Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

Japanese animation director Mamoru Oshii is probably most famous for his two feature length adaptations of Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. But he’s worked on quite a few other projects, including some live action films and screenwriting. In 1999 one of his scripts was adapted into a feature length animated film that many felt was a game changer for anime – finally bringing it to the mainstream. But we’d all heard that story before.

The story occurs during the late 1950s in a world (including Japan) that has lost World War II to the Germans. Japan is ruled like a police state, and the people are rising up attempting to buck off the harsh rule. To quell the protests Japan creates a special police force (since they are not permitted an army) known as the Capital Police. These heavily armed teams are permitted to act with extreme measures to ensure public safety. Within this force is a secret counter intelligence unit, known as the wolf brigade. It is their job to ensure that the Capita Police retain the power they have within the political organization.

We meet Kazuki Fuse (Michael Dobson) a member of the Capital police who finds himself in a bit of a mess. During an operation that involved eliminating members of a militant group called The Sect, Fuse comes face to face with a pretty young girl. Dressed in a red coat and obviously transporting a bomb, she is cornered by Fuse. He tries to reason with her, unable to just kill her outright, as he is ordered to. Instead the girl blows herself up in front of him.

Now Fuse is being investigated for his inaction. He’s being watched by organizations within the government – did he act out of compassion, or is there something else going on? He eventually meets Kei Anemiya (Moneca Stori) a young woman who looks a lot like the girl he watched die. They become fast friends, as Fuse attempts to reconcile what he’s done. But even Kei is not what she appears. The stakes are raised as the Capital Police’s function is questioned.  In the end Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade will be forced to act and Fuse will be caught in the crossfire.

Good Points:
  • Amazing animation and backgrounds
  • Period and technical details are impressive
  • A moody musical score by Hajime Mizoguchi

Bad Points:
  • Deliberately paced
  • The political machinations require close attention
  • The film is very morose and dark

From an animation standpoint, Jin-Roh is an impressive piece of work. The design and execution of the visuals is some of the best from the 1990s, and from hand drawn animation. But the story itself is dreary and dark. Combine this with the entire atmosphere from the visuals and music, and the slow pacing and you end up with a movie that isn’t entertaining. It’s a slog to make it through, but it delivers an emotional punch at the end.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The wolf finds red riding hood.
I’m very conflicted about Jin-Roh. I haven’t seen it since its release on DVD in 2002. I appreciated so many artistic factors to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to delve back into that dreary world of despair. There is very little hope presented in the film, and none of the characters we meet escape the events of the film without injuries – mental and physical.

Let me qualify something here. I don’t mind tragic stories. I enjoy the power behind them, and understand how they can be very effective entertainment. In fact some of my favorite films are tragic in their nature. When it comes to Shakespeare, I find his tragedies much more engaging than his comedies. I love horror films (which are based on the tragedy mold). But there is something missing in Jin-Roh that turns it from tragic and into nihilistic.

Lets look at the good points. There are many and that is the reason I can’t write this film off. The animation is extremely impressive. Set in an alternate version of the 1950s, we get a view of Post War Japan that is very detailed and authentic. The cars, clothing and hairstyles reflect the time period and pull you into the world director Hiroyuki Okura creates.

In addition, the mechanical design for the weapons and armor used by the Capital police looks fully functional, and realistic. The helmets recall German design. The heavy armor, glowing night vision scopes and heavy weaponry not only appear realistic, but also intimidating as hell. To see these soldiers coming toward you means certain death.

A very realistic post war Japan
The character design in Jin-Roh is very realistic. You don’t have any crazy hair or clothing here. The people are all designed to look like real people, much like the work we see in Satoshi Kon’s work (such as Perfect Blue) or even in Ghost in the Shell (which did rely more on Shirow’s character design). But unlike Akira it is easy to tell all the characters apart. They do a good job giving characters distinctive facial features, clothing elements or body types.

The action scenes are some of the best I’ve seen. There are three set pieces, each one fluid, violent and intense. The way the armored troops move feels authentic. Later when one man attempts to take out a group of several armed guards, his motions are very realistic. The animators never shy from showing us all the moves, all the violence and the blood that these encounters create. Jin-Roh is a violent world.

Overlaid on all of this is the atmosphere of control, repression and despair. Nearly every scene in the film occurs during the night, dusk or early dawn. The sun rarely appears, and even when it does, the days are cloudy or rainy. There's a dusty color scheme to everything. It makes the visuals appear soft and faded like an old photograph. Visually, it’s a murky miserable world. And while some of the characters speak of hope, or of times changing – the visual cues are quite the opposite. It’s an oppressive mood, effectively created.

The realism also spreads to the sound design. Most of the film occurs in Tokyo, and you get plenty of crowd and traffic noise. But even quieter moments are well defined with gentle wind or rain adding to the overall film.

