21. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin-Roh1Oshii was set to continue Kerberos saga with a tryst with animation, but the studios were shook on this count — they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Just please. No more Kerberos. Those live-action movies are so boring and they are drying us up. Take this property instead, this thing called Mobile Armored Riot Police.

So Mamoru Oshii went and did his strange cyberpunk film, but in his heart, the spirit of the Wolf was burning. The next Kerberos project went to director Hiroyuki Okiura, off a script straight from the source. It’s a stunning coincidence, because the Jin-Roh story is the most lucid of any Kerberos I’ve seen. So is this because of Okiura, or would an Oshii-directed Jin-Roh have been just the same?

Because we’re talking about a truly bizarre property. Japanese creatives in this industry tend to be taken by the idea of masterworks, whether Otomo with Akira, or Tezuka with Phoenix, and Oshii’s is less known but no less passionate. If only the rest of the world could see the series through his eyes, and so it’s ironic that when this passion shows through, it’s by the directorial vision of someone else.

In this slow-moving, somber, and moody film, romance and espionage are confused to fatal consequence in an alternate history Japan. It’s the 1950s, and for whatever reason, Germany has conquered Japan (effectively positioning Japan on the other side of a certain global divide), and we follow one Kazuki Fuse (Foo-Say), a member of the Kerberos Panzer Cops, riot police built like tanks but hard to hit.

They pursue a bomb courier in the rioting streets, in an opening reminiscent of Akira. The big tank police with gas masks you might recognize from the Killzone games chase her into the sewer, where she detonates, blowing up herself and Fuse, who was extending his hand with a simple, strained question: “Why?” He doesn’t shoot her. Is it hesitation? Could it be humanity?

That armor is pretty good, though it doesn’t seem to absorb the impact of paintballs too well. Regardless, in the meantime, Fuse is back and soon meets the dead girl’s sister, Kei. They fall in love, reading Little Red Riding Hood, that story about the wolf who takes on the appearance of the eponymous Little’s gramma.

This central romance is threatened by political maneuvering, and neither Fuse nor Kei are who they seem. It’s a twisty and complex story that’s confidently told, assumedly the immense but wandering intelligence of Oshii, now reined in by a fellow creator. But for all the assassinations, traps, and undercover ops, in the end, this is a tale of humanity.

A transformation from man to wolf is truly at the story’s center, and the question this movie asks alongside it, which a movie like American Hustle never seemed to posit — is whether, in spite of all the deception, this is truly love? Tragically, yes. A soldier is born, pieces are moved into place over the bodies of traitorous police, and the Wolf Brigade has its new monster.

This is a perfect film, and its themes and visuals appeal to me in a very specific way. But what ultimately sticks with me are the more seemingly ephemeral things. The weak smile of Atsushi, the feeling of distant hope in Kei’s voice, and the music. The mood effected by these is palpable, sad and dreamy all at once.

It’s another episode in the ongoing Kerberos narrative, however non-linear such a thing is. And yet, for this one moment, not overly important as an event in the fictional world, we in the audience are able to understand what it is Oshii sees in the gas masks and the German aesthetic, the dystopic police and their sundry dramas. They’re not men disguised as mere dogs, they’re wolves disguised as men — and never before has such a badass idea held such emotional meaning…

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