Hana can't tear her eyes away from the mysterious stranger on the other side of the lecture hall. Instinctively, she just knows, undeterred by whatever hardships and hurdles threaten to separate them. It's
a modest but happy life the two of them share once wed, settling into a tiny apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo with two rambunctious newborns. On the surface, that may sound like the sort of romance we've seen on the screen time and again or perhaps have even been fortunate enough to discover in our own lives. The young husband and father in Wolf Children is anything but normal, though; he's a werewolf. Don't confuse him with the feral monsters in old Universal horror movies, though. He is a proud descendent of the long-extinct Honshu wolf and the last of his kind. One seemingly ordinary day, while trying to provide for his family, he too is gone.
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Hana has no family to turn to for support. Her hands are far too full with tiny children to keep a job of her own, instead trying to live off her late husband's meager savings. It'd be a struggle under the most ideal circumstances for a young mother to care for a pair of newborns on her own, and again, the situation is anything but normal. Ame and Yuki, like their father before them, are shapeshifters, as much animal as human. The one person she'd be able to turn to for advice on rearing baby lycanthropes is but a fond memory, forcing Hana to do intense research on her own. It's an endless, exhausting struggle. Hana has to keep her children all but out of sight from the world at large, fearing that at any moment they could transform and be taken from her. They must in some ways be cared for as humans and in other ways as beasts, and the line separating the two is often blurred. Social workers fear that she's a neglectful mother who won't get her children the most basic immunizations; others grouse and groan at the relentless howling in an apartment building where no animals are allowed. For several years, Hana and her children endure, and then the young mother sees a crossroad ahead. Relocating from the big city to a remote house in the country, Hana offers Ame and Yuki a choice -- to live as humans or as wolves -- far from any prying eyes. While the isolation of the countryside gives them the freedom to make such significant, life-defining decisions, it's not without its own grueling challenges as well...
Don't get too distracted by the presence of werewolves in the summary above. It's more of a metaphor than a defining aspect of the plot. In fact, Wolf Children isn't particularly interested in the more familiar mechanics of storytelling at all. There's not a villain to vanquish, no clock ticking towards a catastrophe that must be averted, no sprawling, climactic school dance, and no tournament or championship with the world looking on. Its story is instead an unmistakeably human slice of life, one that's firmly grounded in reality even with a handful of shapeshifters among its numbers. Wolf Children never fails to connect -- inspiring, warm, funny, suspenseful, and heartbreaking -- because its characters are so richly drawn...because they're so real.
Despite the film's title, Ame and Yuki's mother Hana is very much the central character. She's a doggedly determined, self-reliant woman willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to best care for her little ones. Having all this thrust upon her in her very
early twenties, Hana doesn't have the experience or even much of a network for support. She tirelessly researches whatever's needed, poring over stacks of books to learn about human childbirth, caring for newborn animals, and planting her own crops. She always puts her children's needs before her own, even if it means being flat broke and sleepless. There's no resentment on her part, and she never buckles under all that strain. Hana simply sees them as hurdles she needs to clear...challenges to overcome, no matter more time or effort it takes. Her strength, determination, and love are endlessly inspiring. I also appreciate the way Wolf Children approaches her move to the countryside. Hana herself sees it as a need for isolation, but she quickly finds herself woven into a tightknit group. It's not about being alone or in any way demonizing city life; it's about finding the community that's right for her. Hana's two children soon make similar discoveries on their own.
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Ame and Yuki are shapeshifters, yes, but they undergo far more profound transformations throughout the course of the film. Identity is such a focal point throughout Wolf Children, and it's a joy watching this pair of lycanthropic siblings discover who they are, exactly. They always have the benefit of their mother's support and nurturing, but Hana gives them the freedom to find themselves. Their maturation feels earned. They are two very distinct characters who don't march in lockstep with one another. They aren't forced to choose between being a wolf and being human; Ame and Yuki come to their decisions on their own over a considerable period of time. These are two very well-realized characters, hardly thinly sketched archetypes.
Wolf Children is as close to a masterpiece as I've had the pleasure of encountering this year. Despite the very wide range of emotions on display throughout the film, at no point does Wolf Children feel cloying or shamelessly manipulative. Such moments are richly deserved, and its joy of simply being alive is infectious in ways I can't possibly put into words. Wolf Children doesn't have the gloss or striking fluidity of, say, a Miyazaki film, but its streamlined, grounded visuals are very much an asset. There's an unmistakeable beauty and lyricism to the animation, such that I can't imagine Wolf Children being nearly as effective with any other visual style or if translated to any other medium. Its approach to storytelling is nothing short of masterful; every moment is essential, and the presence of three distinct perspectives proves to be a boon rather than a distraction. Wolf Children isn't just a five-star anime; it's an extraordinary film, period, and one that demands to be discovered now that it's found its way to home video on these shores. Very Highly Recommended.