Turmoil rages in the streets. Order must be maintained.
Hajime Mizoguchi is no stranger to orchestral scores, since he worked with Yoko Kanno on Vision of Escaflowne, which sported a huge orchestral score with full-blown choral moments. For Jin-Roh he keeps things a bit more low key, but very effective. The score uses a mix of synthesizers, orchestra, solos by cello or electric guitar and some vocalizations.  The score gives a few moments of hope for the characters, and is very effective as a whole. The most impressive piece is the end credits, which I blogged about here.

I have to say the English voice acting is pretty solid. Dobson plays Fuse pretty close to the chest. This makes sense for the character, and also ties into the fact that Fuse doesn’t have a lot to say. Most of the character is developed through is actions and his reactions. Instead Stori gets most of the heavy lifting in her role as Amemiya. She has lots of one-sided conversations and develops a character that has several layers. The supporting cast does a good job with their parts, giving us various shades of grey to work with.

The script by Oshii is based on a series of movies, manga and radio dramas he worked on in the late 80s and early 90s. He created the world of Jin-Roh, including the Capital Police and the back-story that lead to their creation. This film doesn’t assume you’ve seen or heard any of the previous stories. And the first few minutes of the film are pretty much an info dump of history leading up to the events of the film.

Is she befriending a man or a wolf?
The most interesting theme of the story is the idea that to fight terrorism, a soldier must descend to the level of the beast. The obvious connection here is to the story of Little Red Riding Hood. There are constant allusions to the fairy tale, and to its more horrifying original version. Fuse and his comrades are often referred to as dogs, being part of a pack and talk of hunting. Wolf imagery abounds with key scenes taking place in a natural history museum in front of a diorama featuring wolves. In the Japanese version, the special unit is called Kerberos, the Greek spelling of the guardian of Hades – the three-headed dog Cerberus.

Then you have the two young girls who feature prominently in the story. Both wear red jackets with hoods. Both connect with the “wolf” on some level. Both wander into the dark dangerous inner working of the city. And both face fear. The outcomes are very different from each other (and from the original fairy tale). But the theme is obvious.

It is interesting that Oshii was exploring this theme of a strong military that de-humanizes it’s soldiers to fight terrorists,  a few years before world events really put a spotlight on this aspect of war. Not surprisingly, Jin-Roh was released in North America in 2002, two years after it’s premiere. It’s one of those things that may have made the film more relevant to anime fans at the time, and lead to the highly favorable reviews of the film upon its release.

The real motivators in the film.
But the film isn’t really about the terrorism, or the conflict between the people of the nation and their powerful police. It’s about the political machinations of the men in power who want to stay in power. This is what makes the film hard for me to relate to. It’s about men moving pawns, using people to obtain their own vague ends. Fuse and Amemiya are interesting characters with their own motives, sometimes buried deep down. But in the end, the movie isn’t’ about them. It’s about the men behind the scenes. Yes, Fuse fights with the fact that he has a soul and can’t kill a young girl (or is it all a ruse?) But the reality is that all the men in power have already removed their souls. They are willing to destroy just about anyone (or take souls from anyone) to stay in power. It’s a bleak statement.

Even though Oshii didn’t direct Jin-Roh, Hiroyuki Okiura does keep Oshii’s pacing in mind. The film moves very slowly, allowing the viewer to absorb the wonderful animation and become immersed in the atmosphere. At the same time, the tension that should be building often feels lost among the turgid meandering. I feel the movie needed to deliver its final gut punch with more speed and power. Instead, the movie ends with tragedy, but it’s taken so long to get there that we are just left feeling that all the depression up to that point couldn’t end in any other way. It’s not a surprise really; it just feels like a natural extension of this dark world.

A pack of wolves.
Let me put it this way. I’ve only watched Jin-Roh twice since I picked it up in 2002. It is impressive visually. I’ve listened to the score many times. But I never feel compelled to return to that world and those characters. It’s not an entertaining movie – not even from the perspective of tragedy. That is my biggest issue with this film. Take another extremely tragic anime feature: Grave of the Fireflies. It’s a sad story about two children attempting to survive during World War II after their village has been firebombed. They have no family, no one to look after them. They don’t have a chance. But there is hope in the film, it glimmers in the darkness, but it never goes out. And when the film ends, as it must, there is a catharsis at the children’s journey. Grave of the Fireflies is depressing, yes, and draining. But Jin-Roh lacks that catharsis. It’s depressing, draining and meandering. It ends and I’m thankful instead of reflective. And that is why I can’t give it top marks.


  1. Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedy was life-affirming because the characters achieved a sort of nobility and beauty even as they lost (often from their own flaws). Pure nihilism doesn't offer that -- even if the view is right, it's a downer.

    1. Nietzche nailed it. None of the characters in Jin Roh achieve that nobility or beauty. Because they are nothing but pawns for the politicians and generals in power, their struggling seems even more meaningless. Really a grim film, but a technically gorgeous one.

      I really had trouble trying to balance my appreciation with the overall impression it made. I've also noticed that as I get older, I have less patience for all the straight-faced, grim and dreary entertainment out there. A little humor, even of the gallows variety, goes a long way.