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Even with movies in this series, Mamoru Oshii is not one for cinematic narratives that are, let’s say, straightforward, or even lucid. At the extremes you have famously impenetrable things like Angel’s Egg and The Red Spectacles, and then you have something like Ghost in the Shell, which is regular and confusing for other reasons. And then you have Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, whose story, written by Oshii, is brilliant, and so well-structured and so satisfying, it’s like what the hell happened?
It’s the best of both worlds, really, because you have that aspect that we expect from most movies, you know the dramatic and sensible ride that we can engage with and not have to wrestle with in our heads, and you also here have the great Mamoru Oshii thought-fest, but just written so clearly, it’s a mercy. That’s where we begin, and truly it is just the beginning of what makes Jin-Roh such a great, thoughtful movie.
It’s actually directed by a fellow named Hiroyuki Okiura, and was released in 1999 as part of the Kerberos Saga. I believe we talked about the making of this movie as it relates to Ghost in the Shell, but it’s just such an interesting story. Essentially, Oshii had made these two live-action films in the Kerberos Saga, which is his series about this alternate history riot police, and those were The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog. Those movies did not do so well, and so when Oshii wanted to do a third, Jin-Roh, as a live-action, the studio made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and that was Ghost in the Shell.
Now, I can’t imagine being in that situation, but something like it happens constantly in the US. The Japanese film industry and Hollywood differ significantly, but artistic filmmakers are given hugely commercial projects all the time. Both Davids were offered Return of the Jedi, and indie filmmakers with one success are handed the reins of a mega-franchise left and right, in these days of reboots like Jurassic World and Godzilla and comic book movies. Sometimes it works out, like Jurassic World, sometimes it doesn’t, like Fantastic Four.
Funny to think about Ghost in the Shell as some huge commercial thing before Oshii came, but it really was. As a manga it’s almost indistinct from Appleseed, whose literary ambitions are hampered by Shirow’s silliness, and so it took a number of factors to redefine Ghost in the Shell. For one you have Oshii, and for two you have that different cultural system. They’re not making the biggest movies of the year, and although animation is expensive, it’s a mainstay over there, so I have to assume that Oshii was given total creative freedom.
That depiction of that story and that world has to come from a real artist, such that we’re so beyond saying that the original Ghost in the Shell isn’t a typical anime. So Oshii later on picked up Jin-Roh again as the writer, but he was not able to direct, and so Jin-Roh is not a typical Oshii. I think it’s also atypical of the genre, because it’s very close to real that you can debate the artistic value of its animation.
It’s beautiful, I mean it’s so-well animated and lush, the atmosphere and the cinematography, the muted colors actually work wonderfully — that’s not the concern. The question I had going in to this most recent rewatch is why was it animated, because it’s not like Masaaki Yuasa, super expressionistic, or even Ghost in the Shell, which has such specific, designed imagery and also this theme of artificiality and blending, such that the Major is a robot but looks just like Batou.
So that’s one question, but there’s also the themes of the movie, and this is a pretty direct movie, for Oshii, it’s this world of extremely militarized police, and this alternate history post-WWII movie, so you have to assume that there’s something being said. That happens sometimes in scifi, where there is this fictional scenario that involves elements from the real world that seems to effect a message, and as the creator that message has to be wrangled.
We’ve talked about that before, with Bioshock Infinite, you know you have this world that is a very loud criticism of American exceptionalism, but the story is completely dissonant, was essentially abandonment of that world. There is a responsibility there, because things might be said by accident. What was also emphasized in the Infinite podcast was world-building specifically for a story. I know I flub things constantly, but in all things I need to append: only Siths speak in absolutes.
That’s not the case in Jin-Roh, because it is part of a franchise, the world was there before the movie, and assumedly before the story. So this is a situation where you carve out the perfect story to fit in that world, without moving the preexisting elements. Great — that’s perfect sequel philosophy.
