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!!!

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