Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
1998, NR, 102 min. Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura. Voices by Michael Dobson, Colin Murdock, Doug Abrahams, Moneca Stori.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 20, 2001
These days, with the eye-popping Final Fantasy blurring the line between the natural and the man-made, calling a Japanese anime technically impressive is akin to saying Walt Disney had a thing for mice. Jin-Roh, which is helmed by some of the same adventurous animation souls who brought us the technically and emotionally challenging Ghost in the Shell six years ago, looks like a million bucks (more, probably). Director Okiura cloaks the action in muted gray-blues and dull maroons -- the film, although set in an alternate past, has a sooty grandeur reminiscent of Blade Runner. Akira, the first Japanese anime import to break through the domestic box office and make a name for itself stateside, was all clean lines and whirring superbikes (and alien beings, of course), and Jin-Roh's makers have consciously steered clear of that sort of high-minded futurism. In a prologue (in black and white, no less) a solemn narrator tells us that 10 years after the great war (presumably WWII, during which Japan was defeated not by the G.I. Joes but instead by Hitler's slope-helmeted thugs), the political and military infrastructure of the country is faltering. Roving bands of agent provocateurs and partisan rebels clash by night with the Tokyo Capital Police, outfitted on the one side with gasoline bombs and the other with eerie, snake-like respirator helmets and massive truncheons. I realize that sounds an awful lot like Seattle, but trust me, things are worse in Tokyo. When Kazuki Fuse (Dobson), a young government soldier, inadvertently falters during a crucial nighttime raid and witnesses the suicidal death of a young rebel girl, he begins to doubt his mission and, shell-shocked, meets with the girl's older sibling Kei (Stori), with whom he begins to build a tentative relationship. Behind this somewhat predictable tale of survivor guilt lies a far more complex (though ultimately unsatisfying) tale of political machinations and fascist ideologues. Kazuki's superiors distrust not only him (in the wake of his “event” they send Kazuki back for retraining, presumably to knock those pesky emotions from him) but themselves, their situations, politics, and the future. Jin-Roh sometimes feels like a lesson in existential despair; the future's so grim it's no wonder everyone stomps around wearing retro-futuristic armor and breathing through coiled tubing. Okiura's film succeeds best in the details, which include a wonderfully accurate and life-like opening clash between police and protesters that really does feel frighteningly like the real thing. As a disgruntled citizenry pries the bricks loose from the streets and then hurls them at the riot-shielded police force, there's all manner of wonderful angles and creative shots employed, from ground-level shots of oily, billowing fire bombs exploding to crowds of protesters rushing barricades. What holds Jin-Roh back from greatness is, unsurprisingly, its grim and hopeless tone. You get the feeling -- often -- that all these characters, and indeed their entire world, are doomed to fall and fail. It doesn't help matters either that the film's convoluted plotting makes for more than a few moments of audience puzzlement. That said, it's a gorgeous albeit depressing mess, as distancing and despairing as a realpolitik wipeout.