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Andrew Osmond on Mamoru Hosoda’s movie classic

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It’s from the director of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. For most readers, that’ll be enough to get you watching Mamoru Hosoda’s new film The Wolf Children, which had a selected cinema release before it comes to Blu-ray and DVD on December 23. If you don’t know who Hosoda is, then see his film anyway. It’s just as accessible and universal as his past work (and perhaps more so; it doesn’t have any virtual realities or alternate timelines to contend with).

The Wolf Children is about werewolves, but it’s not a horror or monster film. There are no full moons or silver bullets, and it’s only fantasy in the broadest sense. Wolf Children is what you might get if a refined cinema director – think Ghibli’s Isao Takahata, or even live-action legend Yasujiro Ozu – was commissioned to remake 1980s Hollywood howler Teen Wolf. That’s the one where young Michael J. Fox realises he has werewolf genes, starts getting hairy at highschool, “comes out” in his wolfy glory, and then… becomes a basketball champion.

You don’t get any basketball in Wolf Children – well, actually, you get five seconds, but we think it’s coincidence. Instead we get the story of a strange but massively loveable family, followed through the course of a decade, with a young love story at the beginning that gets reprised at the end. We begin in Tokyo, where Hana, an optimistic girl college student, notices a stranger at her lecture. Although he’s a rather mopey type, she manages to befriend him. The opening minutes sketch their quietly happy relationship with the charm and delicacy we expect of Hosoda. And then, one starry wintry night, the man shows Hana what he is… and she’s not afraid, because as she says, it’s still him.

A few scenes later, there have been two big changes. The wolfman is no longer part of Hana’s life (you’ll have to see the film for why). And Hana is the mother of two small children, a boisterous girl called Yuki (‘snow’) and a more withdrawn little boy, Ame (‘rain’). They can both change into wolves at will, and often involuntarily. The children’s power, of course, leads to problems. Pity the parent of a lively shape-changing toddler who gnaws tables and chews cushions! These scenes feature some of the cutest, funniest character animation we’ve seen for ages – just wait till you see the tots transforming. It may have encouraged the animator Aya Suzuki, who we interviewed last year, to join the film.

While the story starts in Tokyo (you get a glimpse of what the city’s like at Christmas), most of the film takes place in the Japanese country, where Hana goes to raise her small family in peace. Specifically, it’s set in Toyama Prefecture, where the director himself grew up; even the characters’ house is based on a real one, now maintained by the film’s fans. We’ll leave you to see where the story goes, though if you watch the Japanese version, listen carefully to its voices. A grumpy oldster in the country scenes is voiced by Bunta Suguwara, who was formerly a staple of yakuza movies, and more recently a Ghibli actor – he was spider-man Kamaji in Spirited Away, and fatherly wizard Sparrowhawk in Tales from Earthsea. The mother is voiced by Aoi Miyazaki – no relation to Hayao, but an actress best known for her traumatised teen performance in Eureka (2001), a live-action art-house epic by Shinji Aoyama. The most familiar anime voice is Megumi Hayashibara (Rei, Paprika, Faye Valentine et al), who plays the irate mum of a boy in the kids’ school.

You might see The Wolf Children’s gentle family drama as a ‘departure’ for Hosoda, but no more than Totoro was for Miyazaki, following that director’s adventure films Nausicaa and Laputa. Actually, family drama has been a consistent thread through Hosoda’s films for years. Girl who Leapt depicted the relationship between a schoolgirl and her oddly understanding aunt (for more, see here), while Summer Wars gave us a vast family clan. The latter film also had a sub-plot about a ‘black sheep’ outsider, his birth tainted by scandal. His tale of reconciliation is echoed in Wolf Children, which champions our acceptance of difference as one of our greatest virtues.

In a previous article on this blog, we noted that anime family films usually do very small business in Japan’s cinemas, unless they’re linked to big franchises or Studio Ghibli. Wolf Children was a spectacular exception to the rule, making over $50 million at the domestic box-office. It was also, incidentally the only anime film released in 2012 with an original story; written by Hosoda and regular collaborator Satoko Okudera, it wasn’t based on other material, though it had print and manga adaptations. By coincidence, The Wolf Children opened in Japan the same day as Pixar’s Brave, another animated film about human/animal transformations and parent/child relationships. Hosoda’s wolves won paws down, at least at Japan’s box-office.

It’ll be very interesting to see how the film fares in Britain and America. Despite its sweetness, The Wolf Children is rather adult by the standards of Hollywood family fare. An intimate romantic moment early on caused gasps and giggles when the film was screened at last year’s Scotland Loves Anime. (Interestingly, though, when this writer saw it with a more mainstream audience at the London Film Festival, including parents and kids, there was no such reaction!) The Wolf Children credits its audience with the taste to try a story of a heroic mother with no weapon but her determined smile; and a story of two werewolf kids for whom howling and hunting comes second to the challenge of growing up.

Ko, Mamoru Hosoda’s first child, was born shortly after The Wolf Children opened in Japan.

Wolf Children is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment on 23rd December.

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