Christina Koh / The Star / April 22, 2006
The Perfect Collection DVD
Creator: Bones, Keiko Nobumoto
Unlike most anime with human or humanoid protagonists, Wolf's Rain is one of the few stories in which the "heroes" are actually wolves. Wolves that, well, "appear" like humans.
The story is set in the distant future when most humans have abandoned the once war-scorched wilderness for isolated cities controlled by the faraway and hedonistic Nobles. Most people live safe, stable, boring lives ? that is, if they don't cross the Nobles who travel from territory to territory in airships.
Into the mix come the wolves, which have apparently evolved to an extent where they can "make" humanity believe they look like humans. The illusion is virtually flawless, as long as they don't touch anyone, and as long as people don't notice the shape of their footprints?.
In one city, four wolves come together for certain reasons.
There's Tsume (Claw), the loner who actually leads a gang of humans that spends half its time stealing from the Nobles. He first crosses paths - or rather clashes - with Kiba (Fang), a white wolf that scorns stooping because it makes him look like a human until easy-going Hige (Whisker) convinces Kiba he can get into much less trouble that way.
The four wolves and their illusionary human forms (from left): Kiba, Tsume, Hige and Toboe.
You see, most people believe wolves have been extinct for 200 years, except for Quent Yaiden, a town sheriff who nurses a killing hatred for the animals that "destroyed" his life years ago.
When things heat up with Quent being hot on their trail, Kiba is the one that brings the pack together. His dream of reaching Paradise, a place where wolves are said to rule and can only be found with the help of the "Flower Maiden", captivates the others.
Unfortunately, a Noble named Lord Darcia kidnaps Cheza, the said Flower Maiden, prompting the wolves to leave the city.
Together with Toboe (Howl), a young wolf once raised by an old woman, the pack sets off for Paradise.
There you have it, an intriguing story that straddles the realms of man and animals.
Wolf's Rain is not some post-apocalyptic moral tale crying for a return to a time untouched by war or industry. At its heart is a personal journey of characters, both major and minor, struggling for a kind of peace.
Tsume, for instance, is haunted by an old guilt while the puppy-like Toboe yearns to be loved by the humans. Hige and Kiba, too, harbour their own secrets.
The human sheriff Quent may not quite be the villain as previously thought. There's a soft side to his steely character, as shown in the way he looks out for Blue, his canine companion. For years, Blue has faithfully helped Quent hunt down wolves but eventually even that loyalty is tested when the two are separated.
Then there's Cher, the scientist, and her ex-husband Hubb Lebowski, a police detective. When the Nobles start upsetting the order of things, both try to reconcile their feelings in the face of a slowly dying world.
Among the lot, Cheza the artificially created Flower Maiden probably changes the least. Everyone wants her to lead them to Paradise, but she essentially exists for the wolves - the "earth mother" figure that awakens their primal instincts for belonging.
In the anime, every shot of a wolf in motion is a picture of beauty.
Wolf's Rain is a satisfying watch that's alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. From the stares between Kiba and Tsume asserting dominance in the pack to the threat of the Nobles, and even the connection between wolves and humans, there's rarely a boring moment.
Only a few things prevent the show from achieving perfection. The character designs can sometimes look a bit dated in this day and age, although every shot of a wolf in motion is indeed a thing of beauty.
The ending is also a bit of a downer (more on that later). And there are certain parts of the series when viewers clearly have to chuck logic out of the door. Like how wolves can leap and land from amazing distances (attributable to evolution?) or how the heck can an airship turn upside down and yet have its passengers inside remain miraculously upright? Star Trek-style stabilisers?
I won't even go into how an airship door can conveniently open right up when someone tries to escape through that door, in mid-air. Then again, we are talking about anime, right?
Narrative-wise, portraying the wolves in human form is a smart way to get viewers to identify with them. And you can't go wrong when the four guys are really easy on the eye.
But make no mistake. The story doesn't let you forget they're not human. They're on edge in the cities. They get hungry. Starved of food, they talk about eating the "weaker" members of the pack as casually as munching on rat bones. In the very first episode, we even get to see one of them rip out a human throat in full technicolour glory. The occasional spurts of violence, however, are rarely ever gratuitous to the plot.
Notably, Wolf's Rain, with a soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, is one of the few anime with English opening and ending themes, although the opening theme can test the viewer's patience after a time. The lyrics of Heaven's Not Enough are particularly haunting, especially the Japanese version, while Tell Me What the Rain Knows is a gently melancholy tune that underscores everyone's longing for their utopia.
Throughout the series, viewers are left to wonder: Is this Paradise real? Are the wolves all chasing a myth? Often, you get glimpses of what Tsume, Hige, Kiba and Toboe want from their paradise, and the thought that it could be denied them seems rather cruel.
The series initially finished at 26 episodes, which tied off events pretty nicely but without any of the heroes reaching their destination.
Around February 2004, the last four episodes were released with a final ambiguous ending that left many fans fuming, scratching their heads or gobsmacked.
I, for one, thought the conclusion was just right, once you interpreted it a certain way. It might not be the perfect ending as some hoped, but it is an ending.
These are wolves, stripped of human pretensions, shown here at their proudest and most savage, most civilised, most noble.
It's the kind of story that stays with you, and you can't ask for anything more than that.
- Christina Koh is a fan of 'Gensomaden Saiyuki'. She likes her anime with style, story and food for thought.