Review for Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Disney has much to answer for. Seventy plus years of their animated adaptations of fairy tales, and we've come to expect such stories to be light, fluffy, and entertaining, with lots of happy bluebirds, and rousing songs. Of course fairy tales started off as dark allegories, warnings to keep children aware of just how dangerous the world can get, without discouraging them from growing and exploring altogether. Of course remaining true to the original intent of fairy tales when adapting them to film usually means keeping them dark and scary, which also usually means an age rating that takes them out of the reach of their target audience. But us grown ups can enjoy fairy tales too, it just needs a little more work to make them relevant to us, and with that in mind, adult fairy tales often wind up even darker than the original authors intended. You don't get much darker than Mamoru Oshii's Jin-Roh - The Wolf Brigade.
Oshii is a prolific creator, juggling many roles, so when it came to adapting his manga creation Kerberos Panzer Cops into an anime feature, the directorial reins fell to Hiroyuki Okiura. Okiura wanted to create his own vision of Oshii's universe, so he asked for a screenplay with a romantic thread running through it. Mamoru Oshii gave him Little Red Riding Hood, although this is Little Red Riding Hood, as you have never seen it before.
It's an alternate world where Germany won the Second World War, and it was they who defeated and occupied Japan in the aftermath. It took a decade, but Japan slowly recovered and established itself as an economic power, but that process of re-growth was painful and threw up plenty of opposition against the government, pro-democracy groups that resorted to violence when their voices weren't heard. Japan was forbidden from creating a military under the terms of the armistice, but they could, and did create a paramilitary police force dedicated to opposing the terrorists, and the Capital Police as they are known, proved to be very effective. So much so that the opposition groups had to retreat underground and reorganise. Now there is only the one group, The Sect, whose methods are far more insidious, using small girls as couriers to carry arms and explosives from one cell to another. They are known as Little Red Riding Hoods. But the Capital Police has their own Special Unit to combat the Sect, and within that Unit is rumoured to be a rogue organisation whose methods make figures on both sides blanch; they comprise the infamous Wolf Brigade.
A rowdy political demonstration turns lethal when infiltrated by members of The Sect, but the Special Unit are ready to pursue the terrorists underground and hunt them down, bringing their full firepower down without mercy. That's except for Kazuki Fuse, who when confronted by the final target, a young girl armed with a suicide bomb, freezes instead of shooting. It's only because of his armour that he is protected, but he isn't protected from the wrath of his superiors, who reassign him to training. Haunted by the face of the girl he couldn't kill, he finds it hard to come to terms with what happened, and he even visits her grave. It's there that he meets her sister, who is surprisingly forgiving of him. Besides, as she says, he's the one who didn't shoot. As Kazuki spends more time with her, he starts questioning himself more and more. But there is more to this girl than meets the eye; while Kazuki's failure in the tunnels is just the political leverage the regular police requires, to act against the independent Capital Police.
This Optimum Asia DVD is a wonder of mislabelling. We begin with the image, with the 98-minute runtime quoted indicating a PAL transfer. It's not. The film lasts the full 112 minutes, and it is instead an NTSC-PAL anamorphic transfer, with the usual indications of such. It's not really a 1.85:1 ratio either, with thin black bars top and bottom suggesting a ratio somewhere between 1.90:1 and 2:1.
The transfer is adequate, although a film that is by its very nature, dark and subdued, doesn't help it. It's not exactly zinging with colour, with a very limited earthy palette, the contrast is low, detail isn't prominent, and there is significant grain. However, the animation is excellent, it has a proper filmic look, and the emphasis on realism makes watching the film a wholly immersive experience. You forget that you are watching an anime altogether.
The sleeve says stereo, the disc gives us a choice between DD 5.1 English and Japanese, as well as a DTS Japanese track. Other than the few brief moments of action, Jin-Roh is a quieter, more reflective piece, but the surround works well enough to bring across some atmosphere. The dialogue is clear throughout, and the music fits the film perfectly. The English dub is also well performed, and this is a film that I can watch in either language. The sole subtitle track is a translated English one.
