Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade [人狼, Jinrō] (1999)
AKA Man-Wolf (Literal translation of the Japanese title)
Starring Yoshikatsu Fujiki, Sumi Muto, Hiroyuki Kinoshita, Yoshisada Sakaguchi
Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura
This is actually the third film of a trilogy, but before you start walking out on me, you ought to know that the trilogy actually goes in backwards order with the first film taking place after the other two. I had no idea this film was part of a series until I started writing up this review. The first two films, The Red Spectacles in 1987 and Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops in 1991, were live action, making Jin-Roh the only anime film in the series. It is also the only film not directed by Mamoru Oshii, the creator of the series, though he is best known for directing the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film.
A grim and terrible mood fills this anime. It can’t be called a dystopian future, mainly because it’s not in the future. It does feature an oppressive government regime ruling with its fists over a disenfranchised populace, so I suppose we should call it a dystopian past. Mamoru Oshii, who still wrote the script even if he didn’t direct this time, was politically active in his youth, and this film seems to portray the future he was afraid Japan would turn into. After entering the film industry, Oshii used that feared future as the setting for his series, nevermind that it’s now in the past.
Jin-Roh is set sometime after World War II, around the 50s or 60s. In this version of history, a terrorist group has formed in opposition to the totalitarian government and its policies that have turned Japan into a powerful industrial nation, at the expense of the public’s economic well-being. The terrorists often use young girls, called “little red riding hoods,” to carry weapons and munitions without arousing suspicion.
A special police unit is formed to counter the threat, called the Capital Police. We might call them a SWAT team, though they are far closer to a heavily armed military unit than a police force. They march around with infra-red goggles, heavy body armor, and belt-fed machine guns. The film tends to use them dramatically rather than realistically, but damn does it work. They look totally badass, and in all their scenes they exude an implacable dominance over everything around them. These guys can tear anyone apart, and that fact is never in any doubt.
The film doesn’t center on the terrorist conflict much, but rather on a police officer named Fuse. As odd and cool as that name looks written down, it is actually pronounced closer to foo-SAY, although that first syllable is so quiet you can hardly hear it sometimes. On a mission, Fuse witnesses one of the red riding hoods blow herself up rather than be arrested, and the experience leaves him shocked and unable to fight, haunted by her image every time he tries to fire. He is taken off active duty, and soon begins a romance with the dead girl’s older sister. But just as the film is not really an action film, neither is it really a romance. Political forces within the government want to shut down the Capital Police, and they intend to use Fuse as a pawn in their machinations.
Within the Capital Police, rumors abound of a special black ops unit called the Wolf Brigade. If you haven’t picked up on it already, there is a strong Little Red Riding Hood symbolism running through the film, and it makes no effort to hide it. The characters even read the fairy tale as the movie goes on, paralleling the story with the film’s plot. It’s certainly the cruelest version of the tale I know, and for anyone wondering, it is actually based upon an original version of the tale recorded by Jean Baptiste Victor Smith in 1870. If you ever thought of this as a cute children’s tale, this movie will change your mind. It’s as dark and grizzly as the movie surrounding it.
Jin-Roh is like a wolf in disguise. It’s a spy thriller hidden inside a romance hidden inside an action film hidden inside a fairy tale. Or maybe I have that out of order. It’s a complex, multi-layered plot, and none of those layers are insignificant. The film rewards those paying careful attention, and re-watching it may prove essential to catch all the small, but significant, details. If there is any major flaw to the film, this is it. It’s not casual entertainment, but a deep and rich world that can easily leave the audience confused.
I highly recommend this to anyone willing to think during a movie. It’s smart, tense, and serious, combining many disparate elements into a cohesive work. It looks great, it flows great, and as long as you can pay attention to the details it’s absolutely fantastic.