Carole & Tuesday

“When it comes to researching the human brain in order to control emotions using AI, music and politics are very much alike.”
— Jerry Egan

It’s been fifty years since humans colonized Mars. Cities akin to Tokyo and New York are populated with an array of immigrants from Earth, and natives recently born there. Technology crowds every facet of life—from streets, to homes where an android or robot pet is commonplace. Thanks to artificial intelligence, people don’t have to put as much effort into working, thinking, or even creating anymore. “99% of modern hits are produced by AI,” a record producer tells an up-and-coming idol. Doing anything without a technological assist is an oddity.

There are still people who prefer doing things the old-fashioned human way. Tuesday Simmons, a 17-year old from the lowkey Hersell City, dreams of becoming a musician. Fed up with the sheltered life under her strict mother, politician Valerie Simmons, she runs away from home with just a suitcase and Gibson guitar in tow. She arrives on the bustling streets of Alba City, and her suitcase is immediately stolen (never turn your back on your stuff in a big city).

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On a sunset lit bridge—lost, penniless, and alone—Tuesday encounters Carole Stanley, a street musician who appears to be the same age as her. Carole’s upbringing wasn’t as cozy as Tuesday’s. A refugee from Earth, she grew up in an orphanage, and struggles with odd jobs as a young adult. Carole’s melancholic lyrics resonate with Tuesday in her moment of desperation. The two form an instant camaraderie as if by fate, and Carole takes her in.

In a parallel story, Angela Carpenter, a 16 year old with excellent hair, already has a career as a model and actor. At the behest of Dahlia, her mother and manager, she works with a misanthropic technologist named Mr. Tao to start a music career. Mr. Tao prefers working with technology over people. His algorithmic approach to producing music is juxtaposed with Carole and Tuesday’s from-the-heart approach. At this point, it’s unclear if Angela’s new path is something that she wants, or if she’s doing it for her mother’s sake. Regardless, she doesn’t take kindly to competition, and she has a strong desire to be the best in everything she pursues.

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The first 12 episodes, generally, had a casual slice of life vibe. It was so casual in fact that I worried if the story could stay fresh for the 24 episodes that were listed. On the other hand, I was hoping that needless drama wouldn’t be interjected to justify the runtime. Mercifully, with the exception of a few brief arcs (I’m looking at you Cybelle), the story neither dragged nor irritated me for too long. Strong worldbuilding, unexpected predicaments, thought provoking ideas, and bits of backstory kept each episode feeling new.

After a string of light-hearted, and often hilarious, performances and competitions, the story took an unexpectedly dark and political turn, touching on real world issues like convenience verses privacy, and the morality of using technology to read and influence people. The same technology that’s used to produce hit music is being used by politicians to improve their poll numbers. Data is collected from facial and sentiment analysis to tailor messages that will resonate with people. This is an interesting prospect because something like this will likely happen, and is already happening to a less advanced degree today.

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Valerie’s presidential election, advised by the perpetually shady looking Jerry Egan, opens a discussion on another real world issue, the immigration debate. One side feels that a country (or planet) has a moral obligation to help refugees, and the other side feels that unfettered immigration poses a security and economic threat; Valerie sides with the latter.

There was also commentary on the struggle for human relevance as technology renders us irrelevant, and how neither pursuing our personal ambitions nor attaining societal acceptance can guarantee happiness. It was surprising to see such weighty topics in what I’d expected would just be a cute music anime. Shinichiro Watanabe (previously Cowboy Bebop) clearly had a lot that he wanted to say.

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The animation by BONES studio shined. The art had a 90s aesthetic with a modern digital polish. Collectively, the cast had an extensive wardrobe, and the character designs were attractively detailed with highlights, shadows, and full lips. It would’ve been cool if those lips were always synced to the singing, but doing this likely would’ve exceeded their, presumably, already large budget.

The vinyl record eye-catches, printed with song titles that mirrored the theme of the episode, were a nice touch. Pop music isn’t a genre that I’m intimately familiar with, so I can’t give an unbiased assessment of the soundtrack itself. Regardless, I did love a few of the songs, especially the first ED. It was a delightful bop that I never skipped.

There were notable and instantly recognizable seiyuu surprises like Hiroshi Kamiya (previously Koyomi Araragi) as Tao, and Megumi Hayashibara (previously Faye Valentine) as Flora. Carole (voiced by Miyuri Shimabukuro) and Tuesday (voiced by Kana Ichinose) were voiced by actors with relatively short filmographies, but both filled their roles more than adequately.

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I’ve been watching anime on-and-off for about 24 years (wow, I didn’t realize it was that long until I did the math). In that time, I’ve become less critical of the medium. If I’d seen Carole & Tuesday when I was a 20 year old film elitist, I’d likely rip apart how little friction the leads had to endure (despite enduring enough), how abruptly some turning points happened, and how briskly the last few episodes wrapped up the story—which are all valid criticisms. Today, at the ripe old age of 38, I’ve become a “filthy casual” in the way I watch things. While maybe not all of my expectations were met, I was more than satisfied by what was, for me, an uplifting and inspired experience.

Thank you, Shinichiro Watanabe.

Innocence / Evolution

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Innocence is a coming-of-age mystery film by writer-director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. At an unsettling all-girls boarding school, a new girl, Iris, is born from a coffin that arrives. Each girl has a distinctly colored hair ribbon that’s passed down to the next youngest in line. Since Iris is now the youngest occupant, she receives the red ribbon. The eldest, Bianca, receives a special purple ribbon from someone who’s no longer there. Iris grows fond of Bianca, and has a lot of questions: Will they receive visitors? Why can’t they leave? Where does Bianca go at night? What’s beyond the wall that surrounds the grounds? Where are they?

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Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s follow-up film, Evolution, also has an opening scene where we see someone, through their eyes, submerged in water. Like Innocence, the story is told primarily from the perspective of children, and the adults are suspiciously aloof. While out swimming against his mother’s wishes, Nicolas finds the body of a dead boy. He reports this to his mother, and she tells him that he didn’t see what he saw. At home, she feeds him an ugly green food, and gives him a strange medicine to drink each night. Nicolas’ life parallels the lives of the other boys in a lonely seaside town.

Evolution wasn’t as ambiguous as Innocence, but both films shared a Lynch-ian creepiness with Malick-ian montages through nature. If I had to guess, Innocence is about womanhood, and Evolution is about parenthood.

Love in Hell

Love in Hell is a timeless story of love, regret, and BDSM.

Rintaro Senkawa, a 27-year old NEET, accidentally dies after a night of excessive drinking. He wakes up buck naked in Hell, and is greeted by a petite devil girl named Koyori. She wears a leather bralette with matching short-shorts, and totes a huge spiked bat. Rintaro is her first assignment, and she is to guide him through this new world and experience. Being a rookie, many things are new for her as well.

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In Hell, the predicaments that Rintaro encounters center on trying to learn how to navigate the economy there. This is necessary to earn money and virtue for entry into Heaven. There are amusing real-life parallels to how people pursue good deeds to atone for their wrongs, providing an accessibility and means to care about what happens to the lead characters. Naturally, being an ecchi, there’s also plenty of fanservice. There are the obligatory boob and butt shots, and bits of nudity here and there, but Love in Hell isn’t wholly dependent on appealing to our lower brains.

The drama isn’t laid on too thick, or prolonged more than necessary. Aside from some brief scenes with child abuse, the tone is mostly lighthearted. If I had to nitpick something, which is truly a nitpick because it barely qualifies as important, is that the romance may have evolved (or devolved) a bit quickly, but not quite to the point of feeling artificial. Besides, there may have been a reason for this pacing, which I won’t divulge here because it may be a spoiler.

Love in Hell marks a strong debut for artist and writer Suzumaru Reiji. It distinguishes itself from the standard work of this type with a rounded narrative, likable characters, and consistently sharp artwork with some impressively detailed backgrounds, and comically violent vignettes. At only 18 chapters/3 volumes, this is the kind of manga that you can easily pick up, chill and laugh with, and re-read when you need something to lighten your mood. I ended up buying the 488-page omnibus release from Seven Seas Entertainment. Sadly, I don’t see this manga mentioned much. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a fun and quick read.