But in the case of Kerberos, those world elements are so not concrete to begin with, so maybe it’s not such a great example of refutation to that earlier Sith absolute. I’ve only seen The Red Spectacles in terms of other Kerberos things, but that one is so dreamlike, it feels like this is a series without hard and fast rules. Jin-Roh being a straight drama could be just as out of place, given how poorly received the other movies are. This one might be the outlier because it was good.
So that’s another thing to keep in mind as we start here, the relationship between world and story, but also of franchise and story.
The movie opens with a black-and-white photo montage, and history of the world, like a text crawl, but different. What’s going on is that German occupation after an alternate WWII where the US never got involved and Japan joined the Allies and lost to the Axis, led to the rise of a militarized police force, the capitol police, and that in turn forced dissident elements in Japan to band together and create the Sect, an underground terrorist network.
There’s that back-and-forth, right? It’s more of that escalation. I always forget that this beginning part of the movie exists, and being surprised by it was kind of unfortunate in some regards because Jin-Roh really is a small, intimate story, but this setup to the world is indicative of something much larger, or so it would seem.
Then you have a rioting scene to open the movie proper, and I think that I always assume this is how the movie opens because it’s kind of like how Akira opens, and those movies are both great examples of anime that choose animation and design equally. You know, with American animation you have these very simplistic cartoon characters but they’re animated very well, often to absurd proportions because animation is typically developed for children over here. In Japan, it was the reverse. Highly detailed characters, limited movement. In Akira you had classic Otomo designs moving really fluidly, and Jin-Roh is rotoscoped for a lot of it, like the Asuka fight in The End of Evangelion, though the practice is most associated with Ralph Bakshi of Fritz the Cat and Wizards. With rotoscoping, you essentially trace over live-action film. A Scanner Darkly made great use of that, though it is a painstaking process.
So with Jin-Roh you notice that the faces are very realistic, no bug eyes, and they look like Asian people. In a really nuanced way too, because if you try to draw someone like Yeong-Ae Lee as a cartoon, she would look white because her eyes are really round and her skin is so pale. That’s what Asian women look like though, and yet you would rarely confuse an Asian woman for a white woman in real life. Notably, the animation director on this one is Kenji Kamiyama, our main man over here at the Battle Beyond Planet X for his part in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, more classic television shows there’s never been.
Also notable is how this riot in the beginning works, it seems that either side, which are equally reprehensible, is just acting out their violence, just playing their prescribed roles in a self-fulfilled prophecy. The ideals behind law enforcement or protests are long since removed. Which might ring as false equivalency to our liberal ears if we’re following the logical track here from Bioshock Infinite, Strange Days, and now Jin-Roh. But I think that this is a more responsible method, though less direct, of addressing the same themes as Bioshock Infinite.
Because after all it is true that fighting the system is fighting, and so that needs to be recalibrated if it’s become terrorism. So we need to remove ourselves from these built-up paradigms, and that’s what Fuse is doing when he’s finally introduced. He’s disconnected almost right away, sent off for retraining, and is immediately an outsider among the rookies.
That’s after he goes up against the board of inquiry, and this is an example of great visual storytelling. Because you could go really overt here. There are period German elements through the world, but the fascism of the Kerberos Saga, at least as presented here, is not given a particular flavor. No arm bands, no ensignias, no great speeches. This is not a Paul Verhoeven satire, so I guess the squeamish among us don’t have to worry about Jin-Roh cosplay.
So to illustrate an oppressive world instead, we have this scene where Fuse is up against faceless men, and the only reason they’re faceless is because they’re silhouetted against a giant window. It’s subtle — it’s the realism equivalent of the Yuasa using animation to create an impressionistic world.
And I like that because as I go on with all this stuff I grow increasingly tired of things like The Hunger Games, much as I liked Catching Fire the movie, and would totally see the rest of them, but our fear of that kind of dystopian government I think has been displaced by a more real fear of a cultural dystopia. If you want to know how people can be controlled, it’s not by government interference, it’s fear of being an outsider, fear of being different, and you don’t see that in movies like that. The world of The Hunger Games is not relatable because you can’t imagine the US going from what it is now, where you can’t even take guns out of the hands of civilians, because of an Amendment to the Constitution written decades before the word semi-automatic was invented, to the one where the government has ruined everyone’s lives. But anyway…
Fuse has to go through training again, and he’s definitely a loner, in part because of what he saw in the sewer, where a little girl blew herself up in front of him. That might make you a little bit stoic. I think that that’s one of the number of elements that would later echo in Stand Alone Complex, although that scene where Batou rips the bomb out of the girl’s teeth is horrifically violent, and this movie is far too cerebral for that.
