Wolf's Rain

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

--T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

Wolf's Rain is a Russian fairy tale told through Japanese lenses. A dark, foreboding story of wolves, men, and demi-gods, it is a striking work that is lovely to look at and easy to respect. The problem with Wolf's Rain is that despite being commendable, it's not a show that's easy to love. It may be awe-inspiring, but its storytelling form and narratively weak conclusion make it a program easier to admire than to adore, despite the amazing talents on display.

Wolf's Rain begins as four wolves meet. Each has his own take on the world. Toboe's a young pup, as wet behind the ears as one could expect and still awed by the world around him. In comparison, Tsume is a hardened pack leader who cares only for himself, grizzled by a hard life. Hige is a cheerful fellow who thinks about food and girls. Then there's Kiba, the enigma. He's driven by an unrelenting desire to open Paradise. He's not certain where it is, but he knows he must find it. Strangely enough, the other three all feel the same urge, and despite their differences, they band together to find the gateway to a world that offers hope against the dying land they now inhabit.

But this is not a world of hounds...for wolves are supposedly extinct. Over the centuries, wolves have learned to mask themselves as humans, traveling undetected in our midst. As the foursome search for Paradise, they encounter some who would kill them out of their hatred for wolves. Others want to use them for their special powers. For as it turns out, the rulers of this world are well aware of the prophecies of the Book of the Moon, which tells of the wolves as the key to unlock Eden. The nobleman Darsha, a cruel man haunted by death, will stop at nothing to enter Paradise himself, even if it means destroying the world around him to do so...and the four wolves who just want to reach a new home.

Wolf's Rain is certainly a very strong title in terms of its crafting. The first episode starts with a train raid that deserves the big screen, it looks so incredible. Although the rest of the show doesn't look nearly so awesome, it is still a big-budget television show with consistently good artwork. With visuals by BONES, the group who worked on the Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne films, and music by the ever-popular Yoko Kanno, it really is an audio-visual feast. I can even say that the dub, which I watched on Adult Swim, is excellent. If nothing else, animation lovers should rent the first DVD just to see what's on display.

There's plenty else to like here, too. The interaction between the wolves is surprisingly engaging. They work as good foils to one another, and the show tends to be best when it focuses on them. Meanwhile, the plot is full of unexpected twists, and the human bit characters they involve are fully realized. It has all the elements of a classic.

Unfortunately, perhaps the biggest problem with Wolf's Rain is that it is too self-conscious. I almost felt like the animators wanted me to appreciate it as a huge, sprawling anime. And though I can appreciate the desire to create an epic, Wolf's Rain just isn't quite there. I constantly wavered when watching the show trying to decide how much I really enjoyed it, which is odd. Usually, something so well made just gets me going. Wolf's Rain has all the parts, but it doesn't completely connect.

There are two central issues involved with that disconnection. The first is the concept I mentioned at the beginning of the Russian fairy tale. Though the show does not make this explicit, the Cyrillic writing throughout makes you realize that the show takes place in that part of the world. It also follows through with the darker side of Grimm, with always cloudy skies and grim outlooks. It is a unique and intriguing idea for anime, but it also makes for a bleak sort of show.

The second issue is that from the very beginning, the writers created a dilemma that cannot be solved. How do you create Paradise? What does Eden look like? When you look at sacred literature like the Bible, we are told just enough to know that Heaven is a place you would want to be, but not enough that we as human beings can define it in our own terms. But any visual representation of Paradise is going to fall short. Thus, no matter how the show ends, it will be a letdown. Much has been made of the ending, which is disappointing, frankly. But the way the show is written, there is no way to end it in a satisfying manner. It's the show's Achilles' heel, so to speak.

Wolf's Rain is an impressive, almost brilliant show that is just out of the first tier of shows I can recommend. I wish I liked it more, even if it meant admiring it less than I do. But just like Paradise, this show's reach just exceeds its grasp. It's good anime, just not great.

Wolf's Rain -- violence, profanity -- B+