Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
In one low-key scene near the middle of Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, our two protagonists are talking in a desolate pocket park. Kei, a former left wing revolutionary who has fallen in love with the male lead, a member of a ruthless paramilitary group, notices a crumpled heap of debris. It’s the remains of an old building. She asks him what used to stand there; what building used to occupy the empty space? He can’t remember, and she opines that, perhaps, they never noticed it in the first place, much less remembered it. In the midst of a vast construction boom, the film forces us to take notice of the wreckage and entropy left behind by “creative destruction.” It’s one of a handful of subtly profound moments that make the work of Mamoru Oshii worthy of attention.
It’s also notable that Oshii originally planned this film as a live-action piece, only later deciding to utilize animation. Jin-Roh has few flights of animated fancy, only a few dream sequences that could be easily replicated in live-action. Framed and shot in highly dramatic ways, it certainly benefits from animated techniques but in no way required them. Except, of course, that such a detailed and accurate recreation of 1950’s Tokyo, even the distorted vision seen here, could not be accomplished in live action because the old city simply no longer exists. Perhaps this is why the little vignettes and period recreations feel so meditative and significant even if they’re peripheral to the plot and its main themes: the film effectively represents city life in broad strokes, producing a tangible sense of space and its relations with the characters.
Oshii did not direct Jin-Roh (which translates to “man-wolf” or “werewolf” in English)––it was the debut of director Hiroyuki Okiura––but the film forms part of Oshii’s lifework called the Kerberos Saga. In short, the premise of this franchise is that Germany won the battle of Stalingrad and WWII. Japan is occupied and restructured by the Nazis rather than by the Americans. As in the actual history of Japan, the 1950s in the world of Kerberos are marked by sharpened political struggles between the bureaucratic and authoritarian government and powerful left-wing popular movements, some of which are armed. In response to growing chaos, the Japanese state organizes a paramilitary arm to suppress the violence, driving the communist movements (literally) underground to scurry like rats in the Tokyo sewers.
Our male lead, the taciturn fascist cop Kazuki Fuse, chases a red-clothed woman through these tunnels in the inciting scene. Cornering her against a wall, he sees she has an explosive device and prepares to shoot, but hesitates. She detonates the bomb, leaving him unscathed but apparently shaken by the event. While undergoing re-education, he meets someone who claims to be the bomber’s sister, Kei Amemiya, and the two engage in an ambivalent romance. All of this takes place against a backdrop of dry interdepartmental scheming and intrigue, as Fuse’s paramilitaries struggle against other branches of the defence forces in a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-esque plot.
The latter, like the actual plot business in most Oshii films, is complex but also dry and cold, just interesting enough to drive the central drama forward. Machinations like those in Jin-Roh remind me of Metal Gear in a less operatic mode, with the same loving recreations of weapons and technology that blur the line between fastidiousness and fetishism. Though the spy story bites a large chunk out of the running time, the central thread of the film is the love story between Kei and Kazuki, always entangled with a belaboured Little Red Riding Hood allegory that Oshii and Okiura use to––some––good effect.
Fuse, like the rest of his fascist cop comrades, are explicitly coded as wolves, with the bomb-carrying women named Little Red Riding Hoods. Fuse carries a German-language copy of the fairy tale with him, and has surreal dreams where he stalks the sewers with a pack of actual wolves. Though there is subtlety in the film, it’s certainly not in evidence here. Characters pontificate about it at length, drawing out the metaphors between the sly seducing wolf and Fuse, who breaks down Kei’s emotional defences only to lure her to an inevitable destruction.
Closed in his iconic suit––which mixes German army garb with samurai armour––he is an emotionless murderer, but when stripped of it, he can regain some of his humanity. Much of the film hinges on the question of whether this soldier, a wolf by nature, can break out of his armour and live authentically again. The way Oshii’s scrip tries to resolve this question is ambiguous and difficult to unravel, but the central point to take away is that Fuse is deprived of meaningful friendships and connections by machinery––both the literal kind and the state machinery to which he belongs.
Kei’s character, unfortunately, undergoes a progressive degeneration as the plot continues. Always situated as a pawn and a disposable asset of one kind or another, her one major role is to be a dreamer and an emotional touchstone for Fuse. By the end, I found her reductive and annoying, a caricature of femininity who existed purely to suffer just for the chance to redeem her beastly love interest. She seemed less and less like a hardened professional and more like a frightened child the more the film went on, which is addressed within the story but in a dissatisfying way. At the end, she can be reduced to a symbol, Red Riding Hood, the naïve one who climbs into bed with a wolf. We can all at least be thankful that the overtones of rape in the story do not receive graphic treatment in Jin-Roh.
For me, Jin-Roh, like all of Oshii’s work that I’ve seen, is a mixed experience. Its treatment of its characters is at times callous and clumsy, not to speak of its (to put it mildly) questionable politics. But there are also beautiful and truthful moments, especially when the animators bring life to alternate 1950s Tokyo. Perhaps the most profound, and maybe unconscious, message the Kerberos universe has to offer us is that the Nazi occupation and its aftermath would not have been all that different from the American one.