Wolf Children

Although very different in tone and subject from his previous features, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, Wolf Children (Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki, 2012), which screens April 27 at the Los Angeles Children's Film Festival, further confirms Mamoru Hosoda as one of most interesting and original writer-directors currently working in Japan.

Hana, a hard-working 19-year-old student at Tokyo University, notices that the quiet, lanky young man in her ancient history class takes notes but doesn’t have the required textbook. As they talk, the cheerful girl and reclusive boy are surprised to find themselves falling in love. He reluctantly confesses that he is a wolfman: not a conventional werewolf, but the kind of shape-shifter that often appears in Japanese folk tales. He is the last of his breed, as wolves have been extinct in Japan for at least a century.

Instead of the wedding with singing birds that would follow in an American feature, their relationship leads to a baby girl, Yuki, and a year later, a boy, Ame. Wolfman is a devoted husband and father, and Hana is shattered by his unexplained death.

As the children inherited their father's shape-shifting ability, raising them in Tokyo becomes impossible. In a darkly comic moment, Hana ponders whether to take Yuki to a pediatrician or a veterinarian when she eats some desiccant. Hana moves her family to a ramshackle old farm house in a remote mountain village. Her good manners, kind heart and hard work gradually win the respect and affection of her eccentric neighbors 

But keeping her children's supernatural abilities secret while trying to raise them to be who and what they are remains a daunting task. Yuki wants to go to school and live only as a human. Her one burst of anger that causes her to partially transform enables her to bond with her classmate Sohei. In contrast, Ame skips school and explores the surrounding mountains as a wolf. His lessons come not from textbooks, but a wise, aged fox.

Like a waltz, Wolf Children unfolds with a slow, graceful rhythm. Hosoda allows scenes to unfold at their own pace, often using minimal dialogue or mime. The forest backgrounds are strikingly handsome, and the simple drawn animation captures the expressions and emotions of the unusual characters. After the slam-bang action and nonstop chatter of recent Hollywood films, American viewers have to jettison their expectations and enjoy the film on its own terms. 

Surprisingly, the weakest moments in the film involve CG, which Hosoda used so effectively in Summer Wars. The sudden shift to tracking camera moves when Hanna and her children frolic in their first snowfall and the elaborately rendered waterfalls Ame leaps in his lupine form feel jarring after the unapologetically 2D character animation.

But these are minor criticisms in otherwise lyrical and moving film. Wolf Children

won the Japanese Academy Prize for animation, beating Evangelion 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo and Letter to Momo, and has garnered numerous festival prizes. It’s a welcome reminder that animation can be used for more than elaborate 3D CG comedy-adventures at a time when American studios seem intent on boxing the protean art form within increasingly narrow limits.

Further information: www.americancinematheque.com