What a charming movie this is, and at the same time a deep and thoughtful one. Stormy Night adapts a children’s book from Japan into an animated film of remarkable intelligence and keen wit, in much the same way Kiki’s Delivery Service was brought to the screen. It’s a perfect example of how a movie can be for all ages without being a “kid’s film”, and for that reason it’s a shame it’s never been released domestically.
The story: Somewhere out in the wilderness, two animals take refuge in a decrepit old barn to sit out a thunderstorm. One is Mei (Hiroki Narimaya), a young goat with a gentle, naïve attitude towards life. The other is the wolf Gav (Shido Nakamura, the voice for Ryuuk in Death Note), a bit of a buffoon, always thinking with his stomach, a bit of a coward. Both are terrified of the storm, and out of fear they talk to each other. In the dark, all they can hear is the other one’s voice, providing reassurance and company. They’re more similar than different: they have the same fears, the same hopes, the same fond nostalgia of one kind or another. They promise to meet again, and use the passphrase “Stormy Night” to recognize each other. Then comes the day of their meeting, in broad daylight, and both of them are flabbergasted. This is the guy I was talking to?
But after the initial shock fades, they realize they still have all the things in common they did before. They both love a beautiful view, for instance, and they climb a nearby mountain to enjoy a meal there. Gav’s lost his food — he’s loathe to admit it’s lamb, for fear of alienating his new friend — and watches disconsolately while Mei chows down on his bushel of clover. “Eating with him,” he says, “is a little like having lunch with your lunch!” He’s tormented, but ultimately conscience wins out: you can’t eat one of the few people in the world you feel some unique connection to. The other lambs don’t know about Mei’s friend, and at one point they panic and flee when they see Gav approaching — and, likewise, Gav can’t talk about Mei amongst his own pack. Is friendship really worth it when all it does is isolate you that much more from the world you’ve always known?
Then the seasons begin to change, and both sides — wolf and lamb — have to deal that much more with being predators and prey. It divides them all the more starkly. “How could we be friends with this grass?” Mei’s friends ask him, when they learn that he’s befriended a wolf. Gav has it no better: his packmates accuse him of aiding and abetting prey. They’re each seen as traitors to the other side, with the stakes as either starvation or being devoured. Then Mei is asked to use his friend as a source of information for details about the wolf attacks — to abuse his trust for the sake of his herd. Gav, in turn, is invited to do the same thing, for the sake of saving his own neck from being snapped. How the two of them deal with having to betray each other forms the final third of the story, where they strike out into the unknown by themselves and take on all of the risks of going it alone. People might say there’s one ending too many, with a gimmick that seems gratuitous, but (and I tread lightly here to avoid spoilers) it illustrates a point: the only alternative to remembering our mistakes is to repeat them endlessly, and that we must keep eternal vigilance against our own worst natures.
The charm of Stormy Night is in how it touches on so many subjects subtly, without ever preaching or talking down to the audience. The movie’s wise enough to make the arguments for both goat and wolf packs sound like common sense — because, well, they are. No society bends that far for any one person without precedent, and so Gav and Mei are forced to either forsake their respective societies or each other. They both know that old line about “the friends of my friends are also my friends” doesn’t apply here. I also admired how the filmmakers don’t stop short where a story like this would normally end: they explored the full implications of the ideas they brought up, and don’t shy away from heartbreak when it’s called for. And if you think I’ve made this whole thing sound like a dreary morality play, it’s not: it’s done with humor and adventure, and a good deal of goofy physical comedy when the moment demands it.
The voice cast is mostly veterans, both of anime and conventional live-action Japanese films, but it’s not distracting. The one voice that stands out the most is perennial J-movie yakuza tough guy Riki Takeuchi, tapped for the role of Giro (the wolf-pack leader who sports a very yakuza-like scar over one eye). The animation doesn’t have the meticulous quality of, say, a Miyazaki production — it’s about TV-show level — but it’s got a painterly quality to it that reminds us all the more of its storybook origins, and many moments that are lovely enough to put on a poster. And if you mist up while watching it, I don’t blame you at all.