Wolf’s Rain: Apocalyptic Sentimentality
“Why do humans always look to the sky? Why do you try so hard to fly when you don’t have any wings? We wolves work with what we were given.”
“They say there is no such place as Paradise. Even if you search to the ends of the Earth, there’s nothing at all. No matter how far you walk, it’s just the same road, it just goes on and on. But in spite of that…Why am I so driven to find it?”
I have already written one post in the last year about the end of the world, and in the interim the subject has lost its appeal. Culture is afflicted by an eschatological fixation, making the End of the World the subject of so many recent films, television series, video games, and books that I find myself drowning in dystopia, choking on so much dust and rubble that I’ve gone hoarse. In this period when we are becoming more and more conscious of not only the human but the ecological consequences of capitalist exploitation, indeed of the indivisibility of the two, media has given us the worst kinds of fantasies with which to exorcise our anxieties. These tend to be the type encouraging peevish and nihilistic defiance (The World’s End), otherworldly escape (Knowing, Christian apocalyptic entertainment), or simply reveling/wallowing in the despair and often cathartic anarchy of the End (many video games on the reveling side, books like The Road on the wallowing side).
Anime has had its own apocalyptic fixation for some time now, with its best and worst excesses found in films like End of Evangelion, which, though relentlessly anti humanist, is at least fascinating in the kind of spectacle it offers. Akira is a more compelling example of this postmodern breed of apocalyptic animation, leaving human society intact while inaugurating a whole new solipsistic universe in its ending. These last two are at least compelling diagnoses of nihilistic tendencies in our hyperdeveloped capitalist societies, even if they still assuage our pathological need to be amused with brilliant spectacle. Unlike these two films–and most Japanese filmmaking concerned with the end of the world–Wolf’s Rain evinces little anxiety for fiery decimation. This show, from writer Keiko Nobumoto and director Tensai Okamura (of Cowboy Bebop and Darker than Black, respectively), finds a world likely already reduced to dust by some mass catastrophe. When we enter the story, the world is already lifeless, in the midst of an interim between its destruction and the inauguration of a new world.
Enter Kiba, Tsume, Hige, and Toboe, four wolves. This species is supposed to have been extinct for two hundred years, but the wolves have not died out but instead taken human shapes, blending into the decaying human society. That society is almost entirely atomized into enclosed city states, more-or-less sheltered bubbles that temporarily preserve humanity from its destined extinction. Kiba, the leader of the pack, is the last of his clan and driven by an irresistible call to seek Paradise, a world that can only be opened by wolves. As the white wolf, Kiba is the one chosen to open it, but he and his three friends are contested by Darcia, a descendant of the aristocratic human family that doomed the world.
In this world, humans were created from wolves but are inferior creatures, while the ruling class of humans, the nobles, are wolves who fell from grace and forgot their true forms. Darcia is thus a Lucifer figure, the site where the contradictions of the narrative find their closest contact. He is both human and wolf, “natural” and “artificial,” dying during the purification of the world but continuing to poison everything with his corruption. The shows themes are unrelentingly hostile to human separation from nature, showing that people are directly descended from animals but hunting them to extinction, creating a world of ecological disasters and frightening war machines. The quotation I gave above, from late in the story, demonstrates the extent to which the show despises technology and fetishizes nature. Its sympathies are with the primitive animist tribe that dresses like Native Americans and, of course, with the wolves themselves. Each of the human cities we encounter is a temporary shelter at best, disturbing Orwellian states at worst. In the last of the domed metropolises, the domain of Jaguara, people sleepwalk through life, disaffected and unconcerned with the wider world. Though the show wants to make a trenchant criticism of human society’s separation from nature and the zombifying aspects of consumer capitalism, it has no answers other than acceptance of entropy and the joy we are meant to feel at the devastation of human civilization.
The apocalypse in Wolf’s Rain is a creeping ice sheet that overwhelms everything, reduces the Earth to a dim white ball in space. Its human characters are inadequate to the task of finding Paradise, eliminated one after another as the narrative reaches its climax. Their deaths are usually at the hands of natural caprice, as mostly-sympathetic characters Cher and Hub are killed by hostile mountain conditions that even severely wounded wolves can easily endure.