And yet, the violence is… perfect. There are two major scenes of violence, at the beginning and at the end. It is very much that school of anti-violence is ultraviolence, and so when the Special Unit riot police shoot people with their MG42s, it’s pretty gnarly. The animated equivalent of Verhoeven or John Woo squib hits, but you also saw it in the original Ghost in the Shell, and you even have the same sound effects, like bullets hitting metal. We’ll have to come back to this, but for now, the violence is ultra for a reason.
The question that haunts Fuse along with his PTSD is “why didn’t I shoot?” As he tells Henmi later on, he meant to. And so what we have here is territory expanded upon in the film Joint Security Area. The clash of military programming and fundamental human nature, where the rookies have to use rubber bullets in training exercises to create a situation where they’d rather shoot than be shot. It’s gotta hardwired, hard, because again, human beings aren’t designed to kill other human beings, at least not to the extent to which it’s been mythologized.
While his mind was telling him to shoot this little girl, his body couldn’t do it, and that’s I think what the point of that training scene and the conversation between Henmi and Handa, who I believe is Fuse’s superior, is about, making the distinction between what the mind wants and what it’s told.
It’s not the exact point of the movie, the JSA thing, but it’s a significant foundation. And that training sequence is quintessential, because of how it contributes to the movie’s overall atmosphere. You have the voiceover of Kei reading from Little Red Riding Hood, the haunting imagery of maneuvers in an abandoned house, and that music, oh — this is one of my favorite Kenji Kawaii works, and probably was my favorite before I saw Moribito. It gives the movie such an ethereal quality, and the title song, “Grace Omega,” is awesome.
So Henmi posits that Fuse’s hesitation to shoot might prove he’s human, which is a note we should remember for when we learn more about Henmi. But for now, we have this question of Fuse’s humanity, and then we see how he hangs out with Kei, and so that’s like the application, the test that will answer that question in a real world scenario. The romance at the heart of the film is this extension of the stuff about deprogramming, and so we are drawing this diametric binary between love and war, human and wolf.
You see in other movies and OVAs, Oshii’s attitude toward the military, and toward war, and I think that Jin-Roh is no exception to that repeated philosophy. But again we need to round back to the micro. I just think it’s brilliant how you have that one-two situation, the question posited organically, and then explored in this dramatic way, and that it’s completely this circumstance of the larger conspiracy.
There’s always more going on, but the twists and tangles of the story shape something really classically structured and well-plotted. I don’t know how they did it. And so I start to wonder… if this was one of the Kerberos live-action movies, would it be weird? How much influence did the director, Hiroyuki Okiura, have on the final product?
Well, then I have to think back to Avalon, which is arguably Oshii’s most successful, or only successful, live-action film, up until this year, because that one did have a complicated but well-delivered narrative. I can’t wait to see Garm Wars, it’s been killing me for years-ish. And Nowhere Girl, that’s supposed to be good too. But I don’t want to discount Okiura simply because Oshii is a known and popular quantity. This movie is directed in a way that is certainly reminiscent of films like the original Ghost in the Shell, but I think what it lacks in Oshii indulgences like the capital-M Montage it also compliments with a more direct human engagement. And that no doubt can also be attributed to the animation director, my man.
I mean, just look at Henmi. He turns out to be a bad guy, but in his first scene he’s drawn with such a weary expression, like even when he smiles there’s this unmistakable sadness behind it. This is a guy who has been beaten down by life, by his own and by the world around him. He didn’t make it in the Special Unit, and now he’s a turncoat.
