One day at college, Hana notices a handsome young man sitting on his own. When she tries to approach him, it turns out he's not a registered student but is just sitting in on the lectures when he's not working as a delivery man. They become friends, then, as they grow closer, he reveals a remarkable secret - he is actually a wolf-man. Already in love, Hana accepts his strange dual nature, and they have two children together, Yuki and Ame. Unfortunately, while the kids are just infants, the wolf-man is abruptly torn from their lives, leaving Hana to raise the children - who are sometimes cubs - on her own.
Any new film from Mamoru Hosoda comes with a serious weight of expectation. This is the director behind The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, two of the most inspired anime features of the last ten years. Fortunately, Wolf Children completes the hat trick. Like Summer Wars, it deals with the importance of family, but rather than the extended clan of Summer Wars, Wolf Children concerns a much smaller unit - at the core of the story are just three characters - so it feels considerably more intimate. Hosoda takes a fantasy set up about a woman falling in love with a wolf-man and bearing his children, and keeps the story so emotionally grounded that the characters become believable despite their magical circumstances. In some respects, Hana is a very ordinary woman, worrying about her children and trying to provide for them in the absence of their father. The fact they are part wolf only makes her job that much harder. In one scene, when Yuki is ill, Hana is torn between taking her to the hospital and taking her to the vet, neatly encapsulating the predicament of raising her unusual offspring. As toddlers, Ame and Yuki slip effortlessly between their human and hybrid-wolf form, which prompts Hana to move from the city where they were born out to a remote farmhouse in the countryside in the hopes of keeping them hidden from prying eyes. There her biggest challenge is learning how to cultivate the farmland so she can grow their own food, which might seem mundane compared to falling in love with a wolf-man, but it shows how Hosoda never lets the supernatural elements overpower the story of a single mother struggling to get by.
The wolf children are polar opposites. Yuki is boisterous, loud and tireless where Ame is timid, sickly and clingy. This does mean that the brother is much harder to like as a character, as he has none of his sister's exuberant charm and grows from being needy to sullen. There is a masterfully constructed montage that reveals how different their experiences are when they both start school. Hana's reluctance to let the children attend school at all raises one of the story's central concerns - how parents have to learn to let go of their offspring, sooner or later.
As a storyteller, Hosoda excels at avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama. When tragedy strikes, he lets the scene play out without the need for a heavy handed soundtrack - one particularly moving scene is accompanied only by the sound of falling rain. When there is music, the score by Masakatsu Takagi makes it clear that despite the presence of a wolf-man, this is not going to be any sort of horror story. The music is often light and playful, or sweeping and romantic rather than menacing or tense. The animation is beautiful, with a soft, almost pastel colour palette and a hand drawn style where all the straight lines are imperfect, making them just a little gentle. As infants, when Yuki and Ame change into their wolf form, there is a sense of playfulness about their puppy-like appearance and it is only as they grow closer to adolescence that their wolf natures start to become more assertively non-human. They face many of the trials of children everywhere, even as they follow separate paths. Yuki deals with the desire to fit in and to make friends as well as coping with the attention of boys, including the strong-willed Souhei who gets off to a bad start with Yuki by telling her she smells like a dog. Ame, on the other hand, is the outsider searching for a male role model to give some direction to his life. He hits the withdrawn, moody teenager phase long before actually reaching his teens. He never becomes as emotionally engaging as his sister, but his journey is still a compelling one.
The family trio are joined by a supporting cast once they move to the countryside, which opens up their world a little wider. Some characters only appear long enough to influence the direction of the story. Notably, the grumpy old farmer Nirasaki disappears from the narrative once he has served his purpose in the plot. It would have been nice if Hosoda could have found a way to weave him into the rest of the tale rather than dropping him out once that story arc was complete.
Wolf Children lacks the thrilling excitement of Summer Wars, with its virtual reality battles and a hostile computer programme on the rampage, but it works beautifully as an unconventional family drama. The pace is slower and Hosoda's decision to use Yuki as narrator for the story feels unnecessary as the events on screen usually need no further explanation or commentary, but this is a touching story beautifully told.