Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
directed by Hiroyuki Okiura
(Viz/Tidepoint, 2001)

The cult movie phenomenon that can give Disney a run for its money, Japanese anime, produces consistently ground-breaking examples of animated story-telling with depth and themes of adult intricacy and sensibility.

Another such exemplar, brought to us by the folks who made the "instant" SF classics Akira and Ghost on the Shell, now appears in "art house" distribution. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade deserves to be another classic for daring to stretch the boundaries of the form with its bleak, grim, contextually appropriate violent, complex and realistic treatment of themes of life under fascistic oppression.

Also SF, the superbly crafted Jin-Roh takes place in an alternate history where Japan lost World War II to the Germans (rather than the Americans). The detailed background is explained in a beautifully delivered narration over a series of handsome black and white stills. The film, set in a vaguely 1950s Tokyo, emerges from the opening with a sensationally animated nocturnal street riot in which the Capital Police's counter-terrorist arm, the Special Unit, fights civil unrest by masses of demonstrators and the fanatical underground of urban guerrillas who call themselves The Sect. With grimmer than Grimm irony, Jin-Roh posits a mythology in which innocent-seeming uniformed schoolgirls dubbed "red riding hoods" serve in the capacity of couriers for the guerrilla army. One such riding hood is pursued by a member of the Special Unit's rogue element, the so-called Wolf Brigade (with its own secret agenda). Wearing full body armor and infrared goggles, these gun-heavy officers take on the appearance of sinister cyborgs.

Kazuki Fuse (Michael Dobson), one of these elite cops, corners his prey in the Tokyo sewers where the ambiguities of guerrilla warfare literally blow up in his face when he confronts her and hesitates to shoot a schoolgirl. She detonates a powerful bomb in her book bag. Her body utterly destroyed, Kazuki survives, shell-shocked, with his fitness to serve in doubt. He returns to the Police Academy for retraining. Obsessed by thoughts of the self-immolating, martyred girl, Kazuki tracks down her grave and meets the deceased's older sister, teen-aged Kei Arnemiya (Monica Stori), who uncannily resembles her sibling. Given this unsettling development, the morose couple soon keep company in the emptied-out, if not quite haunted, Tokyo. The plot, growing convolutedly paranoid amid hints of conspiracy and internecine conflict within the security police, eventually finds the pair hiding out in the Shinjuku district. Both pawns in some complicated intrigue, the protagonists return to the underworld sewers, ultimate landscape of trauma, only to be pursued to a desolate spot in an outlying area to confront a tragic destiny.

Conceptualized by Mamoru Oshii, director of the gorgeously atmospheric Ghost in the Shell, and directed by his assistant on that film, Hiroyuki Okiura, Jin-Roh features an even more downbeat narrative in an intensely dystopian urban setting. The subtle, eerie, painterly animation effectively conveys this bleakness and gloom accentuated by Jin-Roh's action taking place mostly at night. Despite a mostly full moon, the never less-than-somber palette makes gray, sooty, postwar Tokyo resemble a brick-walled concentration camp. The filmmakers, lavishing great attention on detailed building facades, intentionally render the characters in a flatter style to make people seem like shadows flitting through an overwhelming environment. Hajime Mizoguchi's dramatic score with jazz and pop stylings also helps to complement the movie's moodiness.

Jin-Roh, haunted equally by post-WW II Japanese social history largely unfamiliar to most Westerners and by the fairy-tale images of wolves twisted into a grisly variation of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, may be the most dazzlingly noir anime ever made, if such melancholia can be considered dazzling. The film takes its dual themes of loss and despair very seriously, using the advantages of line-drawn animation to create a milieu that would cost hundreds of millions to produce as live-action. Jin-Roh, striving for a grown-up, gut-wrenching emotional depth that most Hollywood films reject, succeeds in proving that cartoons cannot be considered just kid-stuff, that the art form has finally come of age.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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