Flowers at the End of the World: A Small Retrospective on Wolf’s Rain

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact feelings that many lates 90s and early 2000s animes had when I was watching them as a child. Between series such as Serial Experiments Lain, Last Exile, Haibane Renmei, Technolyze, Ergo Proxy, Kino’s Journey, Cowboy Bebop, and even Fullmetal Alchemist, there was something distinct about the imagery and messages that were being expressed. I liken it to my adolescence itself, being a time of philosophical exploration and understanding, but the fact that I go back to so many of these series years later to find that they still hold up — and sometimes garner even greater appreciation — is a testament to the depth of some of their stories and, barring that, the imagery they evoke.

I was an early teen watching these shows, young enough that I worried as I got older I wouldn’t draw the same love from them on a rewatch. It stands to reason that’s true, but there was only one show, aside from Fullmetal Alchemist and Cowboy Bebop, that truly impacted me to the extent that my current art and writing style — even a decade and a half later — borrow heavily from its influences. That series is Wolf’s Rain.

Wolf’s Rain is a bit of a rarity. It isn’t a show that had a ton of fans, and it certainly didn’t have the popularity here that I thought it deserved, even knowing why. Wolf’s Rain is exceptionally melancholic.

My parents didn’t find it half as enjoyable as Fullmetal Alchemist and I don’t think I’ve watched the series myself all the way through more than twice due to how heavy it can be at times. But there are episodes I’ve revisited, scenes that I’ve explored and replayed, and imagery that I’ve taken deep inspiration from.

When I think back to the snowy day that I first finished the show all those years ago, I can’t shake that something profound had overtaken me. Art does that you, certainly, and something in Wolf’s Rain drew me in like gravity.

Wolf’s Rain is about many things, but the story revolves around a wolf named Kiba and those who eventually follow him to seek out paradise. Set in a world perched on the end of its life, Wolf’s Rain is a story of searching for something without even knowing what it might be or where it might lead. Its main protagonists are all wolves — ones who have, bear with me here, learned to disguise themselves as humans — but the ensemble cast includes a number of humans and creatures alike that aid and hinder them on their journey. Legend in the show says that wolves will lead the way to paradise, and so the society’s noble-class — called, aptly, “Nobles” — seek to find this paradise for their own means and manipulate the wolves into leading them there.

Yet no one knows what “paradise” really is. They seem to think it physical, a beautiful, heaven-like sanctuary free from the cold and desolate world they currently inhabit. Maybe it’s far away, in another dimension, maybe it’s in space, maybe it’s a heavenly realm, or maybe it’s just a concept. The idea of paradise has this vague conceptualization for the entirety of the show. All we know is that Kiba, the other wolves, and the humans were all inextricably drawn there.

“‘I tell you now the words of Red Moon. From the Great Spirit was born the wolf and man became his messenger.’ In other words, the human race was created from wolves. So says the author of the Book of the Moon.” — Quent Yaiden, Wolf’s Rain

Kiba’s drive to find paradise isn’t one borne of desire. It’s from necessity. It’s framed as an almost primal instinct, one that even the other wolves have a hard time trying to curtail and understand. Kiba will seek paradise out at all costs, even if he does so alone. This absolute determination is what drives so much of the narrative. Kiba is sought after by Darcia, a fallen Noble who lost his love to “paradise sickness”, a disease brought about by falling too deeply into an illusionary “heaven”, a story beat that has far-reaching impacts in more ways that one.

Those who follow Kiba do so out of more than loyalty. Eventually, they grow to understand his drive, even if they don’t always share it. In the end, Wolf’s Rain is about the search for paradise more than it is the reaching of it. But unlike most stories where the ultimate goal is sidelined for all the growth made along the way, Kiba hardly changes. His pursuit of paradise could even be called his fatal flaw. In the end we expect it will ultimately kill him, and Wolf’s Rain is filled with such desolate, barren landscapes that it feels like we’re watching that tragedy foreshadowed by the very world our characters inhabit.

And Wolf’s Rain is a tragedy.

It’s performed on a stage set against the backdrop of fairytales and modern sci-fi action. It features robots and shamans and deserts and tundras. It paints this loving picture of a desolate world. We may have had out dystopic obsessions back in the early 00s, with the advent of Hunger Games and Divergent and the emerging world of young adult literature, but there is a difference between post-apocalyptic storytelling, which posits that the end of the world has already happened, resulting in a need to move forward from it, and a pre-apocalyptic story — one that sets the story at the cusp of the actual end of the world.

Both deal with societies far removed from any sense of the normalized functionality of the ones we have today. But while post-apocalyptic stories tend to want to change the future and paint a picture in which the world might be able to change, pre-apocalyptic stories don’t always have luxury of knowing what the other side of their end contains. It might be a future. Or it might be oblivion. And that kind of uncertainty is a powerful world-building tool. Slowly, over the course of the show’s 26 episodes (30, including the additional ones) we find ourselves watching this world crawl slowly towards total destitution. We see glimpses of paradise as this vivid place of greenery and wildlife, watch our characters swayed by real and potential truths, and come to see all of it unravel.

It’s no wonder than, given the nature of the narrative, that Wolf’s Rain leans so heavily into the idea of fairytales. It goes so far as to even pose the idea that the stories and lies we tell ourselves may be just as powerful as the truths we seek from them. Kiba has an encounter with this later in the series, when he begins hallucinating about a paradise after nearly starving in the desert and finding his way into the embrace of a hallucinogenic plant. There he meets another creature, who he eventually falls in with, and when he urges her to leaves with him she tells him she cannot. She has already fallen for this fake paradise. But he must still find his own.

Honestly, Wolf’s Rain is a fascinating example of world building and narrative disillusionment. It creates stakes that we as the audience can’t ever rightly ever part with. The destruction of the world isn’t a threat the heroes have to stop — it’s a reality they are seeking to escape. The world is full of death and it isn’t treated as something superficial that happens often — it’s treated with great care and tenderness, even when it occurs to characters we hardly know. We see these people and creatures as fleeting existences in a dying world, and yet their stories are given a real and aching gravitas that carries through the rest of the narrative. It’s as if the people we meet are the ghosts that haunt our path forward here.

The imagery of the show the itself evokes a deeply religious sentiment while managing to stay detached from any real worship. For all its death and tragedy, in retrospect Wolf’s Rain feels like a gentle show.

Kiba’s unchanging desire to reach paradise, the other characters desire to seek solace in those that join them on this journey, the truth of what paradise itself is — there’s a lot to unpack in Wolf’s Rain. It’s a spiritual exploration of self. Or beginnings, of what kinds of truths we are willing to stomach and live through, which ones we’re willing to make real at all costs. There’s far more I could write about the visual candor and the lovely musical soundtrack by the every wonderful Yoko Kanno, but you could also watch it for yourself if you’re so inclined to give it a shot — and if you’re looking for a slower burning story with an evocative individuality, then I say you might find it here.

Wolf’s Rain is available for streaming with a subscription on Funimation.

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in my head or one of the Final Fantasy games, most of the time / https://ko-fi.com/raesun / https://www.twitch.tv/raesosun

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RaeSoSun

RaeSoSun

in my head or one of the Final Fantasy games, most of the time / https://ko-fi.com/raesun / https://www.twitch.tv/raesosun

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