Goodbye Otaku Bait

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Yesterday marks the end of my interest in a lot of anime because Into The Spider-Verse swung through my apartment that morning and seized it. After seeing such an intricate and assertive work, dressed by a colorful array of characters, styles, and backdrops, I can’t go back to watching tame manga ads that are confined to ethnically uniform classrooms.

Haruka and the Magic Mirror

Haruka and the Magic Mirror is a 3D computer animated movie based on a Japanese legend of a trickster fox who collects people’s forgotten belongings. When Haruka, the plucky 16-year old protagonist, loses a precious mirror that her mother gave her as a child, her search for it leads to Oblivion Island, a hidden world full of magic yielding creatures and gorgeous scenery porn.

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In this hidden world, Haruka meets Teo, a rabbit-like youngster who’s part of a large group assigned with the task of retrieving items from the human world. Teo woefully under-performs, and is mocked and bullied by his peers for his lack of prowess. Everyone here is at the service of a dictator known as the Baron, a burly and effeminate character who lives in a flamboyant airship that hovers over Oblivion Island. The Baron has an invested interest in collecting mirrors—particularly the fine one Haruka possessed—as they’re said to embody great powers.

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There are a lot of strong feelings about the use of computer animation in anime. Some people hate 3D with the passion of a thousand suns, while others don’t care, or may not even notice how it differs from traditional mediums. Typically, hand drawn animation reflects the personal and inexact touch of a human artist, while computer animation combines art with technology to potentially create detailed and photorealistic imagery. In recent years, toon-shaders, a rendering method that strips down lighting details to emulate a 2D look, have gained popularity.

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For Haruka and the Magic Mirror, Production I.G.—under the supervision of writer, director, and video game developer Satou Shinsuke—went for a more complete 3D look. The characters are fully shaded with soft shadows and indirect lighting, and their mouth movements are synced to the syllables of the Japanese voice acting. The environments and vehicles of Teo’s world are an assemblage of the countless items taken from the human world, creating a really cool patchwork aesthetic. The backgrounds have a unique quality to them as well, and appear to have utilized a mix of hand painted and 3D techniques.

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Haruka and the Magic Mirror is a family movie with a simple story and characters that are fitting for its target audience. There are some dark moments that could be troubling for a pretween, but there’s no strong sexual or violent content. The finale went a little overkill on the action; this wasn’t necessarily an issue for me personally as I kind of enjoyed the mess. On the whole, the fantastic art direction, wild action set pieces, and a sweet story about family, friendship, and gratitude provided adequate entertainment value.

Mushishi

When I started watching anime again in 2014 after a long hiatus, I saw fans of a series called Mushishi praising how it was “beautiful” and a “masterpiece.” In these same discussion threads, there were also critics arguing that Mushishi was actually “pretentious” and “boring.” Seeing such strong and opposing opinions, I opted to see for myself how good—or bad—Mushishi truly was.

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About a quarter way through the first episode I was already siding with the critics. The central character, Ginko, who appeared to be a kind of paranormal investigator, is seen traveling deep into an unusually vibrant forest. He’s headed to the home of a child living there to investigate a strange ability that he’s said to have. When they meet, perplexing conversations ensue, which, at the time, I found difficult to follow, and not particularly interesting.

The second episode frustrated me even more. For most of the first half, I grudgingly stared at these two kids sitting in a dark room discussing something pertaining to eyelids; keeping my own eyelids open was a struggle. Before I could get to the second half, I stopped the episode, and concluded that this series just wasn’t for me.

As I befriended more people in the anime community, I noticed that many of those who shared my interests also thought highly of Mushishi. I wondered, “Why do these people with such excellent taste (lol) love such a dull series? Maybe I missed something?” So, I attempted to give the second episode another try, this time approaching it as I would a meditation—or a tedious assignment. I turned down the lights, cleared my mind, relaxed my face and shoulders, took a deep breath, and gave it my undivided attention.

