Animation Confabulation isn’t just about new animation releases, but seeks to look at older animated films as well. There’s a whole raft of animated goodness out there, and I aim to find some of the best of them that are available. Whilst Summer Wars is only a few years old now, I was so impressed with Wolf Children by the same director that I knew I had to check it out as soon as possible. As such, this had to be the first of our retrospectives. All of my articles on older films may contain mild spoilers. There is nothing in here that will wreck the film for you, but you might want to watch it first.
Chances are, if you are reading this article you were linked to it via Facebook or Twitter (if you weren’t, you are no less welcome), and of course it would be great for the site if you were then to share it again on social media. When on these sites, you may also be linked to some online shopping, you may play games, you could even perhaps earn some money from these sites. Such websites are now at a remarkable stage of connectivity, where everything seems to be orchestrated through them and society seems to be almost inconceivable without them. Mamoru Hosoda’s dizzying, dazzling sci-fi family drama (sci-fam-fi?) is set in a not unbelievable future (or just an alternative present) where reliance on social media has reached a whole new level, and asks what might happen when it all starts to go wrong. It’s not a horror film but it is, to be quite frank, terrifying.
OZ is a kind of über-Facebook, which apparently the whole world is on and can be accessed by just about any device. All technology is routed through OZ, from the banal such as traffic signals and GPS, to the ever-so-slightly ridiculous like satellites and, well, nukes. When an AI avatar goes out of control and starts messing with the system, people are understandably worried. Meanwhile, one maths-genius/code monkey, Kenji, has to survive a weekend with the crazy family of his friend Natsuki who is pretending he is her boyfriend. As the rogue AI begins to cause increasing chaos in Tokyo, Kenji has to get the fiercely proud, talkative family on his side and fighting this AI together. The melodrama of Kenji trying to make sense of his feelings for Natsuki clashes violently with their (literally) out of this world quest to save… just about everything.
Once more, Hosoda displays his ability to balance the mundane and the extraordinary, the real and the surreal. Just as how in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time getting through high school proved just as challenging as getting to grips with the ramifications of time travel, so in Summer Wars Kenji’s journey is as much about the importance of family as it is battling digital monsters. He is more successful here, however, in bringing the two strands together as he nicely shifts the threat from a worldwide catastrophe to merely threatening the family and their historic home. The plot is, at times, full on insane, but it’s his ability to connect with the characters in his films that makes the high concepts work. The fiercely proud matriarch of the sprawling family, for instance, makes more of an impact than any sci-fi shenanigans.
Yet the action elements really do work, too. Because the threat in Summer Wars exists entirely within a digital world, the divide between the two strands is realised with a wonderful difference in aesthetics. Hosoda clearly has a lot of fun in creating OZ, bringing it to life with a variety of avatars filling a vast computer generated world. By initially placing the danger outside of reality, Hosoda can be wildly creative, with an Aztec god villain that swallows the avatars of users round the world, and occasionally taking on their characteristics. As he becomes bigger and stronger, he transforms into something more and more terrifying, and every single user of OZ becomes part of the dramatic conclusion.
There is a risk, at times, of Summer Wars becoming Maths and Computing: The Movie, as several scenes pass by with scrawling meaningless numbers onto paper, or typing furiously at a laptop. As a result, the digital violence loses some of its impact and the threat only begins to feel real at all in the final scenes. It is difficult to sympathise when an entirely digital creation gets beaten up when the people behind them are obviously quite alright. But such is the invention with which Hosoda creates this digital world, it ultimately doesn’t fail to be an absorbing, compelling universe to explore. Summer Wars is a strange, often beautiful animation with one truly heartbreaking scene that gives the whole piece a powerful emotional resonance. With this, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda is proving himself to be something of a genius of the medium, making the bizarre believable, and rooting even the most outlandish of plots in a world that it is impossible not to care about. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
There are, lurking in message boards and tumblrs across the web, a band of people who call themselves ‘furries’; these are the animation and comic fans that have a penchant for anthropomorphised animals and enjoy dressing up as such. Some go as far as to express attraction to these animals. There are one or two scenes in Mamoru Hosoda‘s dazzling, weird tale of childhood Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki that will have furries round the world going absolutely nuts with delight. Everyone else will just be a little bit uncomfortable. It’s only fair that you are suitably forewarned before watching this film. If the thought of (non graphic) interspecies loving doesn’t put you off – and it really shouldn’t, it’s but a side note – then Wolf Children may just blow you away with it’s heartfelt storytelling.
