Jin-Roh: Wolf Brigade (Cert 15)

1 Disc DVD/2 discs Collector’s Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo (Distributor: Anime Ltd.) Running time: 102 minutes approx.

It’s hard to keep a grip on your reality as a human being when you are firmly placed in a situation that requires you to think like an animal, hunting down the enemy and tasked with despatching them without a thought. For many of us, losing that compassion would be a nightmare, made worse by the fact we’ve been manipulated into being this way for the greater good.

Set in an alternate Tokyo in the 1950’s, an extended period of civil and political unrest has lead to the formation of Kerberos Panzer Cops, an elite special task force to counter the rioting public and underground resistance groups. When one such group mounts a bombing attack against the Kerberos they retreat to their lair in the sewers where they are closely followed by the armoured soldiers.

A young girl member of the rebels is cornered by soldier Kazuki Fuse, who freezes from being conflicted by having to kill her. This hesitation gives the girl time to detonate the explosives she is carrying, instantly killing her. Now despatched from the Kerberos, Fuse is haunted by the memories of this incident and re-evaluates his sense of morality, complicated further when he meets the girl’s look-a-like sister Kei Amemiya.

The words “Written by Mamoru Oshii” will probably give you an indication of what to expect from Jin-Roh: Wolf Brigade and you’d be correct. With the timeless existentialist classic Ghost In The Shell being the most famous work of his prolific oeuvre, Oshii again explores the theme of humanity and conscience in this film but this time without the futuristic sci-fi trappings of GITS.

Don’t be fooled by the steampunk-esque designs of the Kerberos armour – all black, with bulky robotic like shoulders and glowing infrared lights for eyes – this is as regular a setting as you’ll find under the circumstances. It is only where Oshii evokes his old friend Satoshi Kon in depicting the oneiric madness of Fuse’s paranoid hallucinations that the norm is subverted, otherwise this is a relatable world for the audience.  

Oshii’s writing almost always has a particular leitmotif running through it that is either subtle or etched into the very fabric of the story – in this case, the title is a giveaway as it regards the wolf. Here it is applied on two levels – firstly in comparing the animal itself to the soldiers of the Kerberos, hunting in packs to whom they are loyal and attacking the enemy with fervour for individual and group glory.

In the second instance, the metaphor is a little more oblique, involving a unique retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. In this version, the young girl was a captive forced to wear iron clothing until it wore away before earning her freedom, upon which she was released with a few bits of food which she took back home to her mother. She meets the wolf on the way who gets the house first, eats the mother, then embarks on the famous deceit to eat the girl too.

“Red Riding Hood” is the term giving to young girls acting as decoys for the rebels to deliver weapons and explosives under the noses of the Kerberos, the wolves of the story. Suffering from PTSD, Fuse is hardly a wolf though in his nightmares he sees himself and his team as wolves tearing at the flesh of the suicide bomber he failed to shoot. It is only the calm and forgiving presence of Kei that helps Fuse keep sane, but political forces behind the scenes think Fuse might be a liability they can ill-afford to keep around.

Going any further with the plot discussion runs the risk of spoiling it; suffice to say, Oshii weaves a dense tale of intrigue and betrayal that can only end in tragedy. The mise en scene is largely quiet and moody, bordering on the morose with many passages of oppressive silence, in stark contrast to the loud, ultraviolent opening with the riots and underground gun battles.

Further action scenes crop up intermittently hereafter, building to a thrilling, explosive and emotionally draining climax to a deftly sinuous story in which nobody appears as trustworthy they once did. Just like Fuse, the audience is kept in the dark of the venal deals and secretive machinations, save for only surface references to alert us to the fact the ruling system Fuse once believed in is rotten to the core.

Originally released in 1999, Jin-Roh is remarkably relevant 20 years later in this age of civil unrest, suicide bombers, and corrupt totalitarian military based rule. That the stage for this tale is a fairly civilised Tokyo and not the desolate, theocratic states of the Middle East makes this concept even more terrifying in its prescience, given how this would seep into the west just two years later.

This also applies to addressing Fuse’s PTSD, something which has also been a subject to go largely without discussion, leaving many uneducated about the long lasting and deep reaching effects on a fragile psyche. As established in the film, Fuse is still a strong, healthy and capable killing machine but his mind is weak, a combination some people try to manipulate, others however know how dangerous this can be.

Bringing Oshii’s vision to life is director Hiroyuki Okiura and Production IG and as ever their work here is exemplary. It might be dated cell drawn animation but this is unequivocally to the film’s benefit; the movements of the characters are much more natural, simple touches such a light reflection and shadows are deeply effective and character designs are thankfully less cartoonish.

When discussing classic anime films, Jin-Roh: Wolf Brigade tends to get overlooked, so here’s hoping this great Blu-ray re-issue gives it the attention and kudos it deserves, not just for being a stunning work of art but also as a relevant and provocative slice of social commentary. Ahead of time yet ultimately timeless, this is quintessential anime!

 

Extras:

Japanese Language DTS HD-MA 5.1

Japanese Language LPCM 2.0

English Language Dolby Digital 5.1

English Subtitles

Theatrical Trailer

US Release Trailer

TV Spots x 3

“Speculate About Jin-Roh” Interviews

English Credits

Limited Collector’s Edition

48-Page Booklet

Rating – *****

Man In Black