What I Unexpectedly Got Out of Wolf Children

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When I finally sat down to watch Wolf Children a few days ago, I wasn’t quite prepared for the degree to which I would empathize with the show. I only knew the bare minimum about the movie: it was the newest from Hosoda Mamoru, the acclaimed director of Summer Wars, and featured the story of a single mother raising children. By the end the show, however, I quickly found myself recalling memories of childhood fondly in a way I couldn’t help but think wasn’t Hosoda‘s original intent.

Warning: spoilers for Wolf Children.

I was instantly intrigued by how a Japanese movie could portray a topic — single parenting — often swept under the rug. In Japan, children with single parents can often become the target of bullying because there would be fewer repercussions as the single parent is almost guaranteed to be working to support the family. This is only made worse by the  fact that single households can suffer from economic hardship, such as a former housewife working part-time jobs to support two children. I was curious how Hosoda would approach this topic on the silver screen, because in a country where a significant percentage of the population is homogeneous, even the slightest difference in a children’s family situation can become grounds for ostracization.

Perhaps more significantly, I was also interested in the film simply because it was a topic that resonated with me: I was raised by my single mother starting around the age of 14. So I began watching it with relative caution as I wasn’t quite too sure how a Japanese anime would approach this topic. Maybe it would be serious, or perhaps somewhat of a mere plot point to highlight some other issue in Japanese society.

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Wolf Children is delightfully deceptive with its narrative simplicity. Its core revolves around the lives of Hana, who falls in love in the beginning of the movie with a werewolf, and her children Yuki and Ame, who inherit their father’s lycanthropy. When her husband dies suddenly out hunting for their children’s meal, Hana is forced to raise her two children by herself. Pressured by a need to work, her children’s lack of control over their wolf-like behavior, and the inquiries of child services, Hana decides that her best choice is to move to the country side. There, she can live in harmony with her children in a gigantic house away from prying eyes.

During their years in the country side, the true drama of Wolf Children unfolds. Yuki, the older sister of the bunch, begs her mom to go to school; at first she doesn’t blend in but later makes many friends as she becomes more accustomed to being around normal humans. She’s constantly active at school, often participating in school activities and spending time with other neighborhood girls. On the other hand, Ame is a bit of a loner who doesn’t quite feel the same urge to mingle with humans as his sister does. He develops an interest in the forest, and often goes off in search of something that interests him, steadily becoming closer to a protector of the nature that he loves.

Yuki’s extroversion sharply contrasts with Ame’s introversion. This dynamic between outgoing Yuki, whose actions center on the human world, and the contemplative Ame, whose thoughts are completely in a world of his own, serve as a typical plot point in any slice-of-life story if it wasn’t for one fact: Wolves belong with nature. While Yuki’s desire to spend time with friends is perfectly understandable for a young girl, she’s forced to hide the part of her that’s feral. Compared to Yuki’s approach, Ame prefers to be running through the wild in his wolf form.

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Wolves, long extinct in Japan due to human influence, represents a return to a state of  the past that is now lost in modern times, and Ame’s choice to live in the forest reinforces the entire movie’s theme of independence and happiness living off land. Each of the children seem to find happiness in the path they have chosen: Yuki fully embraces the human world while Ame goes on to permanently live in the wild. All the while we’re shown a final scene of a proud Hana, who reflects on the trials of raising her children alone.

For myself, however, the wolf symbolism takes on a completely new meaning on top of what it seemed like Hosoda was trying to state. The idea that we are all born with a heritage that we can return to, something that we can look towards as a way to live, not only applies in the general sense of humans returning to a more natural lifestyle, but also applies in case of first generation children born to immigrant parents. Growing up Asian-American in California, this topic was always a point of contention between my mother and I.

