For fans of Japanese animation, the retirement of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki earlier this year was the passing of a golden age; one in which the world was painted bright by a vision like no other. Others would emulate the wonder, the magic, the uncompromising story-telling of films such as Spirited Away, but none would better it. After all, who could?
Well, Mamoru Hosada – he of rival Studio Chizu and the original choice to direct Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle – is going to give it a damn good try with Wolf Children: a film that’s impressively mature not only in ideas and themes, but also in characterisation.
Hosada’s third film from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and 2009’s Summer Wars, Wolf Children pivots around Hana (Aoi Miyazaki): a woman who, as a student, falls in love with a Wolfman (Takao Osawa). If you’re thinking Twilight, then don’t. It’s a lovely, underplayed beginning that collapses into tragedy – leaving Hana with Yuki and Ame, two half wolf, half human children, to bring up on her own.
Beyond an obvious struggle to protect her children’s secret, the fantasy element is subtle. Instead, the focus is rooted in Hana’s domestic hardship as a single mother. She moves out of the city to the isolated countryside. She fixes up an old house. She grows food. She battles to control feral children which may – or may not – simply be an analogy for hyperactive terrors.
It sounds mundane but it’s wonderful. For Hana, especially in the way that she’s written, is far more heroic than, as Hollywood star Natalie Portman stated recently, “a woman who kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathise with.”
And indeed it does. You invest in Hana’s uphill climb and then, later on, in Yuki and Ame’s (respectively: likeable and sulky) conflict of adolescent identity. Are they wolf or human? It’s yet another example of how Hosada so deftly uses the light touch of fantasy to reflect real, emotional issues. What a truly exciting prospect he is.