Anime Reviews: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Jin-Roh is a gripping and complex alternate-history film with crisp animation and a haunting score, despite the fact its central metaphor lacks any subtlety.
Title: Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade a.k.a. Jin-Roh
Production: Production I.G
Film Length: 102 minutes
Air Dates: 6/3/2000
Age Rating: 17+ (strong violence, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: In an alternate version of 1950s Japan, paramilitary organizations operated by the police force run rampant. Due to the staggering violence, public dissent has reached its boiling point, giving birth to terrorist groups like The Sect as well as protestors en masse, creating the need for a new kind of antiterrorism countermeasure. Kazuki Fuse is a member of this new group founded by the Kerberos Panzer Corps, simply called the Special Unit, leading a squad to intercept munitions smugglers in the sewers below the city when he encounters a teenage girl holding a satchel bomb. Because Fuse is unable to shoot her down, the girl detonates the bomb, and although she is the only casualty (thanks to the Special Unit's top-of-the-line armor), the incident calls the Special Unit's effectiveness into question, causing Fuse to be sent back to the Academy for reevaluation. But little does he know that his superiors and their collaborators have plans of their own...
The Good: Hand-drawn animation is a treat for the eyes; beautiful soundtrack; complex story with engaging twists and turns...
The Bad: ...that's completely easy to lose track of; the Red Riding Hood metaphor is as subtle as an exploding sledgehammer
The Ugly: Realizing that this film is part of a 20-year-long multimedia franchise that is basically impossible to penetrate
Boy, does this film bring back memories. Not only of the defunct Anime Academy website where I first heard of this movie (no, I will never get over it), but also of Otakon 2004, where I purchased the Special Edition DVD. Ahh, youth. So many good memories. The good reviews and mesmerizing imagery prompted me to grab that sucker without even having the slightest clue of what I was getting myself into, but sometimes that kind of adventurous outing is welcome, y'know? But anyway, enough of my nostalgia. It's time to talk about what that Special Edition DVD actually contained! Well, other than the Special Features disc and the soundtrack and the slick, glossy presentation that makes the whole package a thing of beauty. Anyway, on we go!
First of all, may I say that it's always refreshing to see hand-drawn animation anymore in this day and age? There's just a quality to it, with its subtle imperfections and slightly more expressive veneer, that makes the whole thing feel more personal than computer-drawn animation (probably not the real term, but you know what I mean). And even better, the artwork on display is very down-to-earth and gritty, backed by silky-smooth animation, making Jin-Roh a treat for the eyes. Well, a dark and depressing treat, anyway. The darkness of the art and animation create a sort of atmosphere of dread, fear, and oppression, which perfectly suits the story being told in the world we're presented with, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Likewise, the soundtrack accentuates the already-haunting atmosphere and makes the whole thing that much better. Utilizing mostly soft piano melodies and subtle orchestrations, composer Hajime Mizoguchi brings us wonderful tunes like "Pride," "Latest Flame," "Blue Cloud," "Curse," and that's just to name a few. And then there's "Grace Omega," the film's theme song. And it is glorious. And amazing. Even when I was just a teenage idiot and couldn't appreciate the rest of the soundtrack, "Grace Omega" still floored me; it's so good that even a musically illiterate nimrod had no choice but to be entranced. It's basically impossible to not be drawn into the film with such an atmospheric score, and as a bonus, here's a fun fact: They may not have been involved with the compositions, but the keyboards were played by Yoko Kanno and the electric guitars played by Tsuneo Imahori. That brought a smile to my face.
But is the film's story worth being so immersed in, you ask? Well, of course it is! Right from the get-go, the movie washes over you with rich detail on what this world is like, how it got that way, and we're thrown right into one of the many, many riots that take place during this time. It's easy to see why people would be upset--there are policemen crawling absolutely everywhere, and the heavily-armored Special Unit is basically the antithesis of good P.R., so immediately you can identify with the protestors. But then the protestors start setting the policemen on fire, and these poor guys are just doing their jobs trying to keep the riot in check, and so now you identify with the policemen. And now you're torn. That's just one example of how this film sucks you into its world, and that's just the first five minutes.
The story at large focuses on Fuse and how the girl who commits suicide via improvised explosive device in front of him affects his life from that day forward, including how his superiors treat him and the unusual relationship he forms with the dead girl's sister after meeting at the family's grave site. This is where the film shines, as it takes many twists and turns while being punctuated by excerpts from a really bleak version of Little Red Riding Hood, and the comparison is not only fitting, but further fleshes out that sense of dread that is ever-present in this world--whether it's the Wolf or Red herself, somebody dies at the end of that story, and you know there's no escaping that fact. The tension just ratchets up and up, and it doesn't release until the very last minute. And it is glorious.
However, there is a problem I do have with the story, and it's that, for a first-time viewer, it's pretty complicated and hard to keep track of. Unless you're a real stickler for details or you've got a pen and paper handy to keep track of who's who and what organizations are what, chances are you'll be scratching your head the first time through. But that just might be me, and I'm not exactly the sharpest crayon on the Christmas tree. Regardless, this is not a turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy kind of film; paying attention to everything is basically mandatory.
The real problem with Jin-Roh lies with the Little Red Riding Hood metaphor I mentioned earlier. It's clever, it adds an extra dimension to the story, and the sense of dread regarding the outcome is palpable, but they go way too far with it. There is a museum with animal exhibits, and Fuse is always standing in front of the wolf display. How subtle. Kei, the dead girl's sister, recites passages from the story often while the action either takes place on-screen or has just happened, and during one point, it's so egregious and unrealistic that it almost ruined the moment ('almost' being the key word). Kei also wears a red coat. And the Special Unit is always referred to as a pack of wolves. Do you get it yet?! Because I don't think you get it yet! Would you like Kei to hold a handbag, too? Because now she is! DO YOU GET IT?!? BECAUSE I DON'T THINK YOU DO!! WE'RE SO CLEVER, GUYS!!
But despite my griping, it's hard to stay mad at Jin-Roh, because it truly is an entrancing film that more than earns the $35 I spent on it a little over a decade ago. If you're looking for an anime film that's a bit different from the usual fare, or maybe you're just looking for a darkly satisfying bit of alternate history, you can't really go wrong here. You can probably pick it up for a lot cheaper than I did, to boot, so there's that. If it sounds even remotely interesting to you, then you're pretty much guaranteed to enjoy it.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. A dark and harrowing slice of alternate history, Jin-Roh is mesmerizing and beautiful in its bleakness, and its clever though often unsubtle central metaphor elevates its complex and intriguing storyline considerably.