Thursday, March 31, 2016

Neglected Gem # 91 – Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hadn’t seen her mother in seven years. She was forced to dress in iron clothes and was told, ‘When you wear out these clothes, you can go back to your mother.’”
Contrary to this line from the film, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is neither about iron clothes nor mothers – at least, not literally anyway. This 1999 animated feature takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood (here identified, apropos of the setting, as the Brothers Grimm’s "Rotkäppchen") and applies its motifs and simple morality to a winding tale of political allegiances in an alternate-history version of Japan. A brief intro before the opening title card sets the stage for us. It’s the 1950s; Japan was taken over by Nazi Germany in the wake of WWII and is now struggling to maintain political stability as the occupying German troops leave the country after a decade of oppression. The people rebel against their fledgling government. Protests are frequent and often violent, requiring special police forces and paramilitary groups to manage to the chaos. Enter the iconic, gas-mask wearing, red-eyed Kerberos Panzer Cops, an elite anti-terror unit charged with keeping the peace at all costs. In Jin-Roh’s Japan, the Kerberos Cops are as controversial as they are deadly and presently at risk of being disbanded.

It’s a complicated and nuanced setting, one that is fed to the audience in some places and merely implied in others. Against this detailed backdrop is the story of Kazuki Fuse, an armoured officer in the Kerberos Corp who is rattled by an encounter with a young suicide bomber in the sewers. Kazuki’s failure to shoot the young girl, a so-called “Little Red Riding Hood” who runs bombs for the resistance, results not only in the girl’s meaningless death, but also a hefty reprimand from his superior officers. Kazuki is sent back to basic training where he wrestles with post-traumatic stress and also, in a move right out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his developing feelings for the deceased girl’s older sister and doppelgänger, Kei.

What looks at first like an action movie, and then, upon closer inspection, like a science-fiction action movie in truth is neither. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is a thoughtful, beautiful, horrific example of the very best in speculative fiction. Its primary function is to muse on the nature of man and war, and ask sometimes uncomfortable philosophical questions. The story, masterfully written by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, 1995), uses the fable of Little Red Riding Hood to illustrate the cost of progress, questioning the age-old concepts of good and evil in a modern society, and daring the audience to squarely identify who is the wolf and who is “red riding hood.” Jin-Roh frustrates the antiquated morality of folklore by suggesting that its characters are simultaneously victim and oppressor, hunter and hunted. It’s a clever and unsettling story, echoing the post-war despair that characterized the 20th century through works like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. If it weren’t for the astonishingly graphic violence, I would suggest Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade should be essential viewing for every high school history class.

On the subject of graphic violence, one of Jin-Roh’s greatest strengths is its stunning animation. Hand-drawn by a superstar team of artists at production company Production I.G., Jin-Roh is not the kind of art the Western world conventionally associates with “anime.” The alien eyes and bobble-head bodies of more conventional animated works from Japan are nowhere to be seen. Instead, characters are altogether human and, for once (it’s weird and complicated that this thought occurred to me – this requires some unpacking at a later date), actually look Japanese. Even the guns are accurate. Fans online lovingly refer to Jin-Roh as “gun porn,” due to its highly-detailed, on-point gun anatomy focusing on actual WWII weapons. In fact, the art for Jin-Roh is so breathtakingly realistic that, allegedly, Production I.G. was accused of rotoscoping. Early critics believed that human faces so lifelike could only have been traced from footage from actual humans; Production I.G. laughed it off, reporting that they were both insulted and flattered. In addition to the hand-drawn art itself, the film’s use of colour and lighting contributes powerfully to the storytelling. The muted greys, browns, and earth tones of Jin-Roh are as muddy and murky as the film’s morality and shifting political allegiances. While scenes of violence are surprisingly few and far between, the animators’ commitment to realism in everything from facial expressions to accurate human movement ensures that these instances leave an impact on the viewer, creating a lasting impression of the literal, physical horrors of war that mirrors the equally catastrophic emotional and political ones the movie spends most of its time exploring.

A caveat: grasping all that Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade has to offer in a single viewing is damn near impossible. Although I disagree with the common critical opinion that the film is slow-paced (it’s not slow if you’re paying attention), the plot’s subtle shifts are easy to miss sometimes and occasionally require a pause-and-rewind – doubly so, if, like most anime fans, you’ve opted to watch the English subtitled version instead of the English dubbed version. There’s plenty to miss when you spend half your time reading instead of looking at the shots beautifully crafted by director Hiroyuki Okiura. For what it’s worth, I also felt compelled to watch the subtitled version; however, it should be noted that the English dub is actually surprisingly good, probably bolstered by Jin-Roh’s liberal use of voice overs and minimal dialogue. The other benefit of watching the dubbed version instead of the subtitled one is that it allows for maximum appreciation of Hajime Mizoguchi’s incredible original score and the genius sound-editing that juxtaposes the deafening roar of civil unrest with periods of stunted dialogue and quiet reflection.

Whether it’s your first viewing or your tenth, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is a sleeper hit that defies classification. It’s anime unlike any anime I’ve ever seen. It’s a war movie that’s animated, but better and more honest than most war movies. It’s a morality tale without heroes and a work of art that moves. The film has aged incredibly well, avoiding the tonality issues that plague comparably old live-action films because of their dependence on half-baked CGI, and makes a strong case for the use of animation in adult films – an idea the Western world is finally starting to wrap its head around, almost 20 years later. Maybe if it had received the Oscar nomination it deserved (according to IMDB, it was submitted for “Best Animated Picture” but was ultimately rejected by the Academy because it had already been released on home video in Japan), more people would have seen this gem of a film but, barring the possibility of an alternate timeline where Jin-Roh received the recognition it deserved, you’ll just have to take my word for it and track down the film yourself.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario. 

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