It’s the distant future, and the Earth has been caught in an endless winter. Humanity has pressed on, as it is known to do, by building enclosed communities where they can keep the weather at just where they need it to be in order to eek out what little living they can, brazenly defying the worsening condition of the world around them. Theirs is a world on the brink of apocalypse, and according to an old legend, it’s heralds will not be humans themselves… But wolves. But didn’t wolves go extinct 200 years ago?
Well, no, they didn’t. They acquired the ability to project the image of humans upon themselves, and to the eyes of most of us, they can walk among the general public completely undetected. Whether they act on it or not, these wolves are drawn to the presence of an entity called The Lunar Flower, a mysterious white plant that’s supposed to be just as extinct as they are. Four young wolves, all abandoned in some way or other, have been brought together by circumstance to answer that call, braving the elements and countless other dangers in their quest to find Paradise. It’s a call they’ll follow to the ends of the earth… Which, according to the legend, is exactly what’ll happen if they find it.
In early 2003, Studio Bones had yet to make a name for itself… It had some modest success with Rahxephon and the Cowboy Bebop movie, but the big hit that would establish it as one of the top production companies was still about six months from hitting the air waves. The anime world, at this point, had not yet become accustomed to Bones’ unmatched aptitude for bleeding beautiful art and animation out of even the smallest of budgets. Well, Wolf’s Rain isn’t one of those cheaper shows… It actually went pretty well over-budget, and the results speak for themselves. This is one of the most beautiful anime I’ve ever seen, on almost every conceivable level. There are a few staticky key frames here and there, mostly where they won’t be noticed by anyone who’s not deliberately looking for them, but for the vast majority of it’s run, Wolf’s Rain is fluidly animated, without a single camera angle out of place. From the mundane images of wolves running across a snowy terrain to more fantastical CG images of air ships and man-sized computer screens, not a penny was wasted in bringing this story to life.
And the artwork is even more beautiful… The landscapes are mesmerizing, even when they’re mostly dominated by hues of white and gray. Whether our lupine heroes are trudging through a blizzard or looking for answers in the many domed cities they come across, the intimate level of detail will make you feel as if you’re there with them… You may even feel the urge to wrap yourself in a blanket during the colder scenes. Character designs are inspired, thoughtful, and very easy on the eyes. Not only does each design fit it’s character’s personality and story to a T… The tough guy is dressed in leather, the laid-back guy is wearing a baggy hoodie, and the forlorn divorced couple are dressed like they stepped off the set of Casablanca, to name a few… But they’re distinctive enough that even in wolf form, you’ll never have any problem remembering who’s who.
So, the animation is beautiful, the artwork is beautiful… What about the music? I rarely talk about music, as it normally all sounds the same to me, but when the name Yoko Kanno is attached to a project, that music doesn’t fall on ANY deaf ears. Kanno’s music has built her a sturdy reputation amongst the anime medium, and rightfully so… In Wolf’s Rain, she provides a range of different music styles, from orchestral to western, and oddly enough, some rock ballads that have actual English lyrics to them.
I recently listened to the RWBY soundtrack… And I mean really listened to it… And while I’ll save my comments on it for another day, it did remind me how important it is to build a soundtrack that fits the tone of your show not only musically, but also lyrically. Otherwise, you wind up with a breakneck paced action song with the lyrics of a solemn break-up song… Which is just sloppy. Yoko Kanno understands this, and even in English, the songs she composes fit the series perfectly, adding to the emotional impact of any given scene she’s attached to.
The English dub of this show is every bit as good as the original Japanese track, with a cast of actors that flawlessly transition their characters through gradual, subtle development that may be lost on some viewers… Which, if you’re monolingual like I am, makes it the better option. Johnny Yong Bosch pulls off what may be one of his best roles ever as Kiba, the leader of the pack, adding emotional depth to a wistful character who could have easily been portrayed as bland and by-the-numbers. Crispin Freeman faced a similar problem, playing an all-out tsundere character… But Tsume is probably one of the best uses of the tsundere trope, and Crispin brings his trademarked sincerity to every single step of it. Joshua Seth takes the loveable slacker Hige through some reveals that will honestly leave you speechless once you reach them, and Steve Blum’s Darcia will earn your sympathy as well as your terror, sometimes in the same breath.
The only real problem I have with the dub is Tomoe, played by veteran Mona Marshall… Not because of her performance, which was outstanding, but because no matter how many times I hear her do it, I can’t buy her as a young boy. The rest of the cast is very natural sounding and subdued, with special emphasis on Kari Wahlgren, Jessica Straus, and an insane cameo from Beau Billingslea halfway through. Despite the caliber of the starring cast, the best performance is probably that of Tom Wyner, who plays Quent Yaiden, an old alcoholic who’s sworn vengeance on the wolves for… He believes… Burning down his village and murdering his family, long ago.
I mentioned earlier that Studio Bones has some very consistent tendencies in terms of their animation. Well, the same can be said, at least in their early years, about the stories they took on. Wolf’s Rain is the third of several consecutive Bones projects that deal with deep, complex ideas about faith and humanity, as well as the general theme of there being another world parallel to our own. It’s also easily the most mature of the group, at least as far as I’ve seen. It has a very slow pace, but it’s rarely boring, as it spend most of it’s time developing and exploring the intriguing cast of characters and the expansive, mysterious world around them.