And then yeah halfway, we learn that he’s working against Fuse, and so this brings about two revelations, including his betrayal, but also the betrayal of Kei, that she was a Red Riding Hood who is being controlled by Public Security. Her role in this is to cause a scandal, and help to implode the Special Unit. The plan is foiled at the museum again, and Fuse and Kei lead Public Security into an ambush in the sewer.
The ostensible climax for the film is a doozy. A pretty spectacular one, where Fuse is just marching through the tunnels like the Terminator, gunning people down in that glorious slow-motion. At this point it’s kind of hard, because part of it feels cathartic, just because there is that comeuppance, and the Special Unit really outmaneuvered Public Security, but at the same time, this scene is horrific.
You have these guys who are outgunned and outnumbered either running for their lives or valiantly turning around and being cut down. There’s a focus on dead bodies lying in the water, and we have Henmi, shot in the leg and limping away. Although a traitor, he is fairly pathetic, and so I can’t help but sympathize, because he is a player in a game that he happened to lose. No heroes and no villains, just game players. And his tactics were no more abhorrent than those undertaken by the Wolf Brigade.
That’s kind of what he says right before he dies, what’s the difference between us. But his attitude toward Fuse changes over the course of the movie. In the beginning he wonders about him, that maybe he’s becoming human, and then later he says if it comes to it, he’ll put him down like a dog. He’s nothing like me. And then in the end he says what’s the difference between you and me? So I feel like he’s also wrestling with his own nature, the nature of this cruel business that once upon a time was about law enforcement.
Maybe it was the third or fourth viewing of this movie a few years ago, I came away kind of surprised, because I couldn’t figure out if the movie was actually as powerful as I’d always thought. Because when I first saw the movie and then proceeded to immediately show it to my friends, because high school kids are usually so receptive to these things, I wasn’t fully understanding all of the political intrigue. And that was key to understanding Fuse’s character, and if he had been sincere. Or Kei, for that matter, because both characters are hiding these secrets.
It’s only a tragic ending if they fall in love, and I believe now that they do, though it is underplayed. And really it’s not in untangling the political mess that we extrapolate that, it’s in the scenes between the romantic leads themselves. Kei wants to fly away like a seagull, remarking on this river that leads out to the sea, and Fuse has an anxiety dream about Kei where she tells him he can’t go with her, it isn’t allowed. And when he tries, wolves run out and devour her as we intercut with him shooting Kei with a machine-gun and the music swells.
Fuse foils the Public Security plot at the museum, and Kei is surprised because he walked into it knowing it was a trap. So that’s Fuse. And then for Kei, she talks about how after being arrested she stopped caring, stopped thinking. She reset, and so that works with theme and drama. Thematically, there is that deprogramming, and dramatically, she is then able to invest in something new. Fuse came into her life and immediately she wanted to run away with him.
They relate to each other because they feel trapped, always shot from behind chain-link fences. So then the question becomes, why couldn’t Fuse run away at the end? For the character, and for the creators, why was this a tragedy? If he had run away, I feel like it would’ve been the same message, because Fuse is in the middle, and he can choose, but he chooses duty over love.
Where does that come from? Well, I suppose it’s that military training that Handa alludes to in the moment Fuse makes that choice. Handa was there long before Kei, so no matter how powerful his attraction, it doesn’t erase who he became at his core. The romance was about temporarily forgetting, like a fly who dreamt he was human and now the dream is over.
So it does work out as a story, but I guess at first I thought that they were telling a different kind of story, one like Total Recall where the enemy was specifically planting a sleeper agent, and so the Special Unit was kind of like counting on Fuse’s humanity in order to entrap Kei and the Capitol Police. But that’s not exactly it. Handa’s constant monologues about tales of wolves and men are warnings about the tragic ending that Fuse and Kei are tumbling toward — it wasn’t really part of the conspiracy.
But that’s over there. The plan by the Special Unit is intriguing. It’s counterintelligence, and so works to subvert the Capitol Police’s plan, which was to cause a scandal by framing Fuse as a member of the Sect. And so that’s the real conflict in the movie. It’s within the government. When you have friends like these!
