Beginner's Guide: Wolf's Rain

Sorry if I’m not who you were expecting, but I have my reasons for stealing this feature from Jonathan. See, I kind of wanted to test out this “Beginner’s Guide” segment, and I figured that now was a better time than never. He didn’t agree, but...well, I took care of that.

*Turns to nearby potato sack and strokes knife*

Anyway, last episode dealt with 2003’s Fullmetal Alchemist, a show considered by many to be the greatest Shonen (or “boy’s action”) series ever made. Some even consider it to be the greatest ANIME ever made, honestly! However, not as many people know about another show that came out a few months earlier which, in my humble opinion, is equally as good, if not better. I’m, of course, referring to Studio BONES’s 2003 Seinen series, Wolf’s Rain:

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Wolf’s Rain is a 2003 “adult action”, or Seinen, series released in the Winter season, a period when, like Hollywood, not much of note gets green-lit in Japan’s anime market. The Seinen genre of anime has gone to encompass cult-classics like Trigun and Darker Than Black, both of which are also worth your time, yet has failed to gain the same popularity as the Shonen franchise for...a variety of reasons, some of which I can’t begin to pretend I understand. It’s a crying shame, as, in many ways, the Seinen genre has proven itself to be as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than the Shonen genre, and today’s topic is yet another example of that.

Wolf’s Rain takes place during the end of the world. And by that, I mean a future where the world is nearing death, corrupt nobles rule with an iron fist and wolves, viewed as gods in Japanese culture, have long been thought extinct. In truth, the remaining wolves have taken on human forms, which they’ve used to trick humans so as to not be hunted any longer. In the midst of the corruption and chaos, four wolves discover a mysterious girl made of moon-flowers named Cheza. Cheza is rumoured to be the key to opening “Paradise”, an Eden-like world long thought of as nothing more than a children’s fairy-tale, and these wolves take an instant shy-in to her. Realizing that nobles and scientists are also hunting Cheza, as she possesses magical powers, the four wolves, Kiba, Tsume, Hige and Toboe, decide to travel alongside Cheza in hopes of finding Paradise and rebooting the world.

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If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, it’s because there is. To be honest, I gave you the cliff-notes version, partly because the full synopsis would confuse you. Sadly, confusion is bound to happen regardless, as Wolf’s Rain never caught on in-droves on either side of the Pacific Ocean. It suffered in ratings in Japan for a number of reasons, both technical and practical, and while it initially found its audience in the West on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block between 2004-2005, over time it’s garnered a reputation for being too “artsy” and “pretentious” for its own good. I don’t think either claim is founded, I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I did, but there’s no denying the more allegorical nature of the show has made it akin to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in both reception and long-term influence.

In other words, this is one of the most-divisive anime series ever, with a “love-it-or-hate-it” reputation.

Before I get to that, I should discuss the positives to this show, because there are plenty of positives to discuss. For one, the animation is distinctly cinematic. What I mean by this, and I kid you not, is that, with a few tweaks, the show could’ve been made into a movie trilogy. Everything about its presentation, from the layout, to the character models, to even the action scenes, looks straight from a high-end movie, with no Manga Iconography (those typical, anime-like facial expressions that the style is famous for) to be seen anywhere. Considering the behind-the-scenes problems during production, as well as the numerous budget cuts throughout its run, it’s a miracle that Wolf’s Rain doesn’t look shoddy, rushed or cheap. That’s not only a testament to the show, but the animators for caring as much as they did.

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The soundtrack is equally fantastic. Ranging from metal, to pop, to orchestral, to even ballads and medleys, it’s obvious that an equal amount of time went into composing this show as animating it. Credit goes to Yoko Kanno, whose repertoire ranges from shows like Cowboy Bebop, Visions of Escaflowne, RahXephon, Ghost in the Shell and the Kingdom Hearts franchise of video games. She’s an auteur in music, and she brings her A-game alongside long-time singer-collaborators Steve Conte and Maaya Sakamoto. Special credit goes to the ending, “Gravity”, which remains one of my favourite pieces of lyrical music.

Continuing the praise, the dub is probably one of, if not the, finest I’ve heard in an anime to-date, movie or show alike. Hemmed by the now-defunct Geneon Entertainment, produced by the now-defunct Bandai Entertainment and directed by legendary voice actress/director Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, this is yet another dub that sits firmly in the “arguably as good/better than the Japanese original” camp Cowboy Bebop started with its English syndication in 2001. It comes as no shock, therefore, that McGlynn, who also directed the aforementioned Cowboy Bebop dub, brings her A-game too, taking what’s seemingly an impossible to translate work of fiction and making it feel right at home in English. Everyone involved, be it minor or major, gives it their all, with not a single flat line at any moment in the show’s 30 episodes. Special mention goes to Crispin Freeman, Johnny Young Bosch, Joshua Seth and Mona Marshall as Tsume, Kiba, Hige and Toboe respectively. They fit their roles well and bounce off one-another beautifully, and the show really benefits from their performances.

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And lastly, this is a show littered with various allegorical subtexts. It adapts and borrows heavily from Native American tales about wolves, Japanese fables about wolves, Eastern folklore, Western folklore, Biblical narratives of the Old and New Testament, Shakespearean prose and even works like 1984 and Paradise Lost, to name a few, in order to convey themes about love, loss, corruption, youth, innocence and the rebirth of the world. This makes Wolf’s Rain feel right at home with any intellectual willing to give anime a try, and I’d venture that most of the show’s Western audience comes from that exact group. It also allows for multiple re-watches, as everything about it, right down to its gut-wrenchingly emotional finale, screams “ANALYZE ME!” in a thought-provoking and conversation starting manner. (If only there were more people to discuss these themes with...)

The problem comes into play with Wolf’s Rain’s execution, as it’s both brilliant and tedious. On one hand, the thematic execution is subtle, never outright explained and only given in bits and pieces over time. Everything from character motivations, to plot revelations, to even the triggers of action scenes are written and executed this way, forcing you to have to put on your thinking caps to truly “get” them. On the other hand, this lack of immediate information can be tedious to the average viewer, making it a show that leads to more questions than answers. Not to mention, the few moments of conversation can feel forced and expository when taken on its own accord.

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Perhaps the best way to describe this show is by comparing it to a Poker player. If shows like Cowboy Bebop are open faced and easy to read, then Wolf’s Rain is the exact opposite. It might pretend to be open faced and easy to read, but then it’ll whip out a royal flush, stun everyone and never reveal how it got that hand, leaving it to interpretation. On one hand, it’s a brilliant Poker player. On the other hand, no one wants to engage it.

And that’s why the show is so divisive. It’s clever, true, but also relentless, slow-paced, uncompromising, unfair to anyone who blinks for a second and even somewhat cruel. It’s for that reason anime fans have often labelled it “pretentious” and accused it of being shallow and “torture porn” when it comes to its own characters and the violence they endure. Factor in that it cares not if you understand it, and you’re left with a complex show filled with intricate material that many people won’t understand. And that’s often what happens.

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So why would I recommend it as a beginner’s anime? Well, the content is surprisingly un-Japanese. For a medium so engrossed in its own societal norms, both obviously and abstractly, the themes of Wolf’s Rain are entirely neutral to any one specific region. There’s material in here that a Westerner would be as equally confused by as someone from Japan, which is good because it means that you’re not missing anything if you don’t understand the show. As someone who doesn’t speak Japanese, let-alone understand Japanese norms, this is an instant plus.

And, assuming you can get into the show at all, there’s enough strong characterization that even the subtleties can take a backstage to the face value of the four wolves, their journey to Paradise and the struggles of the characters around them. When even your antagonists are sympathetic and relate-able, I don’t care if the content is obscure; it’s worth watching for that reason alone. It might be confusing, it might even be frustrating, but it’s absolutely worth watching. Wolf’s Rain’s mileage will definitely vary, with some liking it more than others, but it’s absolutely worth a recommendation. I only ask that you keep an open mind, as it’s not a show you’ll understand immediately. Also, avoid those 4 recap episodes in the middle, because they suck.

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Now then, if you’ll excuse me for a minute… *Draws knife and walks toward potato sack*


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