In such a relaxed state, I usually feel a peaceful indifference. Watching the second episode again, I wasn’t as impatient during the first half, but I wasn’t quite enjoying it either. However, I was more receptive. I initially took notice of how ubiquitous the environment was. A scene would often open with or cut to an intricately detailed—and admittedly beautiful—slice of nature. It was around this time that it dawned on me—nature itself is actually a character in this story. There’s Ginko, the various people he meets, and nature. Nature is sometimes the protagonist, other times it’s the antagonist, but it’s not an entity that acts with bias. Nature, and the “Mushi”, which are a supranormal extension of nature, just are. In this context, everything started to make more sense.

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When I finally saw the unexpectedly creepy second half of the second episode, my attention was firmly hooked. As I progressed to the next episodes, another thing that became apparent was how the problems and concerns of the characters mirrored our own, providing an opening for the audience to relate and emotionally connect. Each story guides us through the mental, physical, or sometimes moral process of trying to solve a particular issue. But people’s plights aren’t sensationalized. Mushishi doesn’t seek to make you feel angry or depressed. While there are moments that could make you feel that way, it doesn’t indulge in negativity or drama.

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I was later impressed by how much ground Mushishi could cover in just 23-minute episodic intervals. The directors, under Hiroshi Nagahama’s supervision, did well in balancing the elements of Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga. The studio, Artland, didn’t cut corners on the production either. The art and animation quality exceeded that of a typical television series, sometimes reaching the levels you’d expect from a feature film. These visuals are underpinned by a traditional and occasionally haunting soundtrack.

Mushishi is infused with subtle, and easily overlooked, commentary on the ways in which we’re connected with each other and the world around us. Thinking back, it’s amazing the difference eased expectations and a little patience can make. With that said, such an approach can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to like anything. Sometimes you’re just not compatible with something, and that’s perfectly fine, too. In my personal case, I was more compatible with Mushishi than I’d thought as it has since become my favorite anime.

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Aoi Hana

There’s no shortage of anime with apparently gay characters and pairings, or “yuri/yaoi bait” as it’s sometimes called. In many—perhaps most—cases, these characters exist as comic relief (‘Yuru Yuri’), fanservice (‘Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid’), or their romance is “implied” (‘Hibike! Euphonium’), meaning they’ll occasionally act super gay, but actually aren’t.

Aoi Hana does something that’s quite rare for an anime to do. It attempts to portray non-straight characters openly and legitimately without invalidating their sexual orientation as a perversion or passing phase. It tells a story that touches on the pertinent issues of social expectations and the struggle of coming-out.

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In the opening episode, we meet the principal characters: Fumi Manjome, a tall yet timid girl who recently moved back to Kamakura after being away for 10-years; Akira (Achan) Okudaira, a spunky longtime resident of Kamakura; and their respective families. Both girls are due to start their freshman year at closely neighboring schools—Fumi at the prestigious Matsuoka Secondary School for Girls, and Akira at the historic Fujigaya Girls Academy. The two were classmates and best friends in elementary school until Fumi moved away. After a tearful goodbye, they promised to write each other, but neither ever did.

Fumi is visibly downcast when we first see her. She developed strong feelings for an older cousin, Chizu Hanashiro, who didn’t take things as seriously as she did. Already marred by regret over some of the choices she made, Fumi’s depression is exacerbated further when she learns that Chizu is getting married soon. To cope, she takes refuge in books, and distances herself from social contact. Conversely, Akira doesn’t appear to have much interest in love or romance yet, but can envy people who do.

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Yasuko Sugimoto, a popular senior at the Matsuoka Secondary School, takes an interest in Fumi. Her personality is similar to that of the character Saint-Just from the classic 1991 anime ‘Onii-sama e…’, of which ‘Aoi Hana’—among many other shoujo-ai—could be considered an offspring. Like Saint-Just, Yasuko has a more traditionally masculine demeanor, and is deeply admired by her fellow classmates. Initially, it’s unclear what Yasuko sees in Fumi, or what her intentions are. Maybe she’s attracted to Fumi’s coy disposition; maybe she’s just appeasing her own ego; or maybe it’s something else entirely.

