While films often feature wolves stalking under the guise of man, those of wit and quality are a bit more difficult to come by. Be it the newest reference-driven comedy schlock or aimless chick flick, flicks are more quick to grab a piece of the wolf theme’s revenue than do something to really set itself apart from the rest. At least Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade tries throwing its viewers for a loop, but is it a true beast in anime’s clothing, or is it fodder worthy of Wal-Mart’s $5 Halloween bin?
Director Hiroyuki Okiura and writer Mamoru Oshii guide us through an alternate history, one in which Japan is under the rule of a military force. In this regime, a special unit has been created to help maintain order only when absolutely necessary. As of yet, anti-government terrorists have begun inciting numerous riots and uprisings. The authorities have identified some of these terrorists as “Little Red Riding Hoods,” innocent-looking girls serving as mules for powerful explosives. When Kazuki Fuse (voice of Yoshikazu Fujiki), a member of the aforementioned task force, comes face to face with one of the Hoods