Reading the online PR for Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, at www.jin-roh.net, I came across the descriptive terms “uncompromising” and “verite”, as in cinema veriteand was instantly irritated, as those are exactly the words for this new animated film, and now, inevitably using them, I sound like I’m just recycling their PR. But those are the best short-hand labels for Jin-Roh. This tough alternate-history animated tale, scripted by Mamoru Oshii, director of Ghost in the Shell, and directed by Ghost assistant director, Hiroyuki Okiura, moves uncompromisingly against the commercial tide on many levels. Though its alternate-history setting in a fascist, militarily oppressive Japan is reminiscent (just as their PR notes, dammit!) of Phil Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this is a tale deeply rooted in the gritty urbanity of modern life. It happens to be set in an alternate Tokyobut really it’s about all heavy-handed attempts at creating social order, all military solutions to domestic crises, and all military-industrial complexes. It’s about Korea, it’s about the United States; it’s about Chechnya and Guatemala; it anticipated those rioting anti-globalization protesters in Seattle and Canada.
The film opens with riots, and with a militant underground’s use of young girlscalled “Red Riding Hoods”to deliver bombs to terrorists. Jin-Roh’s anti-hero, Fuse, is part of the elite Special Unit hunting the terrorists through the Tokyo sewers. There, Fuse encounters Nanami, a wide-eyed teenaged waif who just happens to be knowingly carrying a bomb for the revolutionaries. During their encounter, Fuse faces off with herand is told by his commander to shoot her. He hesitates, despite a training that demands ruthlessness, and she detonates the bomb, blowing herself up in front of him.
Traumatized, Fuse is in danger of falling into this fissure in the ethical foundation of his life’s mission. His interior crisis dramatizes a basic Japanese dilemma, the tension between traditional submission to the will of society and the promptings of conscience.
The plot from there convolutes and involutes, with Fuse falling for a mysterious girl who is apparently Nanami’s sister, their grimly unrequited-love story enmeshing with espionage and action. We’re drawn into Le Carre-like revelations about secret agendas within secret agendas, the machinations of the mysterious secret militia The Wolf Brigade, and inter-agency struggles for dominance. Treachery follows on treachery, betrayal on betrayalyet each twist seems to replicate the same crisis of conscience in some new manifestation...
The Red Riding Hood allusion is part of a motif, woven through Jin-Roh, which uses the grisly original German version of the Red Riding Hood story to expose society’s systematic dehumanization of its warriors for the sake of order at any cost. We intuit a wolf-like brutality working in secret behind the most apparently civilized societies to maintain the fairy tale illusion of social stability and safety.
The scriptlike Ghost in the Shellis over-weighted with explication, and the plot twists, when examined closely, seem to serve the perhaps-overstated message to the detriment of internal logic. But then, what seems logical to Japanese bureaucratic and militarized minds, so ably satirized here, is not necessarily logical to Westerners.
Though there are regular pulses of white-knuckle action and explicit violencethis is no family movie, folksJin-Roh’s auteurs don’t hesitate to slow down and examine the fabric of life itself, with exacting, brilliantly selected detail. Cheap triangular plastic flags snap in the wind in a run down amusement park; Fuse’s breath shows on a cold day, and is caught by the wind to stream past his blowing hair; bandoliers of bullets clack and ripple into a gun, with chilling authenticity. Someone has gone to enormous trouble to get the ambient sounds just precisely right in this filmand to match them up with environmental details. Cinematically, each frame is beautifully composed but also classically naturalistic, and, yes, verite. The seemingly oxymoronic attempt to do “verite” animation somehow works, making us believe in these “cartoon” characters more than we believe in live-action characters in a Tom Hanks film.
As noted by a Korean friend attending the film with me, the film makers have seen to it that Oriental eyes look like Oriental eyes: epicanthically beautiful, exactly as they should be. Anime films traditionally give their characters occidental “round eyes”, probably to increase the demographic appeal and thereby the profits of wide distribution. But the makers of Jin-Roh have defiantly gone for naturalism in every respect. Life is complex, people struggle with complex ideasso that’s what happens in the film. Life has long intervals in which all that happens is a kind of existential funk of uncertaintyand such scenes take their exact places in Jin-Roh. Japanese have Japanese eyesand, by God, so do Jin-Roh’s characters.
This brave, powerful film is a breakthrough for animethough Akira and other films comes close, this is the first truly mature anime. And it’s a genuine work of art.