If you expect to see any romance between Akira and Fumi, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This adaptation only covers the first 18 chapters of the manga, which centers primarily on Akira and Fumi attempting to rekindle their friendship, the relationship between Fumi and Yasuko, and the love interests of some of the supporting characters. Two complaints I sometimes hear about this series is that it has a somewhat abrupt, read-the-manga, ending, and the pacing is very relaxed. My own criticism would be of the sexual assault in the first episode that’s used as a catalyst to reunite Fumi and Akira. I wish they could’ve been brought back together under better circumstances.

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Aoi Hana was animated with a tranquil pastel pallet by JC Staff (‘Shoujo Kakumei Utena’), and masterfully directed by Kenichi Kasai (‘Nodame Cantabile’), who brilliantly captures the non-verbal cues and body language of Takako Shimura’s bold manga. If you’re looking for a mature, unusually nuanced, LGBT anime, I highly recommend Aoi Hana. If you enjoy it as much as I do, you may want to consider buying the recently released Blu-ray from Nozomi/Lucky Penny Entertainment; the English title is ‘Sweet Blue Flowers.’ Apparently, Aoi Hana didn’t sell well in Japan when it was originally released in 2009. To have more series like this, it helps to support them.

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Akanesasu Shoujo

In the hopes of escaping to a new, possibly better, place, the girls of the “Radio Research Society” meet under the sacred tree to perform the “4:44 Ceremony.” According to an urban legend, performing this ritual at 4:44pm, while listening to radio static tuned to just the right frequency, will open a gateway to another world. It’s a premise we’ve seen in similar forms before.

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Of the five members in the club, most of them don’t expect the 4:44 Ceremony to actually do anything, and only participate as a fun social activity. Asuka, a cheerful girl who dons a big red hair ribbon, has the most faith that the ritual will eventually succeed. Yuu, the reason-oriented president of the club, and Asuka’s closest friend, is the most skeptical. All of the girls like each other to some extent, establishing a welcoming vibe to the group.

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Chloe, the modest one who—for some reason—peppers her speech with French phrases, finds a crystal near the sacred tree. When she places it in a specialized radio, she finds an odd sound at the 0633.1 AM frequency. The group elects to perform the ceremony at this frequency, and unexpected things start to happen—including the emergence of some suspicious snow bunnies, and, most surprisingly, another Asuka. The cheerful Asuka playfully nicknames this other Asuka “Seriouska”—a portmanteau of “serious” and “Asuka”—due to her more serious demeanor.

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When the 4:44 Ceremony succeeds, all five girls are transported together to another world, and the one wearing the headphones merges with a version of themselves in that world. This provided some of the most interesting and often humorous moments, particularly when Asuka and Seriouska were involved. We see each of the principle characters live through another version of themselves, and confront the choices and regrets of that other self. This aspect of the story gave an otherwise familiar premise some psychological weight.

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Hostile forces from a “Twilight” realm trail them, antagonize them, and create turmoil for everyone in its wake. It’s believed that a king in this Twilight is the root cause. Initially, the group tries to avoid this king, but they soon realize they have no choice but to confront him (her or it) to protect themselves and the inhabitants of these other worlds. Honestly, I would’ve preferred less emphasis on these parts, and more emphasis on the main characters confronting their other selves. But I understand that taking such a route may not have been as entertaining for a lot of people.

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Two little-known studios, DandeLion Animation Studio and Juumonji, did a really nice job on the production. Aside from one or two wonky frames here and there, the 2D art and animation was mostly polished, and the 3D computer animation for the action scenes wasn’t too jarring when it appeared. There’s still that moment when you go, “Oh, it’s in 3D now.”, but it doesn’t take too long to adjust to the transition.

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My interest in this series was initially piqued when I saw clips of the gloriously over-the-top action scenes going around on Twitter. My expectations started at, “Maybe I could watch this as a filler show between JoJo episodes…”, and ended at “That was actually fun!” If you don’t mind seeing some things you may have seen before, and aren’t bothered by the occasional fanservice, you could have a good time with Akanesasu Shoujo.

