Welcome back for a more (hopefully) coherent part of the review!
A rash of spoilers from this point on, folks!
The narrator of the story is Yuki, daughter of Human and Shapeshifting Wolf. I can see why the filmmakers chose her to be the narrator since her father dies not long after she’s born and her brother choses to become a wolf permanently near the end of the film, but part of me wonders why they didn’t choose Hana. After all, the story begins with Hana in college at the age of nineteen, before she’s even had kids. Yuki tells the story as if it’s information her mother’s told her over the years, but there’s a problem with that logic: the movie takes us through Hana’s whole courtship with Shapeshifting Wolf Guy, their night of bestial passion, and a whole bunch of bureaucratic, farming, and social services stuff that I doubt Hana ever explained to her eleven-year-old daughter. I mean, you could call creative license on this – Titanic is told by Old Rose, but there are scenes in that movie she was absolutely 100% not present for – but I just wonder why, when Hana was there for all the stuff in the movie except the scenes with the kids at school, Hana wasn’t made the narrator. Or why there is one at all.
So I thought about it. Why have a narrator in a movie?
In the case of A Christmas Story, the narrator is an adult looking back on his childhood, so we get an extra layer of hindsight we wouldn’t have gotten had the film just carried on as is with the child actors. Also on a purely because-we-can’t-piss-off-the-censors point, in the scene where Ralphie says “fudge” in slow motion, we wouldn’t know he actually said “fuck” without the narrator to tell us he did. I mean, you could guess, but the still-horrified voice of Adult Ralphie explaining the unthinkable thing he’d done kind of Makes that scene for me, personally. Also! I think having Adult Ralphie narrate A Christmas Story allows for more realistic-acting kids, because Young Ralphie has a lot of scenes where he’s, y’know, just being a kid. Sulking and glaring and crying, and Adult Ralphie talking over him and explaining his thought processes at the time is a big help in keeping the audience’s attention while Young Ralphie communicates in pouts and scowls and sniffles.
So, how about Wolf Children? I’d say that only some of Yuki’s narration is necessary. For example, there’s a dialogue-less scene where pregnant Hana walks into a hospital, hesitates, and then backs away and leaves, and you can guess from context that she’s thinking, “I’m pregnant with the baby of a wolf shapeshifter. This…will go badly.” However, barely a minute later, Narrator Yuki chimes in to tell us that Hana gave birth in their tiny apartment without anyone’s help because she was worried about what the baby would look like. …And then the movie then cuts to obviously-post-childbirth-doing Hana red-faced and exhausted with newborn Yuki and Shapeshifer Wolf Guy beside her.
However, that’s a very small nitpick, and now I’m going to balance it out with some well-deserved praise: with a few very, very small exceptions like the narration factor (and that’s really just personal preference), Wolf Children balances beautifully on the wire between straightforward and subtle.
Japanese movies, I’ve noticed, can be very, very good at not treating their audience like morons. Not all movies are, of course, because bad movies are forever, but the good ones are very good at this. For example! Try this fun experiment: watch a Ghibli movie in the original Japanese with English subtitles, then watch the English dub. Yes, I’m one of Those People who doesn’t like watching dubbed Japanese things. But don’t get me wrong, some dubs are extremely well-done considering the limitations. The problem is, there’s a vast gap between a movie whose dialogue was written specifically for it and a movie whose dialogue is written according to the laws of Timing and Loosely Translating a Whole Other Language in a Way That Isn’t Very Weird-Sounding and Matches the Character’s mouth’s talking shapes. So my issue isn’t with the dubbed voice acting or scriptwriting – that shit’s hard.
Nah. Instead, I take issue with dubbed movies that treat audiences like idiots who need handholding through the plots of very simple movies.
Here’s what you might notice from that Ghibli experiment. Halfway into the movie「千と千尋の神隠し」 (Spirited Away), Chihiro notices a dragon sailing like a silver ribbon through the sky. In the original, Chihiro watches the dragon silently, pensive, and the scene ends. It’s not until later, when the dragon is fatally wounded after an attack from witch Yubaba, that Chihiro realizes the dragon is in fact her friend Haku who’s been helping her find her way through this world. The reveal is – for those deeply-attached-to-fictional-situations folks like me – heart-wrenching because Chihiro’s already kind to the injured dragon and then desperate to save him when she realizes who he really is. Byyy comparison, the English dubbed version. In this version, as the dragon is flying away, Chihiro says, “Haku?” for no reason. She has zero reasons to make that connection, unless you want to make the argument that her heart recognized him or something, but even if that’s so, then that lessens the impact of the moment that happens later when she remembers him as the river spirit who saved her from drowning when she was much younger and –
…Why am I going into Ghibli? Oh, right, wolves!
Welcome back for a more (hopefully) coherent part of the review! she said. Hopefully indeed, past self.
So! Good narrative things!
The way Wolf Children handles its thirteen-year time span is incredible. It’s tightly-woven and I’d even say edited pretty close to perfection. Much of Hana’s courtship with Shapeshifting Wolf Guy (he’s a human for most of it) is silent, literally shown instead of told. And much like the opening love story in Up, Hana’s relationship with her Wolf Guy is made all the stronger through the lack of dialogue.
In the first thirty minutes, the excellence of the film’s editing is on full display. In those first thirty minutes the following happens: Hana meets Mysterious Broody Man at her university, falls in love, has two wolf babies, loses her love, struggles with raising her two children alone in the city, decides to move to the mountains where it’s more secluded and free of prying eyes.
BAM. In thirty minutes, about five years have passed and it all feels like it’s smoothly carried out.
It makes the tiny editor in my heart weep rainbow rivers of rapture.
What follows is my favorite part of the entire two-hour movie: Hana fixing up a dilapidated house in the mountains, planting a garden, and befriending a cranky old man who becomes her reluctant mentor. The part of me obsessed with Harvest Moon could play this on loop for hours and remain completely blissed out.
I love Hana’s gradual acceptance into the local population, and how she refuses to give up or stop smiling for the sake of her kids and herself. I love the unbridled joy in so many scenes, and I love that even though the movie dips into dark areas, it never skulks around in them for very long. There’s a strong note of hope throughout the movie that makes it that much stronger when it finishes.
Aaand I’ll go into the story part of the review tomorrow night! G’night!