It is undeniably a little odd, and in the way that only anime can get away with. The plot revolves around a human mother, Hana, who has children with a werewolf, only this wolf doesn’t need a full moon to change and can control himself when in lupine form. Her two children – precocious, individual girl Yuki and reticent boy Ame – have this same power, and when Hana is left to bring them up on her own, she struggles to cope as they grow up and gradually begin to go their separate ways. It’s impossible not to notice that supernatural romance, school going angst and werewolves are all straight out of a thousand different young adult novels. Ever since the roaring success of the Twilight franchise, these plot elements have become ten a penny and the synopsis alone may put off many who are fearing anything like that infamous sparkling vampire franchise. In a way, it almost embraces these story developments, and quite unashamedly, too. Yet something makes this work, and makes it work extraordinarily well.
That something is actually a someone: the man behind it all, Mamoru Hosoda. Having started out ingloriously working on the television series Digimon, Hosoda made a name for himself in the west with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a dizzying, ambitious time travel film shoved into a high school romance. Whilst the sci-fi elements worked far better than the rather histrionic teenage relationships, it was a stunning calling card for the director, who followed it up with the much lauded Summer Wars (a film I’m sadly yet to see). Here he brings a much needed conviction to the ridiculousness of the plot, and sells it as a convincing story where the characters, in spite of being half wolf, feel like real people with lives and feelings that matter.
At the centre of it all is the mother, Hana. Falling hopelessly in love with the mysterious loner in her college, and then being tragically left to look after their children by herself, she emerges as a strong, compassionate woman and one of the great cinematic mothers. In a year when Pixar’s Brave similarly had a maternal relationship at its core, it’s encouraging to see the role of the mother being celebrated in animation. When every other film seems to have daddy issues (the far reaching influence of Spielberg, perhaps), the importance of mums seems to be lost. Yet as Hana races frantically through an uninviting forest, crying out for her son and persisting even through bruises and torrential rain, we see the compassion and beauty of the maternal instinct. She is loving, overprotective and fiercely determined, and, in one glorious scene of gambolling in the snow, full of joy and happiness in her children.
The children themselves, Ame and Yuki, work as perfect foils for Hana. Moving from adorably cute toddlers to pensive and emotional tweens, their progress as they grow apart from each other and their mum is marked by a series of moments that Hosoda directs with great verve and skill. One sequence, as they move through the different grades of school, is told from a distance, taking any detail out of their faces and simply observing as they change classrooms and time marches ever on. It’s an inventive, moving sequence that puts Simba’s magic ageing log to shame. Wolf Children either avoids the clichés of the coming of age story, or uses them in interesting and different ways. As such, it’s impossible not to invest in their lives, and their issues – whether to fit in or remain different – feel relatable even in spite of the lycanthropy.
The animation is closer to standard anime than the distinct look of Studio Ghibli. The characters are taller and leaner, their haircuts shaggier; fringes abound. Hana’s lupine lover, in particular, looks like every manga hero ever. But the world they populate – animated with a combination of CGI and traditional techniques – is wonderfully detailed and breathing with life. The film really takes off when the family move out to the countryside to allow the children to transform at will, and their creaking old house is reminiscent of the great classic My Neighbour Totoro. There is an appreciation of nature here, present in so much of Japanese animation, that gives the film a warm aesthetic and makes for some truly stunning shots. It doesn’t always work (the CGI river is notably jarring against hand drawn snow) but for the most part this is visually impressive work.
No review of Wolf Children should go without mentioning the incredible work done by composer Masakatsu Takagi. His score adds an extra layer of beauty to the film, and when his racing, sprightly compositions are combined with Hosoda’s appreciation of relationships, the film becomes truly unmissable. A strange combination between traditional Japanese singing, Sigur Ros style wailing and complex, uplifting orchestral compositions, the music enhances the film in a way that is so rarely seen these days. It works well outside of the film, too, but when set against a scene of a mother and her two children revelling in the joy of snowfall, it becomes heart stirring stuff.
It would be easy to pick apart and scorn the film, but if you can get over the rather passé and teen-baiting plot, then there is so much to enjoy about Wolf Children. While perhaps it will only appeal to fans of anime, it may just convert one or two less cynical newbies. The relationship between a mother and her children at the core of the film means that it is an immensely moving animation, brought to life by moments of transcendent film making that capture a real sense of joy, and a score that makes these moments soar. Funny, warm and far more emotional than you might expect, this may just be one of the finest animations of the last three years.