In other words, Wolf Children‘s message takes on a completely different meaning when you’re the child of parents who immigrated from another country to the one you were inevitably raised in. Fighting between the human-oriented Yuki and nature-loving Ame represent countless moments spent agonizing over how poor your parents’ English is or how little you can speak of your heritage tongue. In a sense both of these paths are equally viable as ways to live, and having a mother figure that is willing to accept this would represent a happy relationship between two generations.

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I can’t really imagine a Japanese anime director, born and raised in Japan, would have in mind the tribulations of immigrant children. It’s a topic that is far removed in Japan compared to the immigrant narrative you’re exposed to when studying American history. Still, the film manages to elicit a flood of memories from childhood of playing with a culturally diverse group of friends, of going to school at 6:45 AM every day because that’s when my mother would go to work, and of one too many dinners discussing how my math test scores were terrible compared to all the other smart Asian kids.

It’s true that the majority of Hosoda‘s approach to the topic of single child parenting is a fairly common one: through sheer tenacity and strength of will, one can raise their children by raising them closer to nature, away from the callousness of city life. It’s not a nuanced choice by any means and may also serve to bore some.

At the same time, there is beauty of being able to watch a movie and feel that its message says something about your own history; it’s a testament to the effectiveness Wolf Children‘s straightforward and simple story. Regardless of what it may mean to say, the anime’s tale takes a life of its own because of the universality of its subject matter. We all understand the sacrifices our parents may have made for us, for example. Many of us also know what it’s like to be compared to a sibling that we completely disagree with.

It’s the vignettes of everyday life for Hana, Yuki, and Ame that serve as Hosoda’s core tool for creating a piece that easily carries tons of unintended meaning for its audience. So while I was originally expecting a movie that tackles issues in Japanese society, Wolf Children has reached beyond to touch upon something far more fundamental: each and every viewer’s past.

4 Responses to “What I Unexpectedly Got Out of Wolf Children”

  1. Great article on Wolf Children, Kylaran. This was another amazing movie by Mamoru Hosoda following in the footsteps of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars.

    Coincidentally, I watched this movie for the first time just a few days after Mother’s Day last year. Thus I felt I was much more awash in my feelings, and the movie’s portrayal of Hana’s trials and tribulations as a single parent hit me that much harder. At the end I was reflecting on my own mother’s sacrifices and efforts in raising me, and although I still have both my parents, it definitely helped me to appreciate my own mother more.

  2. @gandalf8

    Thank you for reading!

    Wolf Children is indeed a lovely film that had much to say about motherhood, and it’s a topic that’s quite universal so it’s really hard to miss the core meaning no matter what language we speak. Glad to know you got something important out of it just like I did!

  3. Very nice review. As an Asian-American living in the U.S. as well, I agree with your point of view. This movie bring back memories of how hard it is to choose between the “asian” and “american” life style. Although it was hard to choose my life path, overall I am satisfied of how I turned out. Like Hana, my parents wanted me to live my life however I wanted and it was my choice to become who I am today. I hope that Yuki and Ame is happy on what kinds of life style they chose.

  4. “I can’t really imagine a Japanese anime director, born and raised in Japan, would have in mind the tribulations of immigrant children. It’s a topic that is far removed in Japan compared to the immigrant narrative you’re exposed to when studying American history.”

    Many designers/directors in Japan grow up contemplating questions of shared human experience DESPITE the differences that make us unique, and focus their work on how to explore that in a way that isn’t overtly political, but often metaphors of nature, animials, and spirits – and other universally understood (across cultures) manifestations.

    This allows everyone, across Japan (and the world), as well as across generations of people (regardless of time) to reflect on these within their own context, and thus the possibility of constructing your own own meanings for the core vignettes contained within.

    So to answer your question, did Mamoru-san have first-generation immigrants in mind when directing this film? While I personally believe he did (based on an interview I read some time ago), even if he didn’t explicitly consider immigrants as the source material was being adapted, the vignettes are purposely left open to exploration sufficient to where the Director would consider such an interpretation part of his intent.

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