Two hundred years ago, after a cataclysm whose causes have been lost with time, wolves went extinct. Or so the rag-tag remnants of humanity, living in isolated, damaged cities adrift in wastelands, think. In fact, the wolves only went underground. Their habitat gone, they learned to project the illusion that they're humans, and moved into the cities. They gained other abilities as well: remarkable manual dexterity, the ability to speak to both humans and animals, the power to draw sustenance and healing from moonlight, and more-than-lupine strength and speed and leaping.
But the Earth is dying, and if civilization completely crumbles, not even these enhanced wolves will be able to survive. But there is a legend that wolves have a link to Paradise, though it's not clear whether wolves will lead humanity to it, or flee inside and leave humans to die on their wasted planet, or whether Paradise is a real place or a state of mind. Or how the wolves will get there.
Four wolves meet up in a city: Kiba (Fang), a young wild white wolf whose human form looks exactly like Elijah Wood as Frodo; Tsume (Claws), an adult lone wolf who runs with the criminal underground and is beholden to no one; Hige (Whiskers), a young scavenger wolf whose street smarts have allowed him a relatively happy-go-lucky existence; and Toboe (Howl), barely more than a cub, raised by humans and longing for someone to take care of him.
These four wolves become entangled with a weird experiment conducted by the city's nobles, who have retained some technology-undistinguishable-from-magic and have used it to create a girl with the scent of moon flowers, a scent which the wolves connect with Paradise: Cheza, the Flower Maiden. Everyone wants Cheza: the wolves who think she can lead them to Paradise, the woman scientist for whom she's both a grand project and a surrogate daughter, the bizarre nobleman Darcia with one lupine eye, and Darcia's rival Jagura. Meanwhile, the scientist's policeman ex-husband is following her, and an alcoholic hunter with a blue-eyed dog is pursuing the wolves with intent to kill. Pretty soon almost everyone's on the run.
This is a madly complex story in which every character has his or her own agenda, and most of the twists and turns are impossible to predict. Mysteries layer upon mysteries, and there's the sense that the world is enormous and filled with strangeness and riddles.
Apart from the intriguing story, the appeal of this is in the characters, who are sharply drawn but are mostly not human. The wolves act like wolves, not people; Cheza is innocent yet alien, the mirror of everyone's deepest desires; and the nobles are so far removed from everyone else that they seem less comprehensible than the wolves. But the surrogate sire-cub relationship between Tsume and Toboe, or the bond between the hunter and his dog is no less touching than the cop's longing to remake his family.
The look of the show is remarkable, fluidly animated in sepias and watercolor-tones, like an early photograph, and filled with archetypal images. In one sequence Cheza is given a red hood and cloak-- Little Red Riding Hood who runs with the wolves. Later, she stands in a pool of water and spins, and the folds of cloth transform her into a blossoming rose with a woman's face.
I was so taken by the two episodes I saw of this at the anime expo that I ran out and bought the entire set. Unfortunately, what I took for the legitimate Chinese release (is there such a thing?) proved to be a bootleg, with subtitles that got progressively worse until by the final disc, no sentence was grammatical, some were so garbled as to be nonsensical, and some words were translated into a language which does not exist. For instance, at one point when a character is clearly saying something like "It can't be! I don't believe you!" the subtitles read "Flubgub and gulf!"
Worst of all, the final four episodes, which appear only on the DVD and were never broadcast, are missing. The last episode I have has all the characters gathered together in one place at last. Then there's a flurry of violence which may or may not kill some of the major characters. The end. No closure, no mysteries solved, no nothing. I can't help feeling that the four episodes at the end have to resolve the story better than that. If anyone has them and could burn them for me, please let me know.
So don't buy the three-disc bootleg. Watch it on The Cartoon Network or wait for the US release. The first disc is out now.