Wolf Children looks expectedly terrific. The definition of the linework is reasonably strong, if somewhat aliased and not as dazzlingly crisp as much of the other theatrically released anime I've come across. The clarity of each individual snowflake and every last star in the sky certainly sets this disc apart from anything DVD could ever hope to reproduce. Wolf Children has an affinity for soft pastels and achingly gorgeous
greens, and those colors translate beautifully to Blu-ray as well. The painted backgrounds in particular are a knockout. Wolf Children doesn't have the stratospheric budget of a Studio Ghibli production, but this is a film whose power is very much heightened by its beauty, and it's well worth the extra few dollars to be experienced on Blu-ray.
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Between the movie proper and its extras, Wolf Children devours just about every spare byte on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Wolf Children arrives at its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
Both the original Japanese audio and newly-recorded English dub are presented in Dolby TrueHD (16-bit; 5.1). I sampled the dub, which is appropriately professional and respectful of the original material, but the Japanese track just sounds right to me. Your mileage may vary, but you won't be disappointed no matter which way you lean.
I'm in awe of Wolf Children's sound design. Every one of its backdrops -- a bustling city on the outskirts of Tokyo, a small university, the open majesty of the countryside -- is astonishingly organic and alive. Remarkable attention has been paid to atmospherics, and I'd struggle to think of a film with more immersive rainfall than what Wolf Children repeatedly delivers. Every element in the mix is wonderfully clean and clear, and dialogue never undeservedly struggles for placement. I love the strong sense of separation across the various channels, along with such clever touches as the directionality of Ame bounding through the woods and of dragonflies flittering every which way. Bass response is modest, matching the tone of the film, but the subwoofer occasionally makes its presence known through rumbling engines and the like. I'm really not left with any room for complaint whatsoever.
Wolf Children defaults to the English dub. English subtitles are available, of course, if you opt for the original Japanese audio instead.
- Promotional Material (27 min.; HD): Wolf Children's extras begin with a barrage of trailers: a Japanese teaser, trailers from both the U.S. and Japan, and even a couple of additional trailers overseen and approved by director Mamoru Hosoda. A sixteen minute promotional video devotes half of its length to an interview with Hosoda, who speaks about his staff of talented animators, drawing unexpected inspiration from his hometown in the Toyama Prefecture, and the parental radiance that inspired the film's concept. The remainder is an
extended preview of Wolf Children.
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- Stage Greetings (57 min.; HD): Also featured here are five different sets of pre-screening introductions and Q&As from throughout the summer of 2012. All of the central cast members are given an opportunity to speak, and director Mamoru Hosoda is naturally a fixture throughout these greetings. The standout is a live performance of the film's theme song. The press and audience members ask some inspired questions, and there's surprisingly little overlap between these five sets of Q&As.
- Audio Commentary: Last up is a commentary track featuring the talent on this side of the Pacific. ADR director Mike McFarland speaks with the actors behind the three central members of this family in FUNi's dub: Micah Solusod, Lara Woodhull, Allison Viktorin, Jad Saxton, and Colleen Clinkenbeard. Mixing engineer Nathanael Harrison rounds out the interviews. I really like the way this commentary is structured. Rather than have everyone pile into the booth at once, McFarland speaks with each one individually, and the result is more focused and more personal than what I'm used to hearing. Though much of the conversations are naturally oriented around the performances, McFarland and the cast discuss some of the topics explored throughout Wolf Children and delve into Hosoda's body of work as a whole. I also appreciate the insight into creating a dub, such as McFarland tailoring his direction to best fit each individual voice actor, how many alternate lines were written for the adapted Wolf Children script, and an explanation why the younger versions of Ame and Yuki aren't played by actual children. This is a thoughtful set of conversations, and they're infused with enough energy and personality to make for a very enjoyable listen.
Wolf Children is a combo pack with an anamorphic widescreen DVD and very striking slipcover in tow.
The Final Word
Those who've seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars don't need to read through a long, rambling review; the presence of director Mamoru Hosoda's name above the title says it all. Wolf Children is an astonishingly powerful film about community, responsibility, identity, and unwavering parental devotion. Approaching the top of my year-end list and a deeply rewarding discovery on Blu-ray, Wolf Children comes very, very Highly Recommended.
A Couple Additional Screenshots...