Mamoru Hosoda is a leading contender to succeed Hayao Miyazaki for the title of anime master of masters — the one everyone in the industry, Japanese or foreign, looks up to and steals from.
The Miyazaki influence on Hosoda’s own work seems obvious, from his cute-but-realistic style to his concern with pressing social issues and the messy emotions of actual human beings. Hosoda, in fact, once worked for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli on a project that became 2004’s “Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)” before Miyazaki decided to take over as director.
At the same time, Hosoda has gone his own non-Miyazaki way. In such films as 2006’s “Toki wo Kakeru Shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time),” 2009’s “Sama Wozu (Summer Wars)” and his new “Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki (Wolf Children)” he has integrated fantastic elements into otherwise everyday settings rather than, Miyazaki-like, create his own fantastic worlds in which universal dramas play out. In “Summer Wars,” his masterpiece to date, the rogue computer program that brings the digitally dependent modern world to a screeching halt may be a social nightmare, but it is within the realm of possibility.
Based on an original story by Hosoda, “Wolf Children” resembles folktales about shape-shifting entities who can take both animal and human form, though his title wolf children have no magical powers. Instead they are offspring resulting from a romance between 19-year-old college girl Hana (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) and a lean, hungry-looking fellow student (Takao Osawa) who turns out to a wolf in human guise.
Also, rather than set out for fairy-tale adventures following their father’s untimely death, the children grow from toddlerhood to teendom in the world as it is, supported by their hard-working mother. The story revolves around the parent-child relationship, in the manner of the many Japanese movies about single moms taking their offspring to start new lives in the boonies — including a recent anime, “Momo e no Tegami (A Letter to Momo),” by another Miyazaki heir apparent, Hiroyuki Okiura.
Expecting new imaginative leaps from Hosoda, I found his venture into humanistic drama, with the children growing into gender roles dictated by society or their genetic inheritance, on the conventional and predictable side. At the same time, he again delivers moments of sheer exhilaration and delight, as well as making acute observations on everything from the hardships of rural life to the exhaustion of early motherhood.
The story begins with Hana falling for her wolfman, with his air of loneliness and seriousness, at first sight. She at first pursues him, but after he responds to her advances, she soon switches roles to the tune of Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him.” Their first child, a girl born on a snowy day, is called Yuki (Snow), while their second, a boy born on a wet day, is dubbed Ame (Rain). Both are able to change from wolf to human and back again at will, though Yuki grows to be a rambunctious tomboy, while timid Ame clings to Mom’s apron strings.
After their father suddenly dies, Hana realizes that her two metamorphosing babies are too hard to control in the city, with its omnipresent prying eyes. She moves with them to a tumbledown farmhouse in a remote corner of the countryside and settles down to what she hopes will be an undisturbed existence, but her savings soon disappear and her fumbling attempts to grow vegetables fail. Luckily she is rescued by a cranky but kindly old farmer (Bunta Sugawara) and other sympathetic locals.
As Yuki grows from pint-sized hellion (voiced by Momoka Ono) to school-age girl (Haru Kuroki), she decides she wants a more normal life. With Hana’s approval, she enrolls in the neighborhood elementary school and begins acting like an average human girl to better blend in with her new friends. Then, as a fourth-grader, Yuki undergoes another rite of passage: her first big crush, its object being a fierce-eyed transfer student (Takuma Hiraoka) who temperamentally resembles her wolfish dad.
Little Ame (Amon Kabe) reluctantly follows his sister’s lead, but he is interested less in school than the wilds beyond the classroom window. Finally, on the brink of adolescence, a more confident and rebellious Ame (Yukito Nishi) encounters an elderly fox who instructs him in the ways of his kind.
These two coming-of-age stories may each captivate one sex while boring the other. It’s as if Hosoda were appealing to “Jane Eyre” fans in one scene, “Call of the Wild” fans in the next.
As a repeat reader of both classic novels, I didn’t mind the switches in gender focus so much as the well-worn, stereotypical rails on which the stories ran. They may be true to real life here, in which children of international (if not inter-species) unions are so often encouraged to choose one heritage over the other, but next time out, I hope Hosoda mixes it up more — and tells producers intent on making him the next “all quadrants” hit-maker to take a hike.