PSA: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999), or The Beast Awakes Thirsty And Covered In Tattered Human Skin

6 11 2009

After many years of watching anime, I can safely say that, for the most part, I do not like the genre in an episodic format. It’s not that I don’t like serialized stories; don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to the peculiar world of Japanese animation, I’m forced to often throw my hands in the air and walk away from most of their television shows. If it’s not embarrassingly saccharine and precious, it’s overly slick and boastful of its own J-coolness. Everything is hyperbole, and nothing is very intellectually engaging for an adult. But never fear! The Japanese, much like American artists, know that the real art is not found on television, but in the lyrics and the liberty of the motion picture. Some of the best anime can be found as films, some as engaging, if not more, as a regular movie but without the limitations of reality. One of my favorite films using Japanese animation is Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, a film created by famed animator Mamoru Oshii and animation supervisor Hiroyuki Okiura. It is an achingly beautiful and eloquent story of longing, displacement, political dissent, and the loss of identity as one steers closer into the world of the animal and farther away from the brood of man.

Set in an alternate time-line after World War II in the 50s, we see that Japan’s people, ruling political party, and even their military are divided amidst the post-war depression and upheaval. In Tokyo, there are violent riots by the leftist population that are growing more radical and deadly by the day. The right-wing governing body has sent out specialized troops with large suits of armor called Panzer Cops from their Central Police Unit (a jurisdiction conflict with the opposing military police) to quell the riots. During one particular raid in the sewers beneath Tokyo, a supply train for the weapons used in the protests is busted, and the special troops are forced to pursue many of these culprits through the labyrinthine aqueducts. One soldier pursues and corners a “Red Riding Hood”, a female supply mule dressed in a red cloak carrying bombs and weapons. The soldier is about to shoot the girl, but when she turns around to look at him, he freezes. He can’t shoot her, and in the time it takes for him to freeze, she sets off a bomb and kills herself, damaging his powerful armor, and subsequently knocks out the power for a few blocks, allowing the leftist rioters to escape.

It becomes a fiasco for the government, who not only let the extremists slip from their grasp, but broke jurisdiction restraints and deployed the Panzers despite the tenuous truce the local and Capital police had maintained for quite some time. The soldier who caused all this is named Kazuki Fuse, a young, exceptionally gifted Lieutenant with a spotless record but a tendency towards being a loner outside of the base. He’s put through the Capital Police training again as punishment, but remains fairly unscathed despite the controversy. He doesn’t know why he didn’t shoot, and although the scene keeps replaying over in his head, he still can’t forget that girl’s face. There is something about her he can’t let go of. He even goes to the girl’s wake at the local funeral home. He is shocked to find a girl that looks exactly like her standing there praying for the “Red Riding Hood”; it is the girl’s sister, named Kei. The two develop an unlikely friendship, a relationship that draws out the inherent loneliness in both of them, as well as the desperation that exists in the heart of the city that lies as a shadow of its former glory. Can their love bloom in the face of war, violence, and death? Will Fuse’s own misgivings about his nature and his secrets prevent him from loving her? And is there more to Kei than we know, as well?

What an amazing film! I’ve never seen a film capture better the sadness inherent when I imagine post-war Japan. Even though it’s set in an alternate time-line with different names and places, the reality of this divide and the restlessness of the people is palpable, and Oshii understands this as part of the leftist revolts in the 70s. The sadness in the streets, the cold, unforgiving grip of poverty, and the willingness of those in power to sweep others under the carpet for gain are all very real aspects to this time, and all of these things are handled beautifully here.

Jin-Roh is also sort of a guessing game. All throughout the film, you’re told of this elite group of Panzers in the Capital Police called The Wolf Brigade, an elite Counter-Intelligence group that has infiltrated the highest echelons of the military industrial complex. You’re asked to contemplate on just who is involved in this group, what they want, and who their enemies are. In this political and espionage element of the film, we’re kept pretty much in the dark until the very end, but guessing is always the fun part, and it’s yet another amazing aspect to this wonderful film.

But let’s not forget about the animation itself! The drawings are lifelike and muted, true to the colors surrounding Japan in the 50s. Everything is either beige, a washed-out, formerly beautiful color, or white. The settings are painfully realistic, down to the tiny and sparse apartments, the sensible “modern” clothing, and the lonely dull buses driven all around town. Even the characters are faded, Fuse’s and Kei’s skin pale beneath the frightened Japanese sun. But these dispassionate scenes are interspersed with flashes of Fuse’s disturbing psyche. The memories of the Red Riding Hood, nightmares of wolves attacking and eating Kei, and other, more obscure ideas are shown in quick moments of Fuse’s silent contemplation.

The characters and their thoughtful, meaningful dialog are the real highlight of this Jin-Roh, though. I won’t reveal too much, because this is a movie that needs to unfold slowly and methodically, but it is simply amazing. It’s as eloquent as Truffaut or Godard, only about 40 years after the fact. There are scenes where Kei and Fuse read the original Gothic Little Red Riding Hood (pre-1870) to each other, and these slow, sweet moments are to be relished with the patience of a ballad being penned in front of your eyes. It’s simply stunning, and I’ve never seen anything like it in an animated film before.

