‘Wolf Children’ is a gentle werewolf tale from Japan

The director of the 2006 “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and the 2009 “Summer Wars” has teamed up again with writer Satoko Okudera (“Summer Wars”) for a gentle, lyrical look at a different kind of werewolf in “Wolf Children.”

The original Japanese title is “Okami kodomo no Ame to Yuki” (『おおかみこどもの雨と雪』) meaning “The Wolf Children Rain and Snow.”  Here the wolves aren’t so much a threat to humans as the humans are a threat to humans and the movie is a celebration of nature. This is a more lyrical movie than “The Girl” but like that movie as well as “Summer Wars,” “Wolf Children” looks at the problems faced by young teens.

Okudera wrote the screenplay for “The Girl” based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s original novel.  Hosoda wrote the story for “Summer Wars” with Okudera writing the screenplay.  Together, Hosoda and Okudera adapted Hosoda’s story for the screenplay of “Wolf Children.”

The movie is told from the perspective of the daughter, Yuki. Their father was a mysterious figure that their mother, Hana (meaning flower) met while she was a college student. They fall in love, but he reveals to Hana that he is a wolfman, a descendant of the now extinct Japanese wolf. Hana and her Wolfman become a family having two children: Yuki who was born on a snowy day and Ame who was born on a rainy day. Because Hana is afraid that the babies may be born as wolf cubs or transform in front of the eyes of the hospital staff, the babies are born at home.

On one rainy day, the father disappears, only to be found dead in the form of a wolf. Hana must care for her children alone. With two kids who during times of great excitement transform into wolf cubs, Hana decides to move to a remote country area where her nearest neighbors can’t be seen. Although Yuki begins as the wild one, she yearns to belong to the human world and insists on starting school. At school, Yuki only has one mishap, turning into a wolf when she is pursued by a boy who wonders why she is trying to avoid her. The boy, Souhei, is a new transfer student and someone senses something different about Yuki.

Yuki and Sohei eventually become friends.

Ame finds his own education in the forests. His teacher is an old fox and despite his sister’s urging, Ame finds no interest in the human school learning. Being both children of the natural and human world, the children must make choices as they are on the edge of adulthood.

Besides the obvious references to nature (Rain, Winter and Flower), to the Japanese, the kanji used for Souhei hints at nature, referencing both a flower (wisteria is fuji) and meadows (sou is grass and hei means peaceful or flat).  There’s also a play on the Japanese phrase ameotoko (which literally means rain man), a phrase used to label someone who brings rain.

Historically, the last known Honshu wolf died in 1905 in Nara prefecture.  Japanese wolves were relatively small–only 12 inches at the shoulder.  According to Japanese folklore, the Honshu wolf was supposed to be the guardian of the mountains.  The Japanese fox still exists in the wild and in Japanese folklore are shapeshifters.  While  foxes in Japanese folklore are often portrayed as tricksters, they are seen as something more noble here “Wolf Children.”

The werewolves in “Wolf Children” aren’t frightening, but merely misunderstood and like all children need to learn how to control their wild impulses.  The full moon doesn’t force their transformation, because they have control of their emotions.  In that respect, this movie seems to be a subtle portrayal of humans learning to live within a loving more positive culture found in the countryside and an allegory of humans learning to live with nature.

“Wolf Children” was nominated for a 2012 Asia Pacific Screen Award and won a 2013 Japanese Academy Award for Best Animation Film. It also won a Mainichi Film Concours Award, the Audience Award and the Films from the South Award at the Oslo Films from the South Festival as well as a Orient Express Award for Best Animated Feature Film from the Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.

Wolf Children” is dubbed in English.  Currently, “Wolf Children” is scheduled for a limited run and is screening only at the Laemmle Town Center (in Encino) until 3 October 2013.

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