If “Twilight” were an international anime sensation, then “Wolf Children” would be the alternate history Team Jacob fans had been demanding all along. Those displeased that Bella had a vampire demon baby can finally see how things might have gone had she chosen her half-wolf suitor instead, as anime helmer Mamoru Hosoda tenderly imagines the complications that follow when an ordinary girl takes a lupine lover. Though already a success in its home country, where the toon just won the Japan Academy’s animated feature award, this elegantly understated Funimation release will likely prove too weird for most American auds.
In what amounts to the exceptional “ever after” to a fantastical fairy-tale romance, “Wolf Children” opens with the shy courtship between Hana and a mysterious wolfman, Ookami, the last in a line of shape-shifting creatures descended from Japan’s now-extinct gray wolf species — the iconic equivalent of an American bald eagle, or, in light of the unconventional consummation that follows, the legend of Leda and the swan.
The couple’s too-brief time together results in two kids, Yuki and Ame, whom Hana chooses to deliver at home, nervous that they may be born as wolves. With gentle humor, Hosoda and co-writer Satoko Okudera (also a collaborator on “Summer Wars” and “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”) suggest the myriad ways the children’s upbringing differs from their peers. When they fall sick, for example, Hana never knows whether to take them to an animal hospital or a human one.
Instead of shopping, Ookami goes out hunting in the city. And then one day, he doesn’t come home. After seeing a street crew removing a wolf’s corpse from the sewer, Hana decides to move to the mountains, where Ookami’s kind once lived. Hosoda worked at Studio Ghibli for a time, and this segment of the film recalls Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro,” as young Yuki and Ame adjust to rural life — but instead of discovering magic in the world around them, they find it within, learning how to transform back and forth between wolf and human form in a series of playful sequences.
Embracing the patient, poetic style of such Japanese masters as Ozu and Mizoguchi, Hosoda sees no need for the manic energy and manufactured conflict of other recent toons. Instead of inventing a villain, the story sagely focuses on the challenge at hand — namely, how two kids endangered by their own identities find their place in the world. While Yuki embraces her human side, insisting on going to school and making friends, Ame responds to the call of the wild.
Stylistically, “Wolf Children” is the least showy of Hosoda’s features, frequently observing things from a distance or lingering on small details, as a live-action art film might. With the exception of a couple CG-enhanced scenes, this elegant project lovingly upholds Japan’s hand-drawn tradition, perfectly suited to the kids’ in-between states, as pointy ears and triangle noses emerge on their Bambi-eyed faces.
(Animated – Japan)
Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, March 20, 2013. (In New York Intl. Children’s Film Festival.) Running time: 117 MIN.
A Toho (Japan), Funimation Entertainment (U.S.) release of an NTV, Studio Chizu, Madhouse, Kadokawa Shoten, VAP, D.N. Dream Partners, YTV, Toho, Dentsu, Digital Frontier, STV, MMT, SDT, CTV, HTV, FBS production. Produced by Yuichiro Saito, Takuya Ito, Takashi Watanabe.
Voices: Aoi Miyazaki, Takao Osawa, Haru Kuroki, Yukito Nishii, Momoka Oono, Amon Kabe, Takuma Hiraoka, Megumi Hayashibara, Tadashi Nakamura, Tamio Ohki, Tomie Kataoka, Shota Sometani, Mitsuki Tanimura, Kumiko Aso, Bunta Sugawara.