Giving: a story of two mothers

It happened when I was in college. A brief period of holidays was coming up and everyone, myself included, was preparing to go home for vacation. Most of them were from nearby; some even had the luxury of being picked up by their parents. I was among a minority of people in my class who were from a different state; unlike many of them, however, my journey home was a relatively short one. Only slightly over half a day’s ride by train. There was only one serious task standing between me and my vacation. Packing. Each of my trips home had an ulterior motive: washing my clothes for free. Spending 85 rupees on the washers at college was one big feel-bad. No, I would instead endure my own body odour for two months until the first chance to go home. But packing those clothes was a task and a half. Picking up T-shirt after smelly T-shirt from off the floor of a grubby hostel room and attempting to stuff it into an already overstuffed suitcase does eventually take its toll on the mental state of most people. I had had enough. I flopped onto the bed, fired up my laptop, and connected to the internet. Yes, at last. It was my favourite part of the day: anime time. For a few hours a day, I could just forget the problems of the 3D world. On that particular day, though, I didn’t have many hours to spare, since I needed to get back to packing. I am not typically a binge watcher, but if an anime does hook me, I will watch until I’m satisfied, which will be who knows how many episodes. I couldn’t afford that. My train was scheduled to leave fairly early the next day, and the station was a two hour bus ride from college. I decided I’d limit myself to a movie. It had been quite some time since I’d watched one, and I hadn’t watched a whole lot outside of Ghibli and Shinkai. I wasn’t in the mood for anything dark or action-packed; I just wanted to curl up and relax for a bit. A title caught my eye: Wolf Children.

Just a day prior, I’d summoned a junior of mine (a certain penguin you might know) to my room. Not to bully him, mind you. But because he, like me, was a full-blown otaku. I wanted his opinion on a rather important matter: which would be the best anime to watch with my parents? On a previous visit home, my parents caught me watching Fullmetal Alchemist, and asked me why I didn’t find it embarrassing that I, an adult, was intently watching cartoons. As any self-respecting otaku would, I took grave offense at that remark. Since then, I’d been thinking of a way to introduce my parents to the medium. I had to proceed with caution, though. They weren’t into fantasy or science fiction. Or horror. Or adventure. Or teen romance. Or pretty much any genre the majority of mainstream anime fall into. I needed something else. And it was for this all-important matter that I’d summoned this junior penguin of mine. We name-dropped several titles over the course of our conversation: A Silent Voice, Kids on the Slope, Nodame Cantabile. And, of course, Wolf Children. A title I hadn't watched. Now lying on my bed, facing the prospect of watching Wolf Children, I thought sure, why not, and hit play. This way I can test it out before showing it to them, I thought. Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing I was about to watch my favourite film of all time.

“This may be laughed off as a mere fairy tale,” a girl’s voice says, against the backdrop of an immaculately drawn flower. “But believe me, this is most definitely the story of my mother’s life.” A woman with a most pleasant expression lies amidst a sea of flowers. All coloured with a beautiful, soft palette. A light piano tune plays in the background. The silhouette of a wolf approaches, morphing to that of a man as it nears closer. “The man my mother fell in love with,” the girl’s voice continues, “was a werewolf.” I sat up. This was no time to be lying on my bed. This film demanded my attention.

I was not familiar with the works of Mamoru Hosoda, then. But from the shot compositions, the lighting, that lovely colour palette, the detailed and well-drawn university setting, the charming character designs, the measured and restrained voice acting, the careful balance of dialogue, music, and silence — pretty much every aspect of the film — I could tell that this was no run-of-the-mill werewolf romance flick. What struck me above all was the believability. In a movie about a woman named Hana who has to take care of her werewolf children. One does not go in expecting realism there, but there it was. There is an extended sequence early on in the film: starting when Hana’s werewolf boyfriend moves in with her, continuing through their new life together and her pregnancy, and ending with the birth of her first child. This entire sequence is completely devoid of dialogue, with only music to fill the silence. It does not need any dialogue whatsoever, and the director knew that.

We see Hana sick and throwing up, visiting the university library to read pregnancy self-help books and take notes, her partner working part-time jobs to support her. It was, and still is, absolutely magical. I forgot that I was watching a movie. No, I was definitely not watching a movie. I was watching two real people live their real lives together. The gap between two dimensions and three was blurred.

And this realism extends to the titular wolf children as well. As toddlers (pups?) they break things, demand food, topple cabinets, chew books, vomit on carpets: things that real children do but you never see in film and literature featuring them. This continues as they grow up, unsure of where to go in their lives, or what they want to be. The daughter, Yuki, demands Hana to send her to school. But once at school, she is embarrassed by her tomboyish ways, and wants to fit in with the other girls. No worries, says the weary yet smiling Hana, ever the problem-solver, who whips up a cute dress for her to wear. These are very much real children, wolf ears and all.

But it was the story thread of the son, Ame, that I was most invested in. His growth from a quiet child to a moody loner, his struggles with classroom learning, his fallings-out with his sister Yuki, his fascination with wildlife: it strongly resembled my own growing-up. All this conflict comes to a head when he is about to leave home, permanently.

Until that moment, I had, for some reason, not shed a single tear. The film kept pulling at my heartstrings — not insistently, but patiently — but still, no tears. And then came that line. Hana looks at her wayward son, confused, and says, “but I haven’t done a single thing for you.” And the waterworks flowed.

It was only several minutes after the end of the film that I was able to stop crying and compose my thoughts. Why did it take so long for me to be able to cry? And why did I cry so much once I started to? I’ve teared up quicker for far lesser works, but they didn’t affect me the way this did. It took a while to understand. A lot of ‘tearjerkers’ employ emotional manipulation to make us sad: sad ‘flashback’ framing, melancholic violins, tragic backstories, and the like. They pointedly tell us, “now, this here is your cue to cry”. And of course, we do. Our hearts are not made of stone. But there is often a lack of substance behind these relentless emotional beats. Wolf Children, on the other hand, does not attempt to plant feelings in our chest. Instead, it gently asks us to turn inwards and recognise that which we already know and feel. About how strong our mothers are. About the sacrifices they make. About their dedication in raising such wild wolves as ourselves (yes, we have all been a pain to them). And about how they wear a nonchalant expression in the face of all this, shrugging it off like it’s no big deal. Like they haven’t done a single thing for us.

After a mostly successful packing session, a harrowing bus ride, and a far more pleasant train ride, I was home. Cautiously, and awkwardly, I was able to broach the topic with my parents: hey, there’s this Japanese animated film, and I consider it the finest thing I’ve ever seen, maybe we should watch it? They agreed, but not without some hesitation. Particularly from my Amma, my mother, who was still skeptical that an animated film could be mature, or hold any value for adults outside of family fun time. Earlier, I would’ve accused Amma of being narrow-minded. Now, I could only think of the countless times she was forced to watch Barney and Friends with my sister when she was a kid (and me, too, although I deny watching Barney to anyone who asks). Must’ve taken its toll. Eventually, we sat down to watch the film. The opening scene, with the flower and Yuki’s voice-over, played on our TV screen. Something was different this time. From the minute the film began, I was holding back tears. I kept glancing to my left, to see Amma’s expression. Was she enjoying the film? What was she thinking about? I had never been so eager to impress anyone in quite some time. To me, it was a tense viewing experience. I didn’t want to cry around them. But I wanted Amma to appreciate my (and by extension, Mamoru Hosoda’s) love letter to her. I wanted her to understand. I wanted her to appreciate it. I wanted her to appreciate me. The scene came, and with it, the line. There was no holding back anymore. My tears flowed freely. All the while, I was acutely aware of Amma’s presence beside me. Can she feel it too?

The ending song came. A woman’s voice crooned to her child: how she had been waiting for them to be born, how she took care of them when they were happy or sad, how she loves their smile. She describes a wondrous world, how everything in that world is there just for her child, and how she will but watch over them from afar, helping them choose a path in life. And then she says, “is there nothing more I can do for you?” Just when I had started to stabilise, I burst into tears again. A mother’s life is one of giving. She keeps giving and giving, and still believes there is more to give. By the end of this second viewing, I was painfully aware of this. And I desperately wanted to give back. My parents began to utter favourable comments about how much they liked it, but I was in no state to listen. I stood up, and embraced Amma tightly. And I cried. And I cried. And I cried.

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