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Mushishi Zoku Shou: Drops of Bells

After a 9-year run, our tour with Ginko through the supernatural draws to a close with a short film adaptation of Suzu no Shizuku (Drops of Bells), the last arc of the acclaimed young adult manga—Mushishi—by Yuki Urushibara.

In the first half of Suzu no Shizuku, a girl leaves her family behind when she’s summoned to be the next lord of a mountain. Thriving lands, called “Rivers of Light”, require the presence of a lord to maintain the balance of the surrounding life. Choosing a human as a lord is an unusual move, however. Such a task is typically delegated to animals since they live with fewer emotional attachments.

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Several of the introspective themes that were previously explored in the Mushishi world are summarized here—most notably interconnectedness, the indifference of nature, and the necessity of letting go. All life—plants, animals, and humans—are dependent on each other, and are influenced by the ripples of cause and effect. Nature, which is personified in Suzu no Shizuku as the mountain lord, acts as the unbiased mediator. The overarching lesson seems to be that we should appreciate what we have, and not cling when the time comes to move on.

The second half concludes the story without quite concluding the series. The ending leaves some questions unanswered, but it ties up enough to guide your imagination to where the stories and characters could progress into the distant future. I’ll refrain from deconstructing this any further. To me, Mushishi is more of a meditation than a conventional story, and is therefore best appreciated without excessive analysis.

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The art, animation, and sound design have remained remarkably consistent over the years. The backgrounds in Suzu no Shizuku are just as gorgeous as they were when the first season aired in 2005. The character and special effects animation are fluid and precise. And the subdued and ambient melodies that have become a hallmark of this series are present as well.

When you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that Mushishi, which is essentially about life experiences and nature, was made with such a substantial budget in today’s hungry and impatient climate. I’m grateful that ArtLand was willing to take a chance on such an esoteric and spiritual story, and that it’s been successful enough to adapt in its entirety. It’s been a truly extraordinary experience.

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Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki

A person falling in love with an attractive werewolf or vampire is a familiar theme in shapeshifter stories. What’s less familiar is for these stories to extend beyond the relationship, and detail the hardships of raising “half breed” children in a prejudiced society. This is what sets Wolf Children apart from the rest of the pack.

On the surface, such a premise may seem difficult to buy into, but Wolf Children works beautifully thanks to the writer/director, Mamoru Hosoda, opting to tell this story as a coming-of-age drama. He balances the tension with delightful humor, embodied by characters who endure hardships we can relate with and take seriously.

Hana is the quintessential selfless mother who’s always acting for the benefit of her lover and children. When she has time to herself, she spends it quietly and alone. It’s heartwarming how helping others seems to drive her, but it’s also kinda sad how little she does for herself. While watching this movie, there were times I wished I could take Hana out for pizza or karaoke. My own sensitivities may be more of the issue here. Perhaps providing for her family is enough?

Hana’s children, Yuki and Ame, are opposites of each other. Yuki, the girl, is rambunctious and loud; Ame, the boy, is introverted and quiet. Over the course of their upbringing, Yuki is encouraged to be more feminine, and Ame is encouraged to be more confident. Since Yuki is the funner character, more screen time is spent on her, and, consequently, Ame isn’t as thoroughly developed. When Ame makes a personal choice later in the film, it feels a little abrupt.

Visually, Wolf Children is super clean. Characters are drawn with thin outlines, and the animation is generously in-betweened. The designs fall closer to the realistic side of the 2D animation spectrum. Background characters are 3D cel-shaded, and generally mesh well with the subtle details of the background art. The score is comprised mostly of gentle melodies played with piano and strings.

Wolf Children aspires to the greatness of a classic Studio Ghibli film. There are some aspects that could be nitpicked, but, frankly, the negatives I mention in this review should probably just be disregarded; they aren’t that important. Regardless of any supposed drawbacks, the general experience is undoubtedly powerful.