Kiba and the other wolves are driven by a primal instinct to seek Paradise, even though it is not a realm of happiness but merely the continuation of the world as it already is. The show makes a consistent point that myths and fantasies, even hateful ones, are at the core of what drives us in life. The wolves all have their passionate attachments, most of them deeply personal, and these, we are meant to think, are the sum total of what we can achieve in life. There is only love, there is only the pack, there is only the instinctual drive to pull together that is left when the world is at its end. We are passionately enjoined to action, to reject life if it has no meaning. But the show has no concrete hope to offer, nothing that is worth seeking. We are supposed to, of our own will, find and pursue a purpose regardless of the risks. There is no hope in society, no meaningful change, no history. There is only personal will, the conscious choice to remain committed. Committed to what? The show has only a hollow answer.
Is it too much to ask of mere entertainment to provide a good reason to keep living? Yes, of course. I find, however, that the show attempts to do this, and I can evaluate its attempt and find it wanting. Wolf’s Rain, masterful as it is, is all the more dangerous because of its artistic beauty. We can be easily beguiled by the energetic burst of new life accompanying the show’s ending. It is easy to sit back and wait for the inevitable death of our planet, to resign to the despair and believe that it is all decided in one initial moment of corruption. Ultimately, Wolf’s Rain is skeptical where it should be and also skeptical where we should remain more realistic.
Sentimentality is not only confined to sappy-happy endings a film or show pulls out of its ear. It is not just cheaply-bought resolution but also cheap ambiguity and facile moralizing about humanity’s inhumanity that fails to note that history runs in a straight line, constantly in flux. While this show often makes a big deal out of the “path,” its path is ultimately Sisyphean, a circle where nothing of note ever happens, and where every life is completely captive to what point in the cycle they occupy. Wolf’s Rain is thus sentimental because its criticism is deficient, leading to a mixture of triumph and melancholy that are as false as the Paradise it leads to. Of course, if I affirmed a belief in an actual place of perfection, I would be guilty of rank idealism and escapism. On the other hand, the show falls too far in the other direction, not recognizing the depths of historical change and how it affects societies and individuals. History develops, repeating with differences. It does not always move in a progressive direction, but it is constantly changing, not a static cycle. To say so is to quarrel with the underlying sensibility of the show, but if criticism aspires to be more than a machine for generating recommendations about the worth of art works, it has to engage with this depth dimension of art as well as its surface content and effectiveness. In its commitment to the unchanging nature of society and its individualism, it reproduces the values of the dominant class even while showing the calamities that resulted from unjust class rule. The wolves are an underclass without the option of radical change. Their only recourse is something of a world kill switch.
As an example of apocalyptic art, therefore, Wolf’s Rain is a beautiful failure, which is perhaps all we can expect of most works of art. It is, undoubtedly, politically incorrect and riven with contradictions it cannot resolve. Is the path straight or a circle? Is the apocalypse the end or the beginning? Are the wolves saviors or death-dealers? Is there hope or not? Its ending, which attempts to resolve these contradictions, is ultimately undone by Darcia, the only character that remains outside, an exile because of his hybridity and strangeness. Yet he is the necessary to the entire scheme of the show, both because it needed a villain and because he is the mythical figure who absorbs all the poison that leaks from the gaps between these contradictions. Looking back, it seems he is the only potential bridge between the world of wolves and that of humans. And yet that is impossible, because the show is too invested in the purity of nature, ignoring the fact that nature depends on humans as much as the other way around. Ignoring the fact that our current arrangement came into being not through a cosmic Fall but from the progress of history. Of course our current arrangement is unsatisfactory, but it can be undone and replaced with a new one, not through the efforts of a chosen one but through the collective efforts of society, the social world without which our lives and the show’s narrative is without function or meaning. This is why the show’s ending is apocalyptic sentimentality: it essentializes, reduces, and then prettifies.
Because of its artistic merits and the quality of the animation and writing, I would recommend everyone watch the show. Be prepared to engage it swords drawn, however. Often the most beautiful dreams are the ones we mistake for reality because we want them to be true. However, it is irresponsible to accept easy surrender. I should probably write another piece praising aspects of the show that do deal with complexity and the dialectical relationships that define life in a better way, but the ending is the message, and I believe that the way the show ends is something of a betrayal of its own ideals. It rejects false Paradise? Good. It also rejects the prospects of real advancement, which is the furthest thing from good.