Is this Mamoru Hosoda's best film? It is better or worse than Summer Wars? The Boy and the Beast? The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, or even his latest one, Mirai? (I haven't seen that one yet.) I'm sure there are people who'd choose any of those above this one, but what makes Wolf Children special, I think, is how it captures parenthood and children.
Plot is secondary. There isn't a consistent main character. However this film captures something emotional that, for some people, will make it almost unique. It spans thirteen years, telling the story of a single mother and the two children she raises. Films almost never focus on something like that... but this one does. Many people have been blown away by this, including me.
Other people, admittedly, will have heard the film's fans raving about it and ended up being disappointed because it didn't do much for them. That's fine. Personally, though, I don't think I've ever seen another film like it, not just from anime.
The film starts while our heroine, Hana, is still at university. She notices an unusual boy attending one of her lectures and tries to help him. (He isn't actually a member of the university. He just walked in and started attending lectures anyway.) There's a twist, though. He's a wolfman. (This absolutely isn't the traditional werewolf, by the way. He's not dangerous, he can't infect others and he can transform easily and simply whenever he likes. It's just that he's both an animal and a man, which makes life a bit tricky for him.)
Not only is Hana not scared, but she takes him to bed. It's understandable. Wolf sex!
Within a few years, they have two children. For some reason, they name them Yuki (perfectly normal girl's name) and Ame (eh?). In Japanese, those names mean "snow" and "rain" and they're even part of the film's full Japanese title. Something bad will happen to Dad, but life has to go on.
It's a gentle, observational film. It loves standing back and just watching its people. There's lots of dialogue-free storytelling as, for instance, an entire nine-month pregnancy is conveyed through images and actions. (On the other hand, though, the film's also narrated by the oldest daughter. "This is where I was born.")
The film gets funnier when the children get old enough to start careering around and being demanding. It becomes a study of wolf-child behaviour. They can switch from human to lupine in the blink of an eye, especially if cross or excited. Remarkably, the film can make you nod your head vigorously in recognition of all this authentically childish behaviour, which always rings true even though lots of it is specific to wolves. HOWL AT MOON! HOWL AT MOON! Mummy says "sssh!" (Then, again, though, you could argue that there's not much difference between very small children and animals anyway. Chew the furniture? Yeah, my daughter does that. The scene where Yuki and Ame have trashed the house happens regularly at our house too.)
Hana has it tough. You can imagine. That's true of all mothers, especially single ones, but Hana also has to worry about how to keep her children's natures hidden. If one of them drinks cleaning fluid, should she contact the hospital or the vet? The woman's a saint and you can't argue with her heart or her efforts, but it's possible to question the wisdom of her decision-making. Her attempted solutions to her problems are understandable, but they're liable in themselves to attract attention. There are landlords and social services. Eventually she has no choice but to quit the city entirely and move out into an environment better suited for two growing wolves. That's understandable and in many ways the right choice, but what are her long-term plans for money? Even more alarming is her reaction to Ame's third-act decisions, in which she lets her instincts as a mother overwhelm her rational thinking. "I have to protect him!" (Yeah, she doesn't get it.)
There are interesting things to be said of all the characters, though, including the short-lived father. (He's still with them afterwards in spirit, though, and Hana will glimpse him more than once in a realm of the mind.) We first met him trying to steal a university education, but on become a father he abandons all that and finds a menial job. He's supporting his family. He's lovely, actually.
The film has multiple perspectives. The main character's theoretically Hana. The film starts and ends at the logical places for her story, not her children's, which to be honest makes the ending feel a little incomplete. There are still things that haven't been said or explored... but hopefully they'll be part of Yuki and Ame's stories in the future.
We share Hana's viewpoint. It's as if we're raising the children too. However we also have future-Yuki's narration, plus the children's choices about their lives and about the beings they want to be. Both wolf-children are going to make decisions that might not look very comfortable to all audiences, discarding part of themselves and either embracing conformity or abandoning it and social norms.
If you're going to judge the film as a metaphor, though, you might conclude that it fails. The obvious real-world comparison would be to compare Yuki and Ame with other children of mixed heritage, e.g. half-Japanese. However I don't think that holds, because being half-wolf is different from being, say, half-French. These children are sometimes, literally, animals. That said, though, in Hana's position, personally I'd have been encouraging the children to be a bit less binary about it. You don't have to be absolutist about your choices. Try to learn about both!
This film has gone on my very short list of "must show to people". It's charming and heartwarming, but also showing us the darker sides of being a parent and/or growing up. (Hana doesn't get a friendly welcome on moving out to the country, for instance, although much, much worse than that has been faced by Japanese people trying to do the same in real life.) The film looks serene at first glance, but it's showing a messy process (growing up) and some likeable people who aren't finding any of it easy. If you have young children, this film will speak to you.