Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to find myself with an evening free to relax in the face of upcoming finals, and to my great pleasure I spent it watching Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Wolf Children is the story of a Japanese woman named Hana who falls in love with a man who turns out to be half-wolf. After a heartbreaking early separation of the couple, Hana is forced to raise her two half-breed wolf children on her own. The narrative is both heartbreaking and endearing and if you haven’t yet seen the film: please do before reading further. This film is definitely worth your time and most of what I will be discussing from this point on involves the film’s ending.
It’s no small secret that Mamoru Hosoda has a brilliant track record in animation within the last decade, or even further if you thought that Digimon: The Movie (2000) or One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island (2005) weren’t train wrecks. (I can’t speak on the One Piece film, though, as I’ve never seen it… I think.) Hosoda’s last four projects have been especially impressive, including the entirety of the television series Samurai Champloo (2005) and films The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Digimon: The Movie: Director’s Cut– also known as Summer Wars (2009), and now Wolf Children (2012).
Of the films of his I’ve seen, Wolf Children is by far the most emotionally compelling to me. Time and time again, the film was drawing out and nurturing feelings that I, at times, found hard to specify– and there’s a reason for that.
Hosoda has shown in Wolf Children a remarkable knack for creating a scene, or moment, that elicits two completely opposing emotions at the same exact time. The first time I noticed this happening was when the father was found dead in the river. Hana’s horrified realization that her husband had been killed and fit of agony as she tries to recover his body is matched by the situation it takes place in. Her husband died in wolf form, so the image we get at the same time we’re being bombarded with negative feelings is a comedic one of a woman crying and fighting to get at a dead wolf that has been dumped into a trash bag and thrown into a garbage truck. This dichotomy of emotions is something that pops up often throughout the film.
The most notable instances usually involve the fear that the children’s secret will be discovered alongside a full flood of adorableness. My favorite of these scenes is when Yuki is seen by some of the townsfolk in wolf form and manages to trick them into thinking that it’s their pet who just happens to wear the same coat– and gets away with this all while actually transforming in front of them. Constantly, the viewer’s fears of Yuki being found out– an emotion matched by her own mother’s emotions– are countered with just how adorable she is throughout the whole exchange.
Hosoda also uses the dichotomy for character development in the form of the tsundere of the film, old man Nirasaki, who straddles the line between viewers’ love and hate by being a crotchety old man and someone who helps Hana survive on the mountain.
The technique he uses evolves throughout the film from its early moments, peaking at the very end of the film in Ame’s parting scene. The past ten minutes of the film drew everything from ire and hatred towards Ame’s ignorance of his mother’s feelings, to fear of what will happen with Yuki letting her secret be revealed, and exhilaration when she is accepted by Souhei. Many films have bittersweet endings, but very few build to them through the very structure of the scenes preceding it. Ame’s decision to leave is a moment that will stick with me for a long time to come (even though I have my qualms with how it was handled) because of how well the film handles the confliction between Hana’s wont to be with her son and keep her family together and her understanding that she has to let him go.
But Wolf Children’s ending is far more complex than the build up of structural confliction throughout the film. While the motif does tie the film together nicely in a structural sense, it does not work as well alongside one of the biggest themes of the film– that of assimilation. Throughout the film, Hana and her children spend every second of their lives trying to find a way to fit into the world around them, eventually leading to the movement into the countryside where she can better enable Yuki and Ame to explore their wolf-side without increasing the chances of their secret being revealed.
It is this exploration of both their sides that leads the film’s discussion into themes of race and belonging. There are innumerable stories in literature and film about mixed race characters trying to find their identity between each half of themselves, and this idea is something often discussed in genres such as science fiction and fantasy– Wolf Children, obviously, belonging to the latter. While their mother’s struggle is, for the most part, an outer one of survival and raising children, Yuki and Ame’s struggle throughout the film is inner, as they attempt to make their own identities between their wolf and human sides. In doing this, they attempt to find where they belong.
What’s most interesting in this discussion is how Hosoda uses the two children to explore assimilation in two opposite directions. While Yuki is entirely focused on assimilating into human life and abandoning her bestial side by the time she’s older, Ame explores the wilderness, gaining a wild fox as a teacher and avoiding human interaction almost entirely. Their two sides eventually come to clash in a dinner scene brawl that ends in an injured Yuki and an Ame who has very obviously fully accepted the beast inside of him.
The fight itself came about from Yuki and Ame each attempting to convince the other that they should join in on accepting the other’s position, and the refusal of either side to come to a conclusion not only highlights the struggle of coming to terms with one’s own plurality, but the film’s inability to even explore whether it’s possible to have that plurality. Ame and Yuki each conform to either side, without much willingness to really accept their other half.
Yuki is the most interesting of the two in this regard, however, as she actively fears her wolf half. She has every right to be, obviously, as she has no idea how humans would react to knowing she could turn into a wolf. Her fear manifests most greatly when she ends up getting backed into a corner and cuts Souhei’s ear with her claw, almost giving away her secret entirely. In the end though, there is a very big positive, as she ends up showing Souhei her wolf-half and he fully accepts her for who she is. In that sense, Yuki manages to assimilate into human life without entirely giving up her wolf-side. But it still shows up more as something she has to live with rather than something she’s proud of. Whether she truly accepts her wolf-side into the equation is never that apparent.
Ame’s conclusion, on the other hand, is much clearer. He follows through on his abandonment of human life- but not out of hatred or fear, but out of instinct and the desire to. It likely doesn’t justify most of his actions in the second half of the film, but it’s something. And even so, I don’t think Hosoda’s final portrayal of Ame’s decision is anything but positive. His mother cheers him on as he climbs the mountain he has decided he would be the king of (which, by the way, is still the dumbest line in the entire film), and even though she’s disheartened that he would leave her, in the end, she is fully accepting of her position.
But in the end, I feel Hosoda’s point has nothing to do with the choices Ame and Yuki make, themselves. His use of those characters is to portray and explore the concepts of finding acceptance as best he can. The choices they make are just that: choices that children make in life. Really, the true meaning in the film comes not from those choices, but the wolf children’s ability to make them. Hosoda’s biggest argument comes through Hana, who tries her hardest from start to finish to give her children what they need to find themselves– even at her own expense, and even if the choices they make are ones she doesn’t view as successful.
The final question she asks, whether Ame has learned anything from her, is one that is left unanswered– and even viewers are left without any real knowledge to what that answer could be. You’d assume he did, simply based on his growth under her wing, but his final abandonment throws everything up in the air. Yet even then, even when it becomes completely unclear if she has done anything to teach Ame anything, Hana is still in support of his decision. And looking back, that had always been the key, even when Ame was unsure of himself.
Wolf Children’s most important argument is that in a child’s search for identity, the best and most important thing a parent can do is allow them room to grow and offer support even if you dislike exactly what identity they’ve chosen– because that identity is who they are and finding yourself and where you belong is one of the most important missions in anyone’s life.