I wish I had more interesting things to say about Wolf Children. I wish I could dedicate a spiraling essay to unpacking its secrets… but that’s not really the kind of movie it is. The film doesn’t hide anything – it’s a movie about mothers and their children, about struggling and making it through, about time and patience and joy and grief. None of these themes truly dominate the film, because the film is about the lives of a few people, and life has a lot of themes. But they work beautifully in concert, garnishing the sturdy core of a quietly perfect story.
“Quietly perfect” isn’t just a good way to describe Wolf Children’s overall narrative; it also applies to the style of storytelling. If you haven’t seen the movie, the story is very simple to explain – it’s about Hana, a young woman who falls in love with a man who turns out to also be a wolf. They have two children, Ame and Yuki, and then the man dies, leaving Hana to raise two children who aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to be. There’s no third-act villain to overcome, and virtually no surprising turns to the narrative in general; it’s really just about those two kids growing up and their mother trying to care for them, played out one beautiful little slice-of-life scene at a time.
Because the narrative is so simple, even to the point where its slight conflicts conform to classic expectations (Hana moves her children to the country, has trouble growing her own food, and is eventually aided by a grumpy old man with a heart of gold), much of the film’s running time is purely dedicated to placing you in the lives of these characters, relating to Hana and her children across both single poignant scenes and beautiful montage. Many extended sequences here have no words at all – Hana’s life with her lover is a procession of small gifts and shared meals, while Ame and Yuki’s very different experiences in school are evoked through a shifting peek into their classroom windows year after year. The death of the children’s father is a slow, rain-streaked shot of the truck taking his body away, and the joy of finally embracing life in the country is a tumbling run through new-fallen snow. Constant distant shots evoke a grand sense of space to ground emotions like awe or grief, and seasons change at the pace of formative life events, not beats in an urgent plot. Wolf Children is exactly the style of “slice of life” I gravitate towards – a story that embraces both the joy and pain of everyday living, hiding nothing and celebrating everything.
There are thematic refrains, of course. One line, where Hana explains the story behind her name, is so strong I have to quote it entirely: “My dad wanted me to be a child who was always smiling, like the flowers. Even when things got hard, to just keep smiling, even if the smile became forced. Because then I could overcome most things.” Hana’s smile does end up becoming forced in this story, as money gets tight and help doesn’t come and raising children just keeps finding new ways to surprise her. Sometimes her smile is tears and relief, like when she learns a sickness of Yuki’s will pass. Sometimes it’s earnest strength, a commitment to herself to overcome some new challenge. And sometimes it’s heartbreaking, the only thing she can offer her children. When the family’s crops die for a second time, Yuki asks her mother what they’re going to do now, and Hana has no answer. It’s a moment that strikes in the gut – the feeling that your child knows you’re struggling, and is worried for your sake. You’re supposed to be their beacon of shelter, and you’ve failed them, and now the world is less bright for it. And Hana doesn’t have the solution then, but she smiles, and she says they’re going to try again. You smile because you have to, because you need to be strong even when you’re not strong, because it’s all you have.
Identity also stakes some thematic ground, in a variety of ways. The fact that Hana’s children are sometimes wolves isn’t just there to make life difficult for her – it speaks to adolescence, to the distance between people, and to the ways we find beauty even in the harshest things. When Hana learns of her lover’s secret, she has two equally important responses – “the world is full of things I don’t know” and “I’m not afraid, because it’s you.” The first line speaks to the general scale of misunderstanding that informs the whole of the film; the second challenges that distance on the personal level, a reciprocation of her lover embracing the smile that her relatives found strange and inappropriate. But you can never wholly understand another person – try as she might, there’s always a distance for Hana between herself and the full internal lives of those around her. When she says goodbye to her lover in a dream, it’s the man who stares at her across a field – but it’s the wolf who turns to leave.
Hana struggles across the film’s middle stretch to understand the harsh life of the country, but the film emphasizes the truth that there are some things we can’t know. The wolf is tied both to the great wilderness outside and to the wilderness inside us; there are things we will never understand about each other, and even things we can’t understand about ourselves. Panoramic shots of Hana or her children stranded as tiny figures between great, forbidding mountains emphasize the contradiction of understanding on both the external and internal levels; the wilderness of being is harsh and unknowable even as it is grand and breathtaking. Hana struggles to connect with Ame’s desires, and Yuki rallies against parts of herself, but they eventually have to come to an acceptance of this endless unknown, this gap that can’t be closed. We won’t always understand the choices our children make, though we must support them as we can; we won’t always make sense of our own feelings, but we must navigate in spite of that. Misunderstanding isn’t just a part of growing up, though the wolf side makes a handy metaphor there too – it’s a fact of life, something we come to accept and even love.
And there’s an unconditional beauty in the wilderness, a fact that Wolf Children comes perhaps closer to on-the-nose theming with than anything else. Hana ends up working for a conservation society, and sequences of Ame embracing the wild feel more unconditionally joyful than almost anything in the film. The fact that there are parts of Ame Hana will never understand is illustrated in the starkest possible terms, when she chases after him into the woods and runs across a bear in his domain. Yuki’s acceptance of her own difference is gentler; from a wild and “unfeminine” child, she grows to conform and even flourish in human society, before eventually meeting a boy who accepts all of her. Even the family’s home represents the beauty hidden by a harsh surface; though it initially appears tumble-down and threatening, Hana’s scrubbing of its walls reveals gilded leaves in windows, shining stones under dust. In their memories, in their world, in their interior selves, both the harsh and lovely are precious and worth holding close.
Which leads to the film’s final thread – the fleeting nature of all things. Hana consistently regrets not making the most of her time with her lover, and not asking him more things that might help their children. When Ame finally moves into his own world, she cries “I still haven’t been able to do anything for you!” And in the end, all the time the family spent together feels “like it was over in a moment, a fairy tale.” Wolf Children tells a story of lives that are bare and difficult, but also full of joy, and all these moments ultimately feel precious even for their brevity. The film creates its own beautiful little world, and it hurts to let these people go. Looking back, I’m left just with the strength Hana showed, that smile promising everything was worth it in the end. I’m smiling, but there are tears in my eyes.
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