This review was written based on DVD rental by mail, which means that it took ages to actually get through the series. So in other words memory of the start has faded by the time I finish it. In order to combat this the review was written in stages, so it might read a little weird.
The world we are invited to join seems to hold a fair number of mysteries. However the average man in the street doesn't really have time to worry about such things and is more occupied with the immediate goals of survival. If this is our future it is not a very pleasant one. Food and comfort are scarce in the cities but they're still much better than the countryside which seems ruined and deserted. High tech science exists, and the evidence of high tech warfare can be found in the wilds, but there's not much to spare for making life more pleasant. Much of what does exist is in the hands of the "nobles", who rule their scattered cities like feudal lords of old, and with just as little respect for the interests of those who occupy their land.
It is an environment which can easily bring out the bestial nature in people... although some are an awful lot closer than others. Most people believe that wolves are extinct, but what they don't know is that wolves have learnt how to fool humans, and live amongst them. These changelings have certain advantages, being stronger and faster than a human can ever hope to be, but they also know in their hearts that this is not how a proud wolf should live, fighting with humans for scraps. Thus when Kiba, a wolf of the wilds with scars from the past, passes through a certain city while hunting the legend of paradise, he dislodges an interesting group of wolves who elect to travel with him. But how do you find a goal you know nothing about?
It's a bit of an odd title really, and I can imagine people getting put off it by it. It seems to be setting itself up as adventure story in a world full of mysteries that will slowly unravel. It certainly isn't in any hurry to spell things out, like for instance what happened to make the world the way it is. And that's even before it adds another layer of new mysteries, prophecies that may be coming to pass and may signal the end of this world. However it has a rather strange ambiance for a classical adventure story, the goal is just so incredibly ambiguous, that its hard for the story to generate momentum. And a great deal of time is taken up with things that don't seem to even be trying to move the story forward.
I think the solution is to consider it as patterned on more primitive stories than what we commonly recognise as fantasy. It reminds me a little of a "shamanistic" quest, even though the trappings of the show are very modern. But what do I mean by that? The first thing is that each of the characters fits a very archetypal role. One is the "dreamer" who is drawn to the goal and seems to have almost otherworldly perceptions towards it. Another is the "warrior", who unlike the dreamer is concerned with rather more immediate concerns and dangers, and is used to be meeting them with action. And then we have the "balance" character and the "runt" to fill out the cast. They work both as characters, as representations of a type of a person and, as a group, a social model.
Seen this way some other elements of the show make more sense as well. The quests in such stories tend to be more symbolic than actual. They're more about the actions the characters take than the end being sought. This matches well with the vague goal and the odd, wandering, story progression. It also explains the whole "wolves pretending to be people" idea which becomes allegorical rather than literal. Which is sort of a good thing really, because there's quite a few problems with the idea in practice. The suggestion is that they are really wolves under human "illusion" (and lets ignore the question of how they became intelligent and mastered this trick) but it would seem there are lots of things an illusion wouldn't help with, such as foot-prints. Another example is we see the characters mountain climbing, something wolves are probably not very well suited for. And I haven't even introduced the concept of flowers becoming humans yet.
This element, which I identified early, grew as the story progressed. We get to meet a tribe of neo-primitives which strongly supports the tribal story-telling origin. There's even a spirit quest for the dreamer of the cast. Likewise animals other than wolves prove to have "spirits" and be capable of communicating with the wolves... we even get the "high-art" version of a cat-girl. Meanwhile the nobles, who have the whole goth thing going at full power, basically turn out to be magic users. In theory they're using some sort of super advanced technology, but in practice it looks like spells and dark rituals.
Of course none of this answers the question of whether its actually enjoyable to watch. And the answer is, assuming you are willing to overlook some of the story oddities as being intended for symbolic effect, that this is not an easy title to like. The characters express their differences through frequent disagreements, the story has little "pull" that keeps you eager to watch the next episode and the mood is really rather dreary. The whole ruined world and beaten down people is just all so somber and serious that there is as much a shortage of pleasure for the viewer as there is for the virtual inhabitants of it. It's all so serious, constantly trying for maximum intensity, and the story supports this with a sequence of "bad things" happening and a lot of hostility in the dialogue.
Originally I held my opinion, because all of this solid progression would be vindicated if the story could suddenly reveal how all the build up had been leading to something meaningful. However having completed it I don't feel there was nearly enough pay-off for the journey. For one thing the story ends up being some sort of cosmic magic, which means it's actually much larger than the characters, basically reducing their actual importance. The story supports this by having one of the nobles (who was earlier rather cool) go into deus ex machina mode and start pruning the cast in a rather dramatic and extremely bloody fashion. In other words the noble becomes less a character than an unstoppable and illogical force bringing the story to a sudden end. And the final conclusion is largely meaningless (the wolves played only a marginal role) and extremely ambiguous. I'd love to be able to recommend this, there really is skill in the production and they can present strong emotions and a sense of dramatic depth, but I really can't because it ultimately just isn't rewarding enough.
... did I mention somber already? From the opening song about strays with nothing to lose, to the washed out and grim looking streets, it doesn't take long to pick up the tone of the show. The production is quite decent though, character artwork is a little derivative (Chesa just looks odd) but very workable and between the two lead characters there's some Bishounen service (although one edges a little too close to disco styled). The characters have the capacity for action, they actually have rather impressive physical abilities, but the show doesn't really dwell on it. Action tends to be fast and suggested rather than detailed. Some of the technology depicted is rather weird, but in an interesting way, so that's a positive. In all its more than sufficient to support the story. The voices are good, although the runt grates a little, and the opening music probably sounds better to the Japanese, not something I'd buy the sound track to get. Ambient sound is reserved and background music alternates between english language ballads and light orchestral pieces... quite good really.
Mention should also be made of Wolfs Rain Volume 4 : Recollections. It's called this because 3-4 of the episodes on the disk are retrospective episodes from each characters point of view. It is constructed from re-used footage and events and ultimately adds very little value. Sadly the last episode of the disk does progress the story, otherwise I'd suggest just not buying it.