But the whole wolves and men thing is important because a major narrative device here is the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Not only is that the moniker given to the women of the Sect, who are bomb couriers and wear red hoods, it is essentially the story of Jin-Roh.
You have little Red taking the path of pins, and so the Wolf rushes up the path of needles and then disguises himself as Red’s mother so he can eat her. Red has no idea, but in this case, neither does the wolf. Jin-Roh adds to the story because it asks what it would be like if the Wolf had to do this classically unthinkable thing that has haunted children through history.
How do you make somebody that evil? You have trick them into doing it, because it is against their nature. So that’s one part, but the other is better, I think, and it’s about the nature of storytelling itself, although it is handled in a very discrete manner. You have Fuse and Kei reading out this story that they are becoming a part of, trapped in, really, and so there is a line between those who tell and receive stories, and those who live them.
For once we’re actually getting to know the people who are otherwise distanced by, for example, news reports, or racial stereotypes. Again, it does come back to that question of what would it be like to become a wolf? Or wolf-man, even, where the horrible John Landis transformation is purely psychological, but just as painful.
Now, I have before registered my discontent with things like this, but Oshii is a big fan of bringing in somebody else’s writing to speak for his own. Look no further than Ghost in the Shell 2 for quote-a-fest 2004, and that’s my favorite of his movies hands down. I just feel like I always have to say it. It’s a little bit liking The Godfather Part III the best. And I’m sure if I saw that one I would like it the best.
But it’s just like any allusion, or any creative choice at all, it’s an expression, it’s shorthand. Originality is almost arbitrary, because the creator is still expressing an idea, and the only measure of validity there is the quality of the message, not how it’s delivered. Granted, it can feel cheap, but I’ve never bought into that whole anti-Tarantino thing that he’s just ripping people off. He’s best described as a kind of cinematic deejay, remixing what’s already been done to show us something new. Even though he’s not saying anything, it’s fine, because hearing Morricone-style music in a lush WWII setting is new, it’s different.
For Oshii, there’s also that added layer for the Ghost in the Shell movies because these characters are connected to transcendent cultural layers — Batou is a philosopher, and his world is our world, just different. That connection has to be made, and it stays true to his character. For Jin-Roh, I think it also works as a play on storytelling, as a device, maybe. Mythological characters are made flesh and tears, and we see how fucked up things can really get.
Earlier in the episode I voiced my concern about the setup in the beginning, the scene that details how occupation led to the rise of the police and that in turn led to the rise of the Sect. It feels like an opening more appropriate to a Star Wars or something, and you begin to wonder if that’s just buying into the unspoken rule of scifi movies, that you have to dump everything in the front or people won’t get it. Terminator does it, Blade Runner does it. Would these movies have been lessened if those text crawls didn’t exist? If exposition was instead pieced out across the story?
Well, in Jin-Roh, it isn’t so much world-building as it is an establishment of a certain kind of history, the kind that leaves a legacy, and that legacy plays out over the film, culminating in the tragic ending.
After Henmi’s men have been wiped out, members of the Special Unit gather in the middle of nowhere, and Handa explains what has to happen next. And he speaks to it literally, saying that Fuse cannot be human any more than the crimes of the girl can be erased. They’re trapped in this legacy of that arms race between police and criminals.
So it might be saying that both are implicit in the creation of that legacy, but it’s not saying they’re equal — that’s up for you to decide. The facts were laid out in the beginning, and it’s a familiar story. I know which side Oshii falls to, but he’s not gonna come out and say it because that’s not the story he’s telling. Not this time, anyway, I mean he’s got a whole Saga going, who knows?
Instead, it’s the human consequence. The overall dwindling scope is about moving from global to individual, and that’s another echo with Stand Alone Complex — that old favorite episode about Saito in 2nd Gig, or even better the episode about Kuze’s origin. We start with some history, and by the end it’s this very personal story, but the two are intrinsically linked. Global cause and human effect.
