The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)
No matter what the medium, there are some themes that can be consistently satisfying in emotional terms when there’s a successful outcome. Perhaps the most enduring is the struggles of single mothers to bring up their children. Long before we moved into the modern era of dysfunctional families and the more obvious habit of fathers to reject any obligation in the task of helping to care for their children, a combination of accidents, diseases and wars whittled down the male population. For better or worse, men have been the hunter-gatherer figures, whether in the literal sense or as the primary wage earners. While the patriarchal assumption has seen the woman’s role as staying at home to care for the children. In The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012), a Japanese film probably closer to the conventions of anime rather than Western animation, the father dies in a hunting accident — drowned in a flash flood. Even under normal circumstances this would be a traumatic event and leave the mother of two very young children in a desperate situation. But this is not a normal family.
The theme of this story of hope is that people only achieve any peace in their lives when they are true to themselves. I suppose the real life issues coming closest to this are those individuals who have a nonstandard sexuality. This may be people unable to decide whether they are homosexual or those who have gender identity problems. Does that person risk everything from the outset and warn the prospective partner before the relationship is perfected? This may bring the romance to a shuddering halt or it can lead to a more complete acceptance of identity between the two parties. Their mutual honesty makes the bond stronger. In this fantasy, the man admits he’s what we Westerners would term a werewolf. In this case, he has the transformation under control, moving freely from human to wolf as he chooses. Since she loves the “person” no matter which body he happens to be wearing, their love is confirmed and, in due course, she gives birth to two children. Since they do not know whether the children will be born human or wolf, these are home births and no official notification is given to the usual children’s services. Paediatric and other facilities offering support to families would be alarmed if the babies randomly transformed from human to wolf (and back). So everything must be done in their small apartment. When he dies, she’s increasingly threatened, first by neighbours and then by child welfare officers who believe she must be abusing the children known to be there. In desperation, she moves out of the city into the mountains where she finds a run-down home in a remote village for a nominal rent. Now she must live a frugal life on her meagre savings, eking out the money until the crops she plants in the fallow fields around her can offer an independent source of food.
Except, of course, she has no idea how to be a subsistence farmer and reading books is of little help in developing the necessary practical skills. Fortunately, her determination wins over the locals and they rally round to help. Lurking in the undergrowth, the daughter Yuki is fearless, shifting rapidly between human and wolf as she makes the area her home. This has the inadvertent advantage of frightening the wild boar away. They routinely damage the crops in the adjacent fields but are deterred by the territorial markings left by Yuki’s urine. The younger son Ame is desperately introverted and initially resists the “call of the wild”. Although he too transforms, he never seems comfortable in either role. But when Yuki goes to school, she discovers the human world and decides she’d like to fit in. This works very well at first but, as is always the case when she grows a little older, her self-control is shattered by the arrival of a new boy in the school. Pubertal stirrings in a moment of early sexual tension lead to an involuntary revelation. Fortunately, the boy’s first accusations are ridiculed and the incident passes. Ame is bullied in school and increasingly opts out. This leads to the first and only fight between the children as wolves. She wants him to commit to school and the human world. He refuses.
This is another film by Mamoru Hosoda who directed the wonderful The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006). It’s produced by Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV) and Madhouse Studios. In terms of the characters, the style is very much anime but many of the detailed shots of flowers and landscapes are quite remarkably realistic and, to that extent, equal some of the work from Western animators. The initially idyllic mountain scenery matches the bright optimism of the family. Only later does the forested landscape take on a more threatening quality. In animation terms, there are some moments of quite stunning beauty and emotional intensity. As an example, watch for the moment when the wind blows the gauze curtaining around Yuri near the end.
Yet for all this implicit praise, there’s a problem. The first half of the film is clearly the mother’s story as we watch her struggle. It also ends with the mother as she finally comes to terms with the practical reality — the recognition that, at some point, a mother can no longer protect her children. They will grow into their new identities and her role as a mother necessitates acceptance. Nurture can only go so far. In the end, nature prevails. This focus is reinforced by the voiceover which is provided by an older Yuri looking back at her childhood. So when the central section of the film pivots to follow the children as they go to school, the story arc involving the supportive local community disappears. The mother finds herself a job and her character is marginalised until the inevitable climax at the end. Although this shift in point of view is to some extent inevitable, it dilutes the emotional impact of the mother’s story and fails to allocate enough time to the film as a coming-of-age story that can really engage our emotions. That said, this is one of the best anime or animated films I’ve seen for a long time. It makes the best of the West seem facile and trivial. You should go out of your way to see this rather than queue up at the local cinema to watch something like Brave.
The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)