Six years after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time transformed him from a director of Toei anime episodes and occasional feature-length tie-ins to an interesting new light in the world of anime auteurs, and three years after Summer Wars cemented his place there, Hosoda Mamoru's latest film is very characteristically his work yet subtly different. Honestly, I don't think it was the best choice of story if he wanted to take up the place left vacant by Kon Satoshi's tragic passing as an anime feature director second only to Miyazaki Hayao in being prolific, recognisable and internationally well-known, but I liked its quirkiness and the way it took its somewhat silly premise and put it through the filter of calm, day-to-day Ozu-like struggles with everyday life, aligning it much more closely to Takahata than to Miyazaki in the Ghibli sphere of reference. As a result, unlike his previous two films this one doesn't have a very conventional third act of action and triumph, but rather a steady progression and comparatively open-ended conclusion.
Ookami Kodomo follows the life of quiet but remarkably strong-willed Hana, who meets a strange, taciturn but ruggedly handsome young man attending her university lectures even though he isn't a student. Though he is initially gruff and unfriendly, she perseveres in helping him and their mutual desire to learn underpins a brief but convincing romance that in minutes was in my book much more convincing than the whole first Twilight book. Fittingly for that comparison, it turns out that the boy is in fact a werewolf, perhaps the last of his kind. The couple's romance progresses quickly and they soon have two children a year apart, who they look out of the window and imaginatively call 'Yuki' (snow) and 'Ame' (Rain).
Sadly and perhaps inevitably, their father soon dies in an accident and the earnest human girl is left to raise two children who have both inherited their father's ability to turn into wolves. Here, the film takes its interesting turn away from the horror/supernatural romance that is so overdone in current media, and instead becomes about a mother raising two children alone who are very difficult for her to deal with. Eventually she decides she can't cope with living with such a secret in a dense urban area and moves to a secluded, run-down house in the countryside. This of course has its own hardships, until in a pleasant echo of Only Yesterday the city girl learns with the help of locals to work the land. Those seeking action may find this the dullest part of the film, but personally I found it the highlight, with a focus on the characters' humanity and a wonderful gruff patrician character.
As time passes in this new life, the focus shifts to the kids. I very much liked the way that at first, they defied gender roles and then later, they defied what could have been expected of them from their temperaments as young children. Yuki is a boisterous tomboy who throws tantrums, delights in gathering disgusting things and has trouble hiding her wolfish side, while Ame is an adorably wet little boy who is constantly moaning, frightened of everything and seems likely to be the one who sublimates his wolf side. Yet going to school, Yuki starts wanting to fit in with her feminine peers and experiences an adorable puppy love - appropriately enough - that ties her to her human side, while a closer tie with animals and eventually a kind of mentorship from a wise old fox leads Ame to become the oddly detached, far more lupine one.
The transition into maturity is marked with a gradual change in art - cutesy little wolf-kids with somewhat silly animal forms that retain their hairstyles grow less and less human. There's some drama with severe weather towards the end, but really it's something of an artificial attempt at a conclusion and the fact is the story just hints at the future rather than concluding strongly. If there's a flaw here, it's that the film doesn't have a storyline that hooks, only an intriguing concept played with gently. It's something very different in the werewolf genre, and could be interpreted as an allegory for mixed-race parenting (albeit would suit that very clumsily), and hints at a new maturity for Hosoda without quite finding the right balance just yet.
That said, I loved the production - I very much liked the designs, the soft music, the restrained voice acting (though a scene where the siblings fight as wolves is a bit clumsy), the focus on gorgeous backgrounds with the characters generally occupying less space on screen than is typical in anime, and the characterisation. I was even somewhat unsettled that in the credit sequence, key snapshots from the story were disproportionately the same ones I'd chosen to take for my review quite without my knowledge.
This is a step towards Hosoda becoming a more interesting, perhaps more cerebral filmmaker, and I'm interested to see where he goes with his new Studio Chizu - founded for this film but as yet more subsidiary of Madhouse than standalone studio, though that may already have come to an end by the time his next release comes out. Coming with him are key personnel like Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, the famed Evangelion character designer who also worked on The Girl who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, and Hosoda’s usual screenplay collaborator now working on the live-action Kiki’s Delivery Service Okudera Satoko. There’s no faulting the calibre of this staff, but ultimately the film just felt unsatisfying. It needed either a stronger story or to fully take the plunge and leave behind anything that could be considered childish to go entirely for the arthouse angle, because the place it sits just now doesn't quite have the strengths of either.