Let’s be honest: when you’re talking about classic movie monsters, werewolves are basically a cut-rate version of vampires. They’re an incarnation of all the same fears – loss of control, the savage nature of man, fear of sex (specifically, venereal diseases) – while being, for the most part, more ridiculous than scary. There are some examples of great werewolf fiction out there, but they’re few and far between.
Wolf Children excels by using the mythology of lycanthropy not to depict ravenous, man-eating beasts, but to capture the complexities and messiness of parenthood and adolescence. When young student Hana meets a mysterious Wolf Man, he’s quick to explain that “changing under the full moon and attacking people [was] the stuff of dusty myths and bad movies.” The two fall in love and build a life together, a life that features two children – the adventurous, assertive Yuki and her timid baby brother Ame.
Tragedy strikes and Hana is left a single mother, left to raise two children she doesn’t truly understand, children who are liable to transform into a yapping wolf cub when they’re hungry or emotional. Hana struggles to cope without any support base beyond the modest savings her lover left her; bills pile up, the child welfare comes knocking, and when Yuki falls sick she finds herself unable to decide between a doctor’s office and a veterinary. The desperate sense of powerlessness inherent in single parenthood is deftly conveyed here – the metaphor is obvious, but incredibly effective.
I found this section of Wolf Children the most effective, because despite the gorgeous animation, director Mamoru Hosoda tells a grounded story that refuses the impulse to provide Hana an easy rescue. After moving to a dilapidated country house (strongly reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro) She eventually escapes the threat of poverty, thanks to her unremitting optimism and some help from sympathetic neighbours, but it’s a hard-earned victory.
Around the halfway mark, the film’s focus shifts to Hana’s two children. Again, despite its fantastical groundings, the screenplay finds universal resonance. One of the motivating factors behind Hana’s move to the country is her desire for her children to decide for themselves whether they’d prefer to be wolves or humans: to decide their own path in life. Yuki initially seems like the “wolf” of the two, with her gregarious nature and athletic exuberance, but finds her behaviour increasingly shunned by her peers as she ages. There’s a powerful analogy here, a reflection on the way young girls’ behaviour that is regarded as “not feminine” is socially punished, though it’s mostly implied. I would have liked the film to expand upon this compelling thread, but the focus shifts more to Ame’s story in the last half.
Ame’s timidity transforms into introversion, and eventually an obsession with the woods that surround their home (side point: Wolf Children is probably the best depiction of nature in animation I’ve seen). Soon that obsession becomes a lifestyle, and Ame is torn between the trappings of human life – clothes, school, routines – and the ragged allure of the wild.
Wolf Children is not the film I expected. It is playful and cute, but its heart-warming moments are contained within a story that avoids cliché and resonates with honest humanity. It’s a surprisingly moving portrait of the challenges of growing up, whether as a single parent or a young child, and demonstrates that I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss the thematic potential of werewolves.