Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children (2012) snaps and snarls at the savage strangeness of being half-wolf, half-human, but it’s no werewolf thriller. This is a deeply introspective, lyrical, Studio Ghibli-like (certain countryside moments recall My Neighbor Totoro and Only Yesterday) tale of one mother’s struggle to raise two kids who really can behave like animals. That’s because Yuki and Ame are the offspring of Hana and a man whom she fell in love with at university—a man who could turn into a Honshū wolf.
Yuki’s narration is a touching tribute to her mother’s perseverance. Long shots of her parents in the sprawling city suggest the loneliness of urban life. Their father’s death, while out hunting for food for his young ones, is like a plangent howl—as rain teems down, this creature’s bagged and dumped into a garbage truck. His lover, her two children beside her, can only fall to her knees in a puddle; a stranger walks up and kindly tips his umbrella over this bereft family.
Silence abounds; the wordless sequences are stunning. Mother and children caper and race through snow in their first winter since moving to the countryside. Gardening means failing and trying again; Hana’s (the name means “flower”) determination and concern throb through most scenes. As Yuki (“happiness” or “snow”) tries to fit in at grade school, though, Ame (“rain”) turns to the mountains and forest for his education, following nature and not culture.
There are a few sloppy and sappy moments; the sweaters somehow tied around the siblings’ necks when they’re their lupine selves seem a too-cutesy touch. But the attention to romantic-poetry detail—flowers, spires of cloud, a parking lot during a rainstorm—is sublime. And this film’s willingness to linger, dwell, and draw out—a mother’s anguish, the shadowy faces of Yuki and Ame when they’ve turned away, inwards, towards their primal selves, just wanting, primally and desperately, your children to be fine—is extraordinary at times. Rarely has maternity, or maturity, been shown with such poetic force on screen.