Breakthrough success for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars outside of Japan has seen director Mamoru Hosoda labelled “the next Miyazaki” in certain circles, in regards to being an anime filmmaker of increasing international reach and appeal. Perhaps befittingly, his new film Wolf Children has some similarities in feel with highlights of Studio Ghibli’s output. It combines a high-concept, fantastical premise – like, say, Miyazaki having a literal flying pig as a protagonist in Porco Rosso – with a tender exploration of human growth as found in Ghibli’s more low-key dramas like Only Yesterday and the wonderful Whisper of the Heart.
Opening with narration from Yuki, one of the eponymous children, the film flashes back to her future mother Hana as a university student, where she becomes drawn to a mysterious man on campus, later discovering he is also a wolf-man. He is the last of his kind since the Japanese wolf is thought to be extinct. The two fall in love and eventually conceive children together: one girl, Yuki, and a younger boy, Ame. The father is said to have descended from a long line of lycanthropes, but circumstances lead to Hana having to bring up their two children alone, without guidance on how to raise two human kids prone to transforming into wolves; moving from a small city apartment to isolated countryside becomes a necessity. The film follows the development of Hana, the boisterous Yuki, and the introverted Ame over more than a decade, as the latter two must choose which path in life they wish to take, be it maturing as human adults or embracing the other side of their dual nature.
Despite its decade plus span, Wolf Children proceeds at a gentle, leisurely speed. This pacing is occasionally bothersome when certain sections of its almost two hour runtime drag somewhat, but the family narrative here is generally very compelling. Each character is imbued and developed with palpable humanity, and their journeys effectively cover a spectrum of emotions. Hosoda takes this fantasy premise, one that could easily have gone awry in other hands, and delivers this touching portrait of motherhood, adolescence, parent-child relations and the turmoil that comes with finding one’s own place and way in the world. Wolf Children is a rich work and further sign of a great, imaginative talent, bolstered by an ethereal animation style that, like the storytelling, is deceptively simple and prone to moments of detailed beauty.