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Andrew Osmond goes in search of Mamoru Hosoda’s family ties

The Wolf Children is a family film about a family. This may help explain while Mamoru Hosoda’s movie was a hit in Japan, something that’s very unusual for a standalone cartoon film not linked to an entrenched brand. A well-rounded portrait of a family offers many ways in for different generations. The Wolf Children is the story of an unassuming ‘ordinary’ mum who must find reserves of superhuman strength; of a rambunctious girl and a troubled boy, each with different relationships to their animal sides; of a magic, mythic love between a human woman and a gentle werewolf; and of everyday, practical living away from city lights and mod-cons.

A good fictional family hits all sections of the audience. Look at America’s The Simpsons, and the different demographics catered to by naughty Bart, precocious Lisa, dunderheaded Homer and long-suffering Marge. In Japan, the gentler anime Sazae-san has done the same job for nearly twice as long (44 years and counting). Sazae-san has run so long that, as Jonathan Clements’ Anime: A History notes, the show’s large family is out of step with twenty-first demographics.

Speaking to the Capsule Computers website, Hosoda said “I guess a lot of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and of course children went to see [Wolf Children] – as well as boyfriends and girlfriends who could possibly imagine what it would be like to get married, settle down and have kids… The main character is obviously Hana the mother, so that is one way of looking at it. But for younger audiences, I’d like them to see it as [Hana’s children] Ame and Yuki growing up and the choices they make…”

As Hosoda says, the main character is Hana, who falls for a wolfman at the start of the film. Mothers are often neglected as protagonists in film, though some directors – James Cameron, for example, and Hideo Nakata (Ringu) – recognise they make superb leads. In animated films, it’s even worse. We challenge you to think of any lead mother characters, or indeed many films when the mum isn’t dead and gone in the first ten minutes (hello Frozen). Fathers are far more popular (Bunny Drop, Finding Nemo…). By an extraordinary coincidence, Wolf Children opened in Japan the same day as Pixar’s Brave, which foregrounded the relationship between a mother and child. But Wolf Children beat Brave paws down, and deservedly.

“I think women’s lives are way richer than males,” Hosoda claimed to the Twitch website. “Because women’s lives are very complex and have a lot of choices; whether you stay at home as a mother, (whether) you work, whether you have children or don’t have children. All those different options and choices that women have… Men’s lives are very black and white: You either win or lose… I think that female lives are way more suited to be the subject of movies.”

It’ll be interesting to see if this comment bears out in Hosoda’s future films. The Girl who Leapt Through Time was a teen love story, with a delightfully headstrong heroine, but it only scraped the Bechdel test for female independence. Summer Wars had a male viewpoint character, though admittedly there was a kick-ass potential granny-in-law. Even with Wolf Children, one could argue it’s really a conservative in ‘progressive’ clothing. In the same Twitch interview, Hosoda mentions he had a message that was hardly radical; to encourage Japanese people to have kids! But his foregrounding of a mother in an animated film remains startling and fresh.

It’s no surprise that it also reflects some deeply personal feelings of the director. “I lost my mother right before I completed Summer Wars,” Hosoda told Otaku USA. “She was in the hospital for eight years… After I completed Summer Wars, that kind of stayed with me, and that has some reflection in making (Wolf Children).”

Wolf Children represents a strand of anime which blends everyday life with very subtle fantasy, often through children’s eyes. The adult Hana has the film’s first fantastic encounter, as she falls in love; however, it’s her child Ame who becomes the ‘fantasy’ adventurer in later scenes. Hosoda has mentioned he was influenced in his filmmaking by the Spanish live-action classic Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a child’s-eye precursor to Totoro and Pan’s Labyrinth.

In anime, Studio Ghibli often mixes real life with very small rations of fantasy. Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example, handles witches in much the way Wolf Children does werewolves. But other anime makers have gone into this territory; consider Sunao Katabuch’s nostalgic child’s time Mai Mai Miracle; Satoshi Kon’s playful, could-be-a-miracle Tokyo Godfathers; and Keiichi Hara’s metaphysical teen film, Colorful.

Hosoda talked about this side of his work to About.com. “I think the fantasy in The Wolf Children does seem unrealistic, it doesn’t seem ‘real,’” he said. “But within that fantasy there is always an element where it is close to the reality of your life, and it makes you realize what’s important in your life… I think that’s the same thing in kid’s tales, like [Hans Christian] Andersen’s. Within that story there’s always a real-life story.”

Hosoda works with fantasy and science-fiction, both stereotyped as escapist media with nothing to say on real human feelings. But, like the director Duncan Jones (Source Code), Hosoda believes these genres actually bring out feelings more clearly. “People easily ignore what the most important or cherished things are in their day-to-day lives,” Hosoda told Anime News Network. “By incorporating science fiction and fantasy elements, audiences are more likely to discover what they don’t notice normally. I hope audiences can see beyond spectacular visual effects and see what’s the most important value for themselves.” For him, it seems, it’s family.

Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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