There are very few big moments throughout the bulk of the show, but when they happen, they happen in huge, climactic ways, taking every possible advantage of the build-up and development that lead to them. It is thanks to the slow, almost meandering suspense that those big moments… Whether they be triumphant, heart-warming, or excruciatingly tragic, are able to work as effectively as they do. You’ll find yourself pumping your fist with every insurmountable obstacle they overcome, from a battle with a giant walrus to the conquering of their own inner demons, and you’ll find yourself crying on more than one occasion as the harsh world around them constantly tests the strength of their bond, and no, this series is not afraid to rip out your heart and stomp on it.
On the surface, this is a very simple, easy to follow story. Well, mostly easy, the villain stuff can get a bit complicated. The wolves and their journey to paradise can be taken purely at face value while still being an entertaining watch. However, watching with your brain turned off will NOT give you the full experience, and it’ll probably leave you unsatisfied with the ending. I’m not the first person to point this out… Far from it, at this point… But there is a wealth of depth, symbolism, and meaning hidden beneath the snowy surface of this series, and while a lot of it finds it’s roots in Buddhism, there is material for any viewer of any faith to latch onto.
I won’t go into the religious stuff… Although I will say that when you realize that wolves are often seen as divine beings in Japan, things start to fall into place… But what I can go into is the most accessible theme that the series has to offer. That theme, ultimately, is the struggle to find fulfillment. As the wolves press on through the apocalyptic world, they constantly have to decide whether to continue their journey, facing unrelenting hardships in the pursuit of something greater, or to quit, settle down in a town and just exist. This dilemma is explored dozens of times through those that they meet on their journey, with entire civilizations leading stagnant existence devoid of purpose to other wolves who’ve put aside their pride and sold themselves into grueling manual labor just to get by. Is it better to live a long life of complacency, or is it better to die in pursuit of a greater, more meaningful path? Does true happiness come through survival, or struggle? Wolf’s Rain puts forth it’s own definitive answer to this question, and makes several very strong cases for what it has to say, but it also leaves just enough ambiguity to keep the debate alive in your mind long after the series is over.
Unfortunately, the show isn’t perfect… There are two rather glaring flaws in it that even the most appreciative viewer will have to acknowledge. First of all, this is the only series I’ve ever seen that has four… Yes, four… recap episodes placed right in the middle of the series. If you have the officially released Complete collection DVD set, this recap takes up the entire fourth disk, and Wolf’s Rain catches a lot of flack for it. As it turns out, this wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the creators… When Wolf’s Rain was going through its initial Japanese run, there was a SARS outbreak that incapacitated the majority of the people working at the studio. Short on man-power, the four recap episodes were put out to fill up the show’s time slot until they could get back on their feet again. It’s a pretty damn good excuse, all things considered, and one that’s worthy of a little understanding.
And to be perfectly honest, even before learning that fact, I’ve watched this series multiple times without ever skipping them. That’s not to say they’re not skippable… They totally are… But as far as recap episodes go, they’re remarkably well put together, and each one tells a chunk of the story through the voice of a different supporting character. They also give you a second chance to notice things going on in the series that you may not have picked up on the first time through. They’re a waste of time, but they’re pleasant, and I can’t really find it in me to condemn them.
What I can criticize, however, is my other problem with the series… The wolves’ illusions are entirely inconsistent. There’s a scene very early on where a young boy is about to fall to his death, and a wolf(in disguise) tries to catch him. Lacking real arms, he tries to catch him the way a human would, only to end up catching him in his jaws, killing him. This implies… Nay, straight up confirms… That they can’t interact with people and objects the way that people can, and can only act in ways that are physically possible for a wolf. Well, then, how do they punch and kick things? How can you explain a scene where one wolf punches another through the bars of a cage? How do they hold knives to peoples’ throats? It’s not a big problem, but it still bothers me.
Wolf’s Rain is available from Geneon entertainment, and the rights to it have not yet been rescued by company that’s still in business, which of course means the series is entirely out of print. You can find the collection online, but they’re not cheap, and you’ll be lucky if you find a playable copy for less than sixty dollars. At the same time, I don’t believe there are any legal sites streaming for it, so your options are kind of limited here… I don’t personally condemn the purchase of more affordable Malaysian DVDs, as I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal to do so, but those things are shady as hell, and it’s about a fifty-fifty shot as to whether or not they work. I don’t necessarily condone illegal streaming, either, but if you don’t have the cash to pony up, that might just be your only option. Hopefully Funimation will scoop it up and release it as a classic, but until that day, it’s the pirate’s life for ye!
Wolf’s Rain is a very mature show… And I mean that in terms of actual maturity, not ‘M-Rated’ maturity… And as such, it demands a very mature audience. You have to show it some degree of patience, and a willingness to understand the material, so it may not resonate with everybody. People who are looking for bombastic action, a clear definition of good and evil, easy answers and a happy-sappy ending that ties everything up in a nice big bow… For example, the “Brotherhood is better” crowd… Will still be able to enjoy it on some level, but it may take multiple viewings to pick up on the deeper themes and symbolism that make the otherwise confusing ending work as well as it does. It feels kind of wrong to criticize a show for being too smart, but in this particular case, it creates an issue of accessibility… And when you combine that with the few other minor flaws, I can’t really bring myaself to sign off on a perfect score. It’s a deep, profound series that’s extremely well executed, but it could have stood to go a little easier on the audience. I give wolf’s Rain a 9/10.
Review requested by Callie
For more spoiler-heavy information on the themes of this show, check out http://tentochito.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/wolfs-rain-the-search-for-meaning/