In conclusion, please take the time to watch this film. Jin-Roh will not be for everyone; it’s meticulously paced, subdued and dispassionate like a French New Wave film. There aren’t a lot of action scenes, and while the animation is phenomenal, using the most advanced effects of the time to create a realistic alternate time-line, it’s not very eye-popping in the same sense that Transformers is, i.e. colorful and paced like a heart attack. But I can tell you with all sincerity that I have rarely seen an animated film with more power. There’s nothing like it in the history of cinema, and it will forever stand as a testament to the genius of Okiura and Oshii and their contributions to a medium that all too often relies on silly hair and Japanese pop music to sell their stories. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is timeless and exquisite, and I give it a fitting 10 animals with human faces out of 10! My highest recommendation!

All right! keep an eye out for a Night Out film for tomorrow! What I’ll watch I don’t know! Maybe you should REQUEST SOME MOVIES FOR ME!!!

Falling Down (1993), or Schumacher’s Silver Lining

6 11 2009

While I don’t have the deepest respect for Joel Schumacher, the man who put Batman in a coma, everyone always reminds me of Falling Down, his one free pass movie, the movie that everyone loves him in, and the one movie where he didn’t seem to fuck it all up with his odd sensibilities. It’s a cult classic, a searing indictment of American values in the 90s, and I can’t think of anybody who hasn’t loved it to death after they saw it. So, after watching it again after quite a number of years (that’s the unofficial trend of the week, I see), I can say that I appreciate Falling Down, and I think it’s one of Schumacher’s best, but I don’t think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

As with many stories of its ilk, Falling Down begins with a day that might not be as bad as any other day, but it sure feels like shit when you’re living it. A fellow named William Foster has had a really bad day. His ex-wife had a restraining order put on him, his job has let him go, it’s the hottest day in what seems like forever, and he just can’t take it anymore. He walks out of his car, leaving it behind, and makes a journey across LA to break the restraining order and attend his daughter’s birthday. Along the way, he will will violently break all the rules that his life has been held up by, and he will oppose with some heavy-duty firearms anyone who stands in the way of a hot LA day redeemed. Simultaneously, we find ourselves with only one real hero in the town, a barely standing old cop who is the only real thing willing to put an end to William’s pissed-off nerdy tirade. Will our police officer hero be able to stop him in time, or is William going to get what he wants? And is the police officer even our hero?

It is an emotionally complex film, more so than it perhaps even realizes. There’s something very melancholy about the pathetic Foster, from the moment he steps out of his car and you see him abandon the constraints of normal life. It’s a joyless spree of violence that offers not even the illusion of happiness or euphoria that proceeds any act of self-liberation. His acts are not acts of anger, these are acts of acute confusion and disbelief that life can steer so wrong. And his rival in this blind struggle is Prendergast, an officer belittled by the force, his superiors, and even his wife for his old age, his refusal to curse or lash out, and his tendency towards patience. He also has an emotional struggle throughout the film that is far from Danny Glover’s close-to-retirement Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. This man is beat down, struggling to maintain a feeling of potency even as everyone around him mocks his zealotry towards this mysterious crime-wave. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and if anyone is willing to look past the slightly-worn “fuck society” sentiment used here as some sort of knee-jerk reaction to 90s ennui, then you’ll find that these characters are, if anything,  fresh and lively.

And the acting is pretty good for a Schumacher film. Michael Douglas is a wonder as William Foster. His maniacal intent is cloaked behind a deep emotional connection to his daughter and a stinging regret of a failed marriage. Even during his violent assault weapon-fueled soliloquys, he is tinged with something that really approaches empathy with me. It is a tribute to Douglas’s ability that he can make a man like Foster not only likable but charismatic! We want him to succeed; almost. And Robet Duvall is amazing as everyone’s favorite put-upon officer, Prendergast. I remarked in my Colors review what a pro Duvall was, even with his patented Poker Face on. Here, he arguably does even better as Prendergast, a character with a little more depth. He’s truly one of the best, and this is another good performance from a man I’ve gained a lot of respect for this past year. Barbara Hershey is the weakest link of the three leads as Beth, Foster’s ex wife. She’s a bit too soft for what I think the character calls for. She needs more fire under her feet, a little temperature boost to make her really shine. Compared to Duvall and Douglas, Hershey doesn’t really carry all the weight she should, and she should be carrying quite a lot as the caretaker of Foster’s daughter, who is the linchpin to the whole thing.

There are some flaws. it’s not exactly consistent. The message has an opacity that is either all-encompassing or lazy, and I don’t think this is terribly intentional. Some of the settings are unnecessarily harsh towards Foster, especially the breakfast scene shown above (like a fast food restaurant manager wouldn’t let you tea-bag him for a positive review on your comment card!) and I often get the feeling that LA was a pathetic parody of itself rather than the semi-realistic mirror it should have been. But it’s still good. It’s an exceptional movie with some real power behind it. A lot has to be said for the lead actors, and even the near-graceful approach Schumacher uses for such a bold indictment of society. It’s got a lot going for it, and while I won’t go to sleep tonight with visions of Foster dancing in my head, I’m still surprised and found it to be a little better than I remember it. I give Falling Down 8 1/2 tea-bagged fast-food restaurant managers out of 10!

Stay up with me as I cram in a review for one of my favorite films of all time! Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade!