August 12, 2013

The Wolf Children

Mamoru Hosoda started out his career working for franchise productions (Digimon, One Piece). With The Girl who Leapt through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), and now The Wolf Children (2012), he's proved himself one of the best and most original anime directors in the business.

The Wolf Children deserves a place alongside Miyazaki's "quiet fantasies" such as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart. Like Miyazaki, Hosodo embraces the sentimental while avoiding the maudlin, communicating a deep sense of poignancy and loss that Miyazaki rarely achieves.

This is less the loss that comes from melodramatic tragedy (the father dies early on, in what is more of a preface to the rest of the movie) than the inevitable loss that comes from simply living a life to its fullest.

Hosoda has masterfully fused two fundamental concepts of Japanese aesthetics: wabi-sabi, the beauty of the old. Not that of antiques in a museum but objects allowed to age and wear in their natural settings. And awa're, "an awareness of impermanence or transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing."

This is a story about family, community, and coming-of-age in rural Japan, a part of Japanese society that is itself inexorably aging and wearing away. As he did in Summer Wars, Hosoda has taken a genre fantasy and moved it to the Japanese countryside (which, to much of his audience, is no less fantastical a setting).

The rural drama in Japan has become a genre of its own (a common variation is the island drama).

The best-known example outside Japan is probably Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. A lesser-known Yoji Yamada classic is Harukanaru Yama no Yobigoe ("The Call of the Distant Mountains"). A wanted man on the run (Ken Takakura) is taken in by a widowed farmer's wife (Chieko Baisho) in Northern Japan.

In Home: Itoshi no Zashiki Warashi, struggling businessman Yutaka Mizutani gets transferred to the sticks. The traditional old house (similar to the one in The Wolf Children) he rents for his family turns out to be haunted by a zashiki warashi, the ghost of a child who brings good fortune to those who treat it well.

Like the zashiki warashi in Home, it's pretty much impossible not to read scads of metaphors into The Wolf Children. There's the obvious (little kids are wild animals), but Hosoda is tackling a much bigger theme: how the maladaptive adapt to societal norms. Or in some cases, how they simply choose not to.

Rarely has the truism that children grow up to pick their own paths in life been stated so unpretentiously and in such a heartfelt manner.

Thankfully, though, Hosoda doesn't let the "message" get in the way of taking the story literally either.

I saw The Wolf Children on TV Japan. It's been licensed by Funimation and is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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