Fuse pulls the trigger, and the myth continues, because the whole thing is fabricated, it’s storytelling, rounding back to that earlier concern. So the story goes on, but we have been witness to the reality behind it, and it’s pretty shocking.
This chapter in the Kerberos Saga, which according to the Internet Firearms Database, depicts the Kerberos Riot, the confrontation between the Special Unit and the Capitol Police that has lasting effects on the series, is thus illustrated with a human story.
So before we close it out, let’s answer the question from the beginning, having seen the movie and thought about it so hard, just so, so hard. Did it need to be animated?
I feel like we focus on that question sometimes and never, ever ask if a movie needed to be shot live-action. Because that’s what it’s become, there is a spectrum of approaches to telling a cinematic story, and some of these approaches require animation, some live-action. Choice, options, of equal merit, it just depends on the story you’re telling.
Why do filmmakers often go live-action, in terms of artistic reason or theme? Live-action offers verisimilitude, it’s meant to simulate our world. Which is why I’m not sure about blowback on 3D or 60 frames per second. I admit we should probably stop short of smell-o-vision, but then again, if the goal is to simulate, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. It would be gross, but so are headsplosions that we get visually and auditorially.
Jin-Roh is not simulating, it is depicting a fantasy world, but one that is specifically similar to ours, just with this layer of unfamiliarity, which we’ll call mythological distance. Even though Jin-Roh tries to be realistic, it’s almost like realism attempting to poke through artifice. Like real human beings trying to escape a fairy-tale.
Obviously, there are reasons why it’s animated beyond theme, and those were discussed earlier. The studio didn’t want another live-action turkey on their hands, and after the international success of Ghost in the Shell, you want to be able to say from the creator of international success Ghost in the Shell and have the movie resemble it. I mean, I know that The Sky Crawlers didn’t exactly blow up the western world, but if Garm Wars: The Last Druid was animated, I think it might’ve, just based on the subject matter. I mean I want to see that so bad partly because of that Japanese CG, but imagine something like Avalon animated like this, that would be kind of cool.
But the reason I want to believe there’s an artistic reason comes from my love of science-fiction. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to tell some big scifi space military story, but I know that it’s unlikely I could ever do it psychologically, even, like I’m not doing the whole it’s unlikely I’ll be successful, I just can’t imagine being on a set with two-hundred people and these big machines and stuff. My apartment is space enough, that’s the limit of what I can handle.
So animation would be great, and it would be easier to express these fantastical visuals I want to show you. But that’s not good enough. Because you have Avatar and Star Wars — those are the pinnacle of immersion, right? If I’m just backing down from live-action because it’s hard, then I’m not maximizing the potential of this story, I’m not telling it right. So there needs to be artistic justification, and for my theoretical animated thing, I’m still searching, and it’s a headache. But I gotta tell you, revisiting Jin-Roh helped me out. I feel like I’m a little bit closer…
Obviously I can’t recommend this movie, because you’ve already seen it, and if you haven’t then my bad. I mean, there was a little bit of confusion last episode, where in the podcast itself I never say spoiler alert, but I opened that one with a scene from close to the end of the movie. I’ve always thought of this podcast as a resource for after you see the movie. You know, there are people out there doing recommendation shows, where spoilers cannot roam, but then after you see the thing, you want to continue thinking about it, you know? So unfortunately, this podcast by nature cannot be for everyone, because no one person is gonna come prepared every week and have seen all of Futurama or played all of Bioshock Infinite. But that’s also why I hope that the BBPX is timeless, that after you have done those things, you can come back and bask in the glory of my beautiful voice.
So instead, for Jin-Roh, I’ll make a different kind of recommendation, to round out this episode, and that is to double-feature, if that can be used as a verb. When next you feel the urge to watch Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, and who knows maybe this is your Ghost in the Shell 2, which is a movie I get this craving for maybe once a year, but the second the credits roll I’m like I can’t watch that ever again, it’s so bleak. But when you watch Jin-Roh again, I would pair it with Joint Security Area, and I’d watch JSA first, so you get that establishment of deprogramming, and then see a further application with Fuse’s story.