Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 07/23/01 10:02:07

"Wear earplugs and keep your eyes wide open"
3 stars (Average)

If you didn't know that Japan was rocked by social upheaval in the 60's as a lasting legacy of World War 2 then you will probably lose out on the significance of Jin-Roh. The back story of protests against new economic policies, a backlash against a crumbling economy and culture and the demoralizing echo of article 9 of the US sponsored Japanese constitution which reads: "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international dispute." are far more interesting and gives Jin-Roh its proper place as a response to the Japan that Writer, Mamoru Oshii was born into. Without that visceral connection to the story as part of your own history, the story itself doesn't grab. And Jin-Roh is long on story. When you strip off its context and plunge into the more universal themes of the film, it is at times monstrously compelling and at times achingly compressed.

Oshii directed the hugely successful Ghost in the Shell, which has been, by far, the most successful anime film released in the US. Anime has got a following in the US but its complex themes and sophisticated artistry attract mainly a cult audience. Americans like cartoons with simple storylines where there is a distinct good and bad and good is right and bad is punished. It's how we explain our own righteousness to ourselves and is the particular pathology of a worldview based on ten rules of conduct. If there is right, there must be wrong. And if wrong is bad then wrong must be destroyed. I am right, therefore you must be destroyed. Anime often is about the middle area where morality is ambiguous and truth is up for debate. That's a tasty option in a society that contains fewer boxes than the myriad realities needing an official definition.

Jin-Roh means "man-wolf" and the movie is about a renegade special operations force that is hunting down and killing members of the state police who they see as ineffectual wardens of a culture that isn't theirs. While the people are in the streets protesting, the Jin-Roh are trying to restore a cultural balance through "any means necessary". Their terrorism is compounded by another terrorist organization called The Sect that are fighting the state police and keeping the country in crisis mode through bombings and killings. The Capital Police know the wolf brigade is out there and wants it stopped. Little do they know that their own elite counterterrorist organization is allied with the terrorists in their common war against the State Police.

Being a servant for a cause in a politically charged atmosphere places extreme demands on individuals. As a warrior, you have to wear the mask of the death and forget that you are a person. The elite Special Forces are, more than the generals, the chiefs and the police, required to bear this burden. Since Japan at the time was not allowed to have a standing military, the only form of enforcement comes in the form of a police unit. Because they have to be careful to show their occupiers that they were not organizing a military, they are limited in ways they can control the situation with the terrorists. The Special Forces are a politically sensitive unit and have to managed carefully. Many members of that unit gratefully accept their training and use it to organize against the government.

The story revolves around an emotionally troubled Special Operative, Fuse (pronounced foo-seh) who is sent back to boot camp after he failed to kill a young girl, a "red riding hood", who courier bombs for the terrorists. Fuse becomes the center of an investigation and then a frame-up to catch the wolf brigade. Halfway through, the complicated plot twists finally make the story interesting. Fuse's loyalties are pulled in three different directions and as a servant for a cause, he is forced to leave behind his own feelings and desires.

The atmosphere of Jin Roh perfectly matches the mood of the story but when we need to see character development, there is none. Fuse's breakdown is rushed and it feels like important moments are overlooked so it's hard to get a sense of how his internal state changes. The emotional subtlety is hard to grasp without an understanding of the events that shape his responses to things happening outside as well as inside himself. You never get a sense of what causes his inability to cope. His moments of doubt and despair are inexplicably buried only to resurface when his allegiance is tested. Fuse is a complex character that is presented, unfortunately, in shadows so we can never fully appreciate what Oshii may be trying to represent through him. Its almost like Oshii doesn't fully understand a character of his own making. Fuse is trapped in a system he didn't create and in so deep he has no choice but to serve any master that comes along to claim him. He tries to be his own master but is forced to make difficult decisions for self-preservation that keeps his body alive at the price of his soul.

Jin-Roh is wrapped in an atmosphere of inner devastation and outer turmoil. It has strong characters and moments that force the audience to examine their own assumptions and to put aside their prejudices to really examine the case set before them. For all its power, it lacks the all important character identification. I wanted to connect with Fuse and live out his story with him but I was never given the opportunity to get inside his head so that critical, cathartic moments, washed over me rather than grabbed me. Fortunately, like all anime, its a feast for the eyes. The pace is slow and meditative with occassional bursts of action and would be much better watched with the sound off with Prokofiev playing in the background.

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