May 21, 2013

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

Mamoru Hosoda was born on September 19, 1967 in Toyoma Prefecture, Japan. His father worked for the railroads, while he spent much of his time indoors drawing. He recalled to New People Travel that, “When it rains and snows a lot you don’t go outside, bekins07_MamoruHosoda-artbonaturally. You read books, become introverted, and you face yourself.” He graduated from the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting. His first job was at Toei Animation, where he made what he calls “minimum wage”, but learned his craft from veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. It was there he made his first feature, Digimon: The Movie (2000), adapted from the popular TV show and “virtual pet” toy. The following year he was tapped by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but departed the project after a few months. Mark Schilling reported that Hosoda failed  “to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses”. It was the first time an outsider to Ghibli was tapped to produce one of their films, and Hosoda did not fit their mold. Eventually Miyazaki would come out of retirement to direct it himself. Hosoda says he didn’t get along with the staff, but that he learned a valuable lesson:

When I worked at Toei, I had a teen state of mind: I wanted to direct complicated things, really dark. I thought to deliver a message I had to make tortured works. But in fact, while working on Howl’s…, I’ve realized being simple and clear was more satisfying.

His career seems to be a series of paring downs and simplifications. From Toei he would go to Madhouse animation, where he worked from 2005 – 2011. He chipped in on long-running film series One Piece before he finally wrested creative control of a project from start to finish. Instead of the castles in the sky of Miyazaki, Hosoda was inspired by the views outside his door. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), although a loose sequel to a 1967 novel, takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from his Madhouse studios. Summer Wars was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano, and became fascinated by their deep family ties and that it “always has blue skies”, so different from his extreme weather home of Toyoma.


He would return home for Wolf Children, setting the feature in the rural areas of Toyoma, and using its varieties of precipitation as an elegant visual metaphor. Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her Wolf Man husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


Hosoda left Madhouse to make Wolf Children, the first film his own Studio Chizu (meaning “Map”). While set in his hometown of Toyoma, he got the idea for the film in the Kichioji district of Tokyo. he told New People Travel that:

There is a Starbucks by the park with a terrace that allows me to smoke, so I go there often. One time I was sitting there gazing at the people walking to the park. There were certainly many people with children and dogs… and I came up with that idea while watching the kids and dogs, who were about the same height, coming and going, crisscrossing in front of my eyes. That is how it happened.”He returned to his home of Toyoma to tell the story of single mother Hana and her two werewolf children, Ame and Yuki.

It is this grounding in observable fact that makes Wolf Children so powerfully moving. The supernatural is incidental to Hosoda, a delivery system for the brute facts of life. Whether it’s Hana nodding off at the dinner table from overwork or Ame asking to be “comforted again” after one his numerous frights, the film is lined with the sympathetic details of raising children (Hosoda’s first child was born soon after the film was completed). This ability to simplify and focus on behavior instead of grand mythical back stories is what makes Wolf Children work so well, rich in sentiment without being sentimental.

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