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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

WOLF CHILDREN -- Blu-ray/DVD review by porfle




Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, SUMMER WARS) opens WOLF CHILDREN (2012) with a scene reminiscent of Miyazaki's KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE--a young girl gazing up at the sky while lying in a field of grass that's gently swaying in the breeze. 

Each girl is about to mature beyond her placid childhood existence, but the differences between that chipper coming-of-age tale and this sometimes tragic, sometimes soaring ode to the love and self-sacrifice of a single mother for her "special" children" soon becomes heartrendingly apparent.

The girl in this high-stakes "coming-of-age" story,  Hana,  will meet a mysterious older boy who's sitting in on some of her classes at school.  A long getting-to-know-you period allows us to settle into everyday urban life in Japan (Mamoru Hosoda has a keen eye for the mundane) as the two of them fall in love.  Then comes the shock: he reveals to Hana that he is, in fact, a "wolf man" who can change into feral form at will. 

Not only does Hana's love for him hold fast, but they're soon expecting a baby girl whom they deliver themselves to avoid "surprising" the maternity doctor.  A baby boy follows soon after, and the couple are happy in their modest lives as apartment dwelling parents.   Then, in the film's first emotional shock, the Wolf Man meets a tragic fate, leaving Hana to raise their increasingly unusual children by herself.


With the older child, Yuki, becoming more and more wild--she loves to switch from human to wolf form in order to run rampant through the apartment or throw tantrums--and even her more timid and humanlike younger brother Ame becoming harder to pass off as "normal", Hana moves the family to a secluded old house in the Japanese countryside.  Here, she believes, Yuki and Ame will be free to decide which life path they want to take, whether it be human or wolf.

At this point WOLF CHILDREN takes on some of the attributes of another gentle, pastoral Miyazaki tale, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, with the two curious children exploring unfamiliar natural surroundings while their single parent gets help settling into country life by a group of kind and sympathetic neighbors. 

But this film lacks the more fanciful elements of TOTORO despite its premise.   (No cat-buses or cuddly giant forest gods here.)  Her wolfishness being an unsubtle metaphor for adolescence, Yuki finds herself longing to attend school and mingle with other children as her human side comes closer to the fore.  It's a transition which will have its share of dire consequences, and we don't know if she can pull it off.

Ame, on the other hand, begins to overcome his timidity and get in touch with his feral side.  To evoke Miyazaki yet again, Ame's excursions into the wild to commune with its denizens in an increasingly profound way recall the title character of PRINCESS MONONOKE, with a similar artistic evocation of nature's insistent lure.

With the opening segment--a mini-movie in itself made all the more devastating by the matter-of-fact portrayal of the Wolf Man's demise--we know we're in for a potentially painful experience.  One, in fact, that I feared would be as bleak and intensely downbeat as the notorious GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, which it very well could have been since the viewer is just as emotionally invested in  these characters as those in the earlier film. 

Yet instead of trying to put our feelings through a ringer, WOLF CHILDREN is a gentle and sensitively told narrative with moments of joy as well as melancholy and brittle nostalgia.  And it's surprisingly mature, appealing as strongly to adults as well as children and perhaps even more so.  This is Hana's story more than anything else, and her experiences will no doubt be easy for many parents to identify with as she struggles to raise her children while dreading the day they will leave her.


The subtlety of expression and "acting" by these animated characters is impressive.  Hosoda uses fairly realistic character design in the adults, but is a bit more fanciful in depicting the wolf children who are comically drawn during their toddler stages and boast a potent mix of human and animal "cuteness."  It's interesting to watch them grow as fear and uncertainty, as well as increasing awareness, begin to creep into their expressions.

Certain sequences, such as Hana and her children running happily through a snowy forest or a lone wolf racing up the face of a mountain amidst misty waterfalls, are exhilarating achievements despite the mix of traditional animation and CGI.  I feared that the use of digital animation to augment the cel work would mar the film but quickly became accustomed to it. 

Much effort is expended by the animators in depicting mundane, everyday images of life which are also reminiscent of Miyazaki--Hosoda and his artists seem to revel in such throwaway sights as bicyclists passing by and pedestrians going about their business in the backgrounds.  To animation fans, of course, such lovingly-rendered detail is irresistibly immersive.  Other scenes achieve the kind of visual poetry that gives anime its own unique beauty.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo from Funimation is in 16x9 widescreen with Japanese and English soundtracks in Dolby 5.1 surround sound.  Subtitles are in English.  Extras include an actor and staff commentary (U.S. version), several stage appearances by the cast and crew, a live performance of "Mother's Song" by composer Masakatsu Takagi and singer Ann Sally, and a variety of promo videos and trailers for the film.  Feature and extras are combined on one Blu-ray and two seperate DVDs for a total of three discs.

It's been a while since I shed tears of joy over a movie, but the indescribably lovely finale of WOLF CHILDREN reaches a crescendo of genuine emotion and beauty which afforded me that welcome catharsis in a big way, and for that I'm grateful.    Even listening to the exquisite theme song during the closing credits threatened to get me going all over again.  Being given such a feeling by a movie is rare, and I cherish it.

Buy the Blu-ray/DVD combo at Amazon.com



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