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Wolf Children
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by Jay Seaver

"Raised by people."
5 stars

While there are many reasons to be concerned about the health of animation as a medium in Japan, from all-time greats retiring to the increasing insularity of certain genres, there is still plenty of talent doing excellent and original work on a regular basis. "Wolf Children" writer/director Mamoru Hosada is one of them, and close to the top of the list, with this feature just the latest demonstration of what an exceptional storyteller he is.

As the narration tells us, Hana (voice of Aoi Miyazaki) was in college on scholarship, working a part-time job to pay rent when she met Kare (voice of Takao Ohsawa), the love of her life. He's a mover who comes to University lectures despite not being enrolled, and, as it turns out, a wolf-man, perhaps the last in Japan. They marry and have two children, rambunctious daughter Ame and sickly son Yuki. The city, alas, is no place for wolves of any age, and Hana soon decides to take her children to the country, where they can run and change free from suspicious neighbors, although Hana must learn a number of new skills to get by.

One of the less-heralded things that animation can do - and that traditional animation can do better than the digital variety - is to have time pass smoothly; visually, there's no need to cast different actors for different ages or mess around with makeup jobs that never really convince. Perhaps the best example of this is Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress, but it's something Hosada uses to great effect here; the story plays out over roughly thirteen years, and in that time we see Hana mature from an inexperienced nineteen-year-old to a capable woman in her mid-thirties so naturally that we don't see the individual steps until it's over. In fact, it's actually somewhat jarring when Ame's voice switches from Amon Kabe to Yukito Nishii (and Yuki's from Momoka Ohno to Haru Kuroki); the way the characters look and act has progressed so perfectly that this discontinuity stands out.

The really impressive thing, though, is that Hosada doesn't just stop at aging with this; as the substance of the film becomes more mature, the style does too. The wolf and werewolf forms of pre-school Ame and Yuki are just the cutest things you will ever see, straight out of Saturday morning cartoons for small children - they must have sold a bunch of stuffed Ames in Japan - but greater detail and realism comes as the film asks the audience to consider things more seriously. Hosada uses these contrasts in other ways as well - a scene where workers some distance away appear faceless in part because details aren't drawn at that distance makes them frightening even if the primary motive might have been budgetary. There are some moments when the filmmakers seem to bump up against what they can afford with some slightly awkward CGI or limited background animation and detail that doesn't quite look like a stylistic choice - but they're more than made up for by knowing how to use the form, such as when the story of the kids' elementary school days is covered in a single pan that spans three years.

For all the skill Hosada, co-writer Satoko Okudera, and the rest show in telling the story, they also make it quite a joy to watch. The core group of Hana, Ame, and Yuki are quite easy to root for, and there's a lot of fun had with the idea that small children and wild animals can have a few things in common, as well as how no parent is ever truly prepared for the challenges she faces. Hosada doesn't confuse maturity with darkness, either - for all that there is some of the latter in the movie, there's far more optimism, acceptance,and good humor.

That's especially true with Hana. She quickly became a favorite character for me, in part because even after dropping out of school, there's something very upbeat about how her solution to every challenge that comes her way is to learn all she can. Aoi Miyazaki's voice work blends seamlessly with that of the animators to make her real, something that is true of most characters and voice actors, with Amon Kabe as the younger Ame another standout. The characters are all realized well enough that the sharp turns they take are obvious, are quite believable.

(It is worth mentioning that I watched the film with the original Japanese soundtrack; the American dub in the previews sounded decent, but not as good, from my brief exposure.)

"Wolf Children" isn't the sort of bombastic, action-packed movie many associate with Japanese animation; it spends a fair amount of time on Hana learning how to farm, for instance. It is, however, a thoroughly impressive one, a notch above Hosada's last fine effort ("Summer Wars") and full of ways to quietly impress the audience even when it's not generating the huge grins.

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originally posted: 01/18/14 14:28:22
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  27-Apr-2013 (PG)
  DVD: 26-Nov-2013

  25-Oct-2013 (PG)
  DVD: 23-Dec-2013

  DVD: 18-Dec-2013

Directed by
  Mamoru Hosoda

Written by
  Mamoru Hosoda
  Satoko Okudera

  Aoi Miyazaki
  Takao Ohsawa
  Haru Kuroki
  Yukito Nishii
  Momoka Ohno
  Amon Kabe

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