You wouldn't think there were any extras on this disc going by the sleeve, but then again the sleeve tells us that this film comes from the makers of Ghost In The Shell and Akira. Ghost in the Shell, I can understand, with Mamoru Oshii, Kenji Kamiyama, and Yoko Kanno listed in the credits, but Akira? I think this is the same sort of labelling that puts 'From the makers of Spirited Away' on the cover of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.
On the disc, the major additions are the Interviews, 39 minutes worth, played as one featurette. In it creator and screenwriter Mamoru Oshii, director Hiroyuki Okiura, composer Hajime Mizoguchi, and art director Hiromasa Ogura speak about their contributions to the film and more.
You will also find the Production Art Gallery with 20 white-on-black line art images, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Optimum product including Exiled and Appleseed, as well as a trailer reel for Optimum Asia.
It's a fairy tale, Jim, but not as we know it. That's what I'd like to say, but perhaps it's even more appropriate to mention that this isn't exactly anime as you would know it either. Jin-Roh comes from a more thoughtful, considered place, it is very much an adult anime in the truest sense of the word. Not because of graphic content or profanity, but because the themes, the style, and the subject matter is aimed at a thoughtful audience that likes a little more meat on their anime. That isn't too surprising given that Jin-Roh comes from the imagination of Mamoru Oshii, who gave us the Ghost in the Shell features, and more recently Sky Crawlers. What is surprising is that rather than lofty considerations of philosophy and definitions of the soul, Jin-Roh is very much about character motivations, about people, about interpersonal conflict and drama. This is blazingly intelligent, thoughtful storytelling, coming from the same sort of place as films like Wings of Honneamise and Perfect Blue. You will need your brain in gear for this one.
The story is about the Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. Kazuki Fuse is the wolf, the paramilitary policeman from the government whose job it is to hunt down the terrorists and to kill them. The terrorists use young children to transfer weapons and explosives, the so-called Red Riding Hoods, on the off chance that a Wolf will hesitate before pulling the trigger. That's exactly what happens when Kazuki is confronted with a girl carrying a bomb. He hesitates, and she detonates the bomb, killing herself and causing significant damage. It's a hesitation that gets Kazuki reprimanded, but understandably he becomes haunted by the image of that girl, reducing his effectiveness as a killer. You can't get away from the definition of humanity in a Mamoru Oshii story, and the question of how much humanity remains in a government paid killer, and just what drives terrorists to such desperate acts never is far from the focus of the film.
But that is added to when Kazuki meets the girl's sister, and starts seeing the world from a different perspective. He's suffering from post traumatic stress, while she's grieving for her sister, while unable to come to terms with her life choices, they are both in their own ways ostracised from their groups, and seem to find some understanding with each other. If only if it were that simple. There's more to the sister than meets the eye, and it becomes a question of whether the predator can actually lie down with the prey. With Kazuki's superiors using his failure as an excuse to restructure the Capital Police, and political manoeuvring about that taking on a very underhand tone, what seems like a rather reflective and melancholy character piece slowly picks up momentum in its narrative, increases in tension and pace, and becomes a suspenseful political thriller. It builds to a climax where that question about predator and prey is answered in an absolutely jaw-dropping fashion.
You hear about shows and films that transcend their genre all the time, it's fairly commonplace for something that seems niche to suddenly appeal to a broader audience. It's rare indeed for something to transcend its medium, and I have only seen once or twice anime that can be said to be more than just simple animations. Jin-Roh - The Wolf Brigade is one such film. It's such a gripping, well told story, with compelling and rounded characterisations, that it's almost inevitable that the viewer will forget that it's an animation at all. Its slow, measured, and understated storytelling builds to a narrative peak that rivals the best thrillers, and it's close to the best film that I have seen this year. Very much recommended.