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Anime Reviews: Wolf's Rain
Though held back by inert characters and heinous recap episodes, Wolf's Rain still holds its own with beautiful presentation and an amazing, imaginative world.
Title: Wolf's Rain
Series Length: 26 episodes + 4 OVA
Air Dates: 1/6/2003 to 7/29/2003 and 1/23/2004 to 2/25/2004
Age Rating: 13+ (some strong violence, brief partial nudity)
Summary: The prophecy says, "When the world is at its end, Paradise will appear, but only wolves will know the way." Now that the world is a barren wasteland ruled by glory-hunting nobles, the time of the prophecy is at hand, but wolves have been extinct for over 200 years--at least, that's what most people believe. Quent Yaiden, a grizzled hunter who has sworn to kill every last wolf left alive, is one of the few who still believe, and his beliefs are validated when a great white wolf appears in the city, leaving a trail of death in his wake. And with that, other wolves begin to appear, using their ability to masquerade as humans to their advantage. Before long, the wolves gather together and set out on their journey to reach Paradise at any cost.
The Good: Inventive and interesting setting; consistently great art and animation; Yoko Kanno's legendary music; the OVAs truly make the series
The Bad: Characters feel flat; some elements of the setting poorly explained; the infamous Recap Block
The Ugly: Tsume's tight leather pants leave little to the imagination
I'm not sure what it is about Wolf's Rain, but it took me until my third try to finally see it in its entirety. It's not that it was boring me or anything, but I kept stopping halfway through for some reason. In the end, however, I prevailed over my deficient attention span and completed the journey, but was it all worth it in the end? Surely I can safely say that I could not even hope to predict how this series would progress, and perhaps that's Wolf's Rain's greatest identifying feature: People still remember this anime, long after its popularity has waned, because it defied all expectations, and mine were no exception.
First things first, there is no discussion about Wolf's Rain that can begin without mentioning the series' concept and setting. To put it as simply as possible, there exist very few anime mired in an atmosphere of folklore and apocalypse as deep as this one. The prophecies, the lore, the derelict towns, the incredible technology, the jaw-dropping divide between the Nobles and regular people, the science, the wolves and their deceptive abilities--there's just so much creativity involved in putting this world together, and it is so good. So, so good. Even if the series failed in every other aspect, the world of Wolf's Rain would still be more than enough to merit recommendation, if only to provide inspiration to any aspiring writer or artist.
And hey, speaking of artists, let it also be known that this is one hell of a beautiful series (surprise surprise, it's made by Bones). Washed-out colors and subdued, gritty artwork reflect the dirty cities and broken wastelands of the series, and that makes the settings all the more immersive. And just because the art is dirty doesn't mean it's ugly, though; it's a worn, scarred, and rust-covered thing of beauty, and it's done an incredible justice with gorgeously smooth animation. Even the 3-D animation, when it does rarely pop up, blends in magnificently with its surroundings, guaranteeing that precious few frames of any given episode are even remotely unsightly. The only thing that could make the series' aesthetic any more wonderful would be to have an incredibly solid soundtrack to go with it, right?
Well, take a big, fat guess what's next on the list of positives. Hint: It's the soundtrack. From spectacular rock opener "Stray" by Steve Conte to the gentle ballad closer "Gravity" by Maaya Sakamoto, to everything in between, there is some tremendously beautiful music at work in Wolf's Rain. Whether it's a painfully serene number like "Go to Rakuen" or a tense, slightly mysterious song like "Tsume's Sand," and even the omnipresent pop song "Cloud 9," there is absolutely no shortage of memorable tracks. Oh, and the composer? Yeah, it's Yoko Kanno. I guess that's really all that needed to be said. It's Yoko Kanno, folks. Therefore it's guaranteed to be amazing.
But what about the story and the characters, you ask? Well, I'll get to the characters eventually, but the story must be mentioned first. To be honest, the story itself is nothing very fancy or even very memorable--some guys who are actually wolves want to go to Paradise, and so they do--and then the end of the TV series came in and brought a lousy non-ending with it. And then the OVAs happened. Suddenly, the story picked up tremendously. There were things at stake now! And stuff happens! Memorable stuff! Extremely emotionally heart-wrenching stuff! I'm actually exhibiting an emotion now! Of course, this isn't to say that the preceding 26 episodes were bad--they weren't--but they never really inspired anything beyond "Whoa, this setting is kinda neat. Oh, our heroes are doing stuff now, I guess. Let's see where this goes." And then, BOOM! Action! Drama! Love! Loss! Life! Death! Hope! Despair! It's all on display in the final 4 episodes, and they are glorious!
You know what, sadly, is not on display, however? Interesting characters. Sure, there are a couple standouts (Quent and Hubb, mainly), but the rest of the cast is just a bit...flat. Now most of them do get shining moments of development, especially Tsume, but they're just kinda...there. I would have definitely appreciated a more dynamic and interesting cast, and I'm sure it would've been enough to propel Wolf's Rain from being "That one anime with wolves, right? I think I've heard of it." to "That awesome anime with wolves, right? It's one of my favorites!" among the anime community. But were that the only fault in the series, I wouldn't give it much thought, but sadly, we're not done poking holes in it yet.
Just like Last Exile (which was released the same year), there are many crucial elements to the setting that never get any real explanation. Who are the Nobles? I guess they're rich guys who rule what little of the world there is left. Airships? The Nobles just seem to have them. How do they work? What's their power source? And who's Jagara? A Noble who does...Noble-y things, I guess. All that talk about alchemy making synthetic humans? I suppose that's a thing, or else we wouldn't have Cheza. What about the Book of the Moon? Why was it banned? Is it the only banned book? What other books were banned, and what insight into the world could they offer? What about Iyek and his tribe? Are they Native Americans? Does that mean we've been in Canada all this time? Are there many tribes like Iyek's? If so, where are they? And this is just off the top of my head. It's one thing to create an amazingly detailed world to set your story in, but withholding many of those details from the audience is just weak.
And finally, the most grievous offense Wolf's Rain has committed: the cardinal sin of multiple, back-to-back filler episodes. The degree of the sin? Four of them. Consecutively. Right in the middle of the series. Episodes 15 through 18, to be exact. While I don't begrudge the series for having a recap episode with so many subplots and characters being tossed around, but four in a row?! Good Lord, man!
At least with the series' ending (which is the source of contention for many), there are many who can see that there could have been no other alternative, and so the ending is not only justifiable, but logical and satisfying. But nothing merits multiple recaps. Not even Kare Kano is immune to that criticism, and it's a bona-fide classic.
But hey, all's well that ends well, right? Certainly the good outweighs the bad when it comes to Wolf's Rain, but having mediocre characters and a large chunk of the series devoted to repetitive recapitulation is enough to sink a series from being great to merely being good. And in this instance, that's a damn shame, because this was a labor of love constructed by the same people who gave us Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist. With that much star power, we should have gotten an anime for the ages, not the merely decent anime with brilliant presentation that you see before you.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10. While Wolf's Rain truly is a marvel of visual arts and musical mastery set in a broken world that so desperately begs to be seen, the fact remains that the characters leave too little impact and too much time is wasted on the series repeating itself to make this a must-watch anime.