow in his father's steps somehow - his looks and mannerism and even his clothes growing closer and closer to his as he grew older... - or live the rest of his life as a wolf watching over the land and its creatures.
    A few shots of the scenery ( the flowers closeups are the one that most leap to my mind right now... and their fabulous mountain house ) managed to be both dream-like and more real than real. I spotted P-A Works in the credits, I wonder if those backgrounds and details had their touch in them.
    Great work. Acting, visuals, themes, symbolism. I too especially loved the running in the snow sequence, and how Ame's pivotal moments - much like his name - came with water and rain for instance.

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  6. Thank you for the review, Enzo! I'm always looking for new things to watch and this seems like a spectacular movie based on your thoughts. I actually just watched Summer Wars because it was referenced in this post a bit, and I liked it, so looking forward to seeing this movie. I have a soft spot for animes involving canines in some form or another (that screenshot of the wolf in the cage reminds me of Tsume from Wolf's Rain), despite being a cat owner myself. :)

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  7. Hey there I'm back!!!! (from south america) anyways I finally got a chance to see this film and I agree that Ame journey was not meant to be seen by the audience because it showed how he was slowly breaking away from the human world. I think that complete disconnect was done really well and we got a chance to see the world that Ame was becoming a part of by his sensei. It was beautiful and his separation with his mother was so heart breaking!!! I can understand where she is coming from but I can also see that the "human world" wasn't for Ame anymore. To him that world would never accept him for who he is and thus cut all ties with it.

    My only criticism is that Ame and Yuki did not have a chance to properly talk to each other one more time before he left. Yuki was clearly struggling to fit in with the girls (or for the human world for that matter) that she abandoned her lively and outspoken attitude to become a more "acceptable girl" in this society. Which means she has to live with the fear of being discovered for the rest of her life. It was sad that the two of them could not confide in each other since they are only ones in the world that could possibly understand each other. Granted Yuki was lucky to find a person who could accept her for who she really is just like her father found her mother. But sadly it was not explored enough for me to feel satisfied. Its clear she will have the fear of being discovered for the rest of her life its just sad she would not able to talk to her brother anymore (I hope he visits atleast!!!!!) It was ironic that it was Ame that embraced his wolf as opposed to Yuki who was so gong ho about it when she was very young. I'm curious if she will ever have the need to explore that side later on in life.

    Overall it was a good movie Hana should feel very proud of herself for being an awesome parent I would not say its Hosoda Mamoru best but he definitely made me tear up a bit. ^_^

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  8. I am on the train now from the US premiere. It was an incredible film, beautiful & moving.

    Although it was the NY Children's film fest I was surprised at how many young children were in the audience, after all this was a subtitled film. I am pleased to say that the kids seemed to love it. It might take a little time for Hosoda to go as mainstream as Miyazaki (internationally) but I think he definitely has it because his films can reach both kids and adults.

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  9. Forgot to mention you are right about this being based on Hosoda's rural up bringings. He mentioned in the Q/A the scenery was based on his home town.

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  10. I waited until i watched the movie to read ur review... Thx for reviewing it i wouldn't have found this movie if it wasn't for you!! I haven't seen Summer Wars (in my "to watch" list) but i've seen The Girl Who Lept Through Time. Those 2 movies are very different and each explores different types of people and different ways to look at growing up. One similar thing they both have is giving me a lasting impression. I love that movie so much and the scene Hana had to let go of her son was just Heartbreaking. Like you while watching the movie i first thought it was Yuki that her embrace her wolf side while was too calme and scared for that, but as the movie went on it was clear that Yuki will do everything to fit in the human world while Ame felt more and more disconnected. I realized Yuki's way of growing up was very natural and very human from the begining while Ame was more like a pet always asking his mother to caress him. Human kids can be very wild so Yuki as a kid was just that, a wild kid, curious and lively. Of course the wolf made her wilder. While growing up, she wanted to fit in like any girl would. Ame just felt how disconnected he was from that world (the classes scene) it was amazing how Hana gave him the choice to attend or not to. He might have just grown beyond his years without anyone realizing. As much I wanted Ame to stay, even if just a bit longer, for his mother's sake, and knowing if he goes she will never see him again, I just knew that he had to leave, the wild was calling him. Its not like he didn't care for her (he saved her and brought her to school) but she had to trust that by following the path he chose he will live well. I also wished there would be a scene of some sort of reconciliation, if not understanding, between Yuki and Ame, (after that horrifying fight scene) siblings fight but when they're wolf its just scary and their mom couldn't come in between them (or else she could've been killed).

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  11. I waited until i watched the movie to read ur review... Thx for reviewing it i wouldn't have found this movie if it wasn't for you!! I haven't seen Summer Wars (in my "to watch" list) but i've seen The Girl Who Lept Through Time. Those 2 movies are very different and each explores different types of people and different ways to look at growing up. One similar thing they both have is giving me a lasting impression. I love that movie so much and the scene Hana had to let go of her son was just Heartbreaking. Like you while watching the movie i first thought it was Yuki that her embrace her wolf side while was too calme and scared for that, but as the movie went on it was clear that Yuki will do everything to fit in the human world while Ame felt more and more disconnected. I realized Yuki's way of growing up was very natural and very human from the begining while Ame was more like a pet always asking his mother to caress him. Human kids can be very wild so Yuki as a kid was just that, a wild kid, curious and lively. Of course the wolf made her wilder. While growing up, she wanted to fit in like any girl would. Ame just felt how disconnected he was from that world (the classes scene) it was amazing how Hana gave him the choice to attend or not to. He might have just grown beyond his years without anyone realizing. As much I wanted Ame to stay, even if just a bit longer, for his mother's sake, and knowing if he goes she will never see him again, I just knew that he had to leave, the wild was calling him. Its not like he didn't care for her (he saved her and brought her to school) but she had to trust that by following the path he chose he will live well. I also wished there would be a scene of some sort of reconciliation, if not understanding, between Yuki and Ame, (after that horrifying fight scene) siblings fight but when they're wolf its just scary and their mom couldn't come in between them (or else she could've been killed).

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  12. Hi there! I just came across your blog, and wanted to commend you for a review that is both professionally eloquent and illustrative of your personal perspectives.

    Regarding the film, I agree with most of your points. For all the visual beauty of Shinkai's scenic backdrops, Hosoda's ability to believably depict and develop a range of characters gives him a precious forte in the field that I wish was more prevalent in anime pieces. I also loved his incorporation of a more poignant, unspoken approach to Ame & Yuki; so many of the montages were simply GIF-worthy, haha.

    One of the few things that was disappointing for me was the ending with Ame. I see what you mean about the need for his emotional withdrawal to translate to the viewers. Yet, the lack of buildup to his departure was to the point that I could not empathize with his intentions at all, despite being able to fathom them from a cognitive level. The closure with Hana felt rushed to me, with her happy exclamations to her son interrupting a half-explored maternal emotion seldom fleshed out in media. This was similar to Hana's vision of her partner, which I also felt had unrealized potential in respect to emotional depth: disbelief, despair, frustration - I imagine such a reunion in the midst of pursuing her son would have elicited these feelings on top of joy. Likewise, as others have stated, I would have liked to see some kind of closure between Ame and Yuki; Yuki herself seemed to fade away into a side character by the end of the story.

    Nonetheless, I really like your point about the interesting conglomerate of characterization, with Yuki as the narrator, Hana as the perspective, and Ame as the character we watch grow up and find his place. And ultimately, I`m just nitpicking here - I still very much love this film, and think it is a worthy credit to Hosoda`s name.

    Hah, y'know, I was initially skeptical of the werewolf premise before watching this, despite my positive impressions from TGWLTT & SW. But at this point, I can earnestly say that Hosoda could make a film about squirrel people and I would watch it in a heartbeat.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I can see where you're coming from; that was certainly my initial reaction when I saw it raw. But I do think it's a directorial choice rather than a flaw in narrative.

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  13. I just finished watching this a few moments ago. Holy shit is it heartbreaking. It had been a long time since a series had left me so emotionally destroyed. The series seems to be about Yuki and Ame, but the emotional and physical void that Hana seems to be left in at the very end is nothing short of depressing. Her children are gone. Her love is lost gone and only a wolf howl is left there for her to retain any shred of sanity. O.M.G.

    --Proto

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    1. It is sad, but children do move out of the house even if they aren't half-wolf. I always assume Hana and Yuki will be seeing plenty of each other.

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    2. Yeah but it's totally unhealthy when the parents end up sacrificing their entire personal life. Not to mention that her children ended up growing up far too soon so there was no time for her to cope with anything. But yeah, Hana and Yuki will see each other enough so that's something.

      -Proto

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