In the far future, the world is cold and desolate, and the surviving people eke out a living in domed, fortress-like cities. One day, Kiba, a member of a species long thought extinct, the wolves, arrives in one of these cities. He, like all other surviving wolves, appears to be human to most onlookers, and according to an antiquated legend, the re-appearence of him and his species will signify the end of the world and the arrival of Paradise on earth. Along with his companions Tsume, Hige, and Toboe, Kiba begins to search for the entrance to this Paradise, but they soon run into trouble from curious humans who seek it for their own, ignoble ends.
(Adapted from Derrick L. Tucker's synopsis. Many thanks.)
Sometimes, our favorite television shows have enough flaws that even we, the fans, will admit it, and such is the case with Wolf's Rain, an ambitious and beautifully-animated series that sometimes buckles under its own disjointed storyline. Although I enjoyed and admired much of it, I also, at times, found it to be confusing and felt frustrated at its meandering plot. Ultimately, whether you can forgive the weak parts will depend on your opinion of the show, its characters, its ending, and its style on the whole.
If Wolf's Rain succeeds at one thing, it is at creating atmosphere. The world seen in this show is a cold and largely ruined one, dominated by crumbling cities, frigid deserts, and frozen seas. Within this desolation, however, people do still survive, and we receive lovely reminders throughout that humans can and do find ways to live normally even under the worst circumstances. Far from being a stereotypical "dead" world, pockets of life remain: in their travels, the wolves do find greenery, as well as other animals and even one settlement that has somehow remained a bustling metropolis (although the reasons for its prosperity are rather mysterious). The backstory the show gives to the wolves themselves is superb as well, for it is quite fascinating to see them as beings that can visually hide their true identity and pretend to be human to survive. The show elaborately brings its setting to life through its imagery and its Siberian-influenced mythos, and I found myself deeply drawn into it as I went along.
However, a show with a fantastic setting best delivers when accompanied by eye candy, and Wolf's Rain delivers loads of it. The art, though rather gloomy in tone (even bright colors appear to have a "veil" pulled over them, for example), is gorgeous throughout, and at the show's best moments we see stunning scenes of wolves dancing and splashing in fountains under moonlight and of their packs scuttling across shining plains of ice and snow. The animation skillfully carries the action, and the designs are highly detailed and distinctive as well. And while this may be a minus for fans of distorted designs, the wolves are some of the most adeptly and correctly drawn animals I've ever seen in animation, displaying stunningly lifelike movement, and I thought that this touch of realism suited the show wonderfully. I do have to give BONES a lot of credit for making such a technically impeccable series, and I also have to give a shout out to Yoko Kanno, who, as always, turns out an understated and beautiful score along with two excellent pieces of theme music (brought to life by the voices of Steve Conte and Maaya Sakamoto).
Finally, most of the show's characters, particularly the wolves, are played off of each other masterfully. While each one appears to fit an archetype, Hige being the token "happy-go-lucky" figure for example, all of them experience dramatic personality changes by the end. Even a character I initially found to be annoying, the rather impotent Toboe, had surprised me at several points by the end, and I was impressed by the show's slow but satisfying pace of personal growth. Additionally, the wolves as a collective provide the few humorous touches in a show that is, for the most part, a bit austere, and the one romance that involves them proves to be surprisingly touching. Frankly, I think that this show would have been much stronger had it rested entirely on these guys.
This last point, unfortunately, brings me to my biggest gripe about the series, which is its unhealthy tendency to add distracting characters to the plot. Specifically, the actual humans, aside from the grim wolf hunter Quent Yaiden (whose story is the show's saddest), prove to be a pretty useless bunch, for they neither turn out to be all that interesting on their own nor really add anything essential to the story of the wolves. Our romantic leads, the unfortunately-named "Cher" and "Hubb", are bland and boring, and the show makes the mistake of spending an annoying amount of time on them and their banal relationship, including some brief but irritating scenes of melodrama near the end. It's enough to make the show's viewpoint feel disjointed, and the time would have been much better spent on the wolves themselves, in my opinion.
On top of its introduction of red herring characters, meanwhile, Wolf's Rain spends an irritatingly large amount of time meandering. Although there is an occasional dull episode in the first third, it is in the middle section where things truly fall apart, for here we get a quartet of pointless recap episodes (which I would say are best skipped), the introduction of some questionable New-Age themes such as an unexplained false vision of Paradise and an illogical appearance by stereotypical Native Americans, an overload of confusing mythology, and some rather irritating plot holes. None of it is either consequential or enjoyable, and it really would have best been cut out of the final product. Indeed, I think that this show may have in fact been slightly better had it instead been made into a series of OVAs or a movie, and the whole work would be much more enjoyable without this inconsequential filler.
As infuriating as Wolf's Rain can be, however, I ultimately do still recommend it, and that is because I feel that the final third of the show, although not entirely conclusive, largely redeems the rest of its failings. I expected a complete disaster, but the show quickly picked up steam again in this part, which successfully returns to the original purpose and makes for an intelligent and bittersweet conclusion. The ending doesn't quite give us the promised Paradise, but it gives us several wonderful action scenes, the peak of the series' character arcs, and some highly philosophical moments that allow the show to finally find a "point" and make the various wanderings feel purposeful. Others have expressed disbelief or frustration at the final episodes which, if fascinating, are still admittedly a bit bleak and show signs of having been conceived long after the show's original premise was thought through. My opinion, however, is that in all of their grimness, they bring a premise that was just beginning to spiral into the territory of unbelievability back to the ground, and it is ultimately what led me to eventually forgive the series of its failings.
Although I recommend Wolf's Rain, I do so rather cautiously. I will admit that its hyper-realistic style, mythological allegory, and bleakness will not appeal to everyone, but even with that caveat, it has a bit too much boring filler to entirely work even for those who, like me, were drawn in at the start. It can go from being beautiful, fascinating, and gripping in one episode to being laughably bad in the next, and while my opinion is that it ultimately succeeds, the strongest parts, unfortunately, come after the most continuous sequence of crap. I was ultimately quite happy with the time I spent on this show, and yet I view it very much as one that may be taken or left as desired.
This is a relatively weak four stars that expresses my ultimate feelings towards the show. Those who don't find themselves as enamored as I was at the start may safely remove at least one star. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Though mostly stylized, there is some moderately graphic violence. As a consequence of the mild carnage, this title should only be viewed by those thirteen years old or greater.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (30/30)
Wolf's Rain © 2003 Bandai Visual / Bones
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