Exploring Gothic Fairy Tale in “Wolf’s Rain”

face4There aren’t many anime that my family will watch, but this was the show that my dad and siblings loved right along with me. We even brought it on our family vacations in the mountains, and watched each episode well into the night, camping in the forests of Yosemite. Very fitting.

“Wolf’s Rain” is one of those underrated shows that people rarely talk about anymore, similar to “Samurai Champloo’s” fame. But unlike “Samurai Champloo”, there was some justification for why it didn’t take off in the West like others did.

“Wolf’s Rain” was created by Studio BONES in 2003, and at this time, I was heading into high school and still on the hunt for good-quality anime I could follow. While Toonami existed at the time, the shows they offered felt old-fashioned to me, with anime like “Sailor Moon”, “Yu Yu Hakusho”, and “Inuyasha”. While these shows were great in their own right, I was craving something newer, and such a craving could only be satisfied on that forbidden nighttime block called [adult swim] on Cartoon Network. This was where the more mature anime was being showed, not quite for kids.

While it can be argued that Toonami was also showing mature anime as well, like the Gundam franchise or “Rurouni Kenshin”, they would often censor out certain suggestive scenes or even blood from a fight scene. I never quite understood why “Wolf’s Rain” was shown only on [adult swim] but I realize now that it may be because of the story: it’s slow, it can be confusing, and would bore most kids who may not “get it”. Let’s get into my three reasons why I love this show to death.

The Atmosphere

The best way to describe this story is a fairytale/folktale. I’m not talking about witches and wizards, or knights and princesses, fairies and goblins, but more like a Gothic fairytale. It’s a dark journey to a destination that may not even exist, in a dank, snow-covered world with shocks of greenery here and there. But these central characters believe in their goal so strongly that they overcome great obstacles and fantastic mysteries in their world to get there. They meet companions along the way and are challenged by enemies. It’s an epic journey on a narrower, colder scale.

IMG_2390-minWhile “Wolf’s Rain” has no specific time period setting, it’s clearly set in the aftermath of some great war. There’s evidence of this in the ruined industrial cities they come across, often littered with skeletons of people, machine guns, and tanks. Since then, it seems that an Ice Age has struck and humans have retreated to living in domed cities. Wolves are considered extinct, creatures of myth, but this is where the fairytale-like magic comes in – wolves didn’t die out, but learned to walk around and mimic humans to survive. Other animals can sense what they are, but through an unexplained magic ability, they appear human to us. In addition to this weird magic ability, our heroes are seeking out Paradise, a prophesied Garden of Eden that only wolves would be able to find. It’s this prophecy that nearly caused the extinction, as the “Nobles” (the top 1% of each city) madly searched for them to find Paradise. Our four heroes also meet a girl on their journey, a sort of homunculus born from Lunar Flowers (who will also lead them to Paradise).

By now this premise will have either intrigued you or put you off, and you aren’t alone in your decision. Some viewers may feel put off by this outlandish concept of a show (but c’mon, it can’t be worse than “Attack on Titan”, right?). A lot of the details in the setting and mythos are left unexplained, and that’s okay. It’s meant to feel like a hopeless environment for mankind to scrape out the last generations of our life, and yet there is a twinge of hope in trusting the most unlikeliest of creatures to find salvation. It’s a show that asks some existential questions about our co-existence with each other, with nature, the inevitability of death, and the possibility of rebirth.

Put it to you this way: the story can be confusing and may require multiple watches (which I have done). I do not recommend bingeing this show, as it may come across as too slow. It’s more contemplative than that, meant to be consumed in small morsels and thought about while you lie in bed at night. It’s approached as a very philosophical venture for these characters, as well as a physical adventure, very much like classic literature. But I would say that it’s far from boring.

The characters are your classic quad of tropes: the leader (Kiba), the joker (Hige), the tough guy (Tsume), and the kid (Toboe). You can find this quad trope of characters in almost every show involving a journey, but it rarely gets old. I enjoyed that Kiba was so philosophical (which annoyed other characters at comical points in the story), Hige was just tagging along for shits and giggles, and that Tsume had a hidden soft spot for children. Their journey was fraught with danger, taking them deep into forbidden forests, high deserts, cities in ruins, and snow-capped peaks.

In addition to our four wolves, there’s a slew of human characters involved in their journey: a scientist, a detective, a hunter, and Nobles bent on finding them. All of these figures are so unique in their personalities and each serve a great purpose winding up the strings in the end. There’s also another aspect that makes this show so atmospheric, and that’s the music.

Yoko Kanno Strikes Again

Yoko Kanno was the genius behind the soundtracks of many of my favorite shows, such as “Darker Than Black”, “Kids on the Slope” and the iconic “Cowboy Bebop.” No matter what the subject matter is for each of her projects, she always manages to produce a nostalgic soundtrack for worlds that don’t exist, but still have a history that we can see. Because the setting for “Wolf’s Rain” was undetermined, she sticks to haunting tones, lone guitars, and delicate piano ballads to fill the air. She also embraced other languages to give a more global feel to the soundtrack, most notably with French and Portuguese lyrics, and Native American-inspired chant and instrumentals. The soundtrack from this show was my lullaby for years, helping me fall asleep at night with it’s melodies. My favorite track is “Strangers”:

Seriously, this woman can do no wrong. Her choices only drew out the more fantastical elements of the story, but presented them in such a way that it helps us feel more grounded and connected to that alien world. We don’t want to imagine that Earth ends up like it does in “Wolf’s Rain”, but it helps that there are familiar sounds in an unfamiliar world, while on an unforgiving journey with these characters.

Just listen to the tracks from the original soundtrack here (ignore the monkey face, that’s just an icon):

Dub Reigns Supreme

I first saw this show in the English dub and I prefer it over the Japanese vocals. A lot of it has to do with the dialogue. A lot of the times, these characters are spouting long prose that would be difficult to follow along if you were reading it at a rapid pace on subtitles. Listening to the dialogue in your preferred language allows you to hear the message while also enjoying the beautiful design and art quality in each scene. It’s definitely one of those shows where you discover something new in the background with each rewatch.

While it may be difficult to find the episodes for free online anymore, the DVDs are still out there for purchase. I encourage readers that are anime fans to take a break from the fast-paced, high intensity anime that are out there nowadays and consider “Wolf’s Rain”. It’s an anime that challenges the norms in the anime industry, and does so in a beautiful, contemplative way that draws you into the fairytale and leaves you with a new perception of the world around you. Few anime, or even Western TV shows, can do that so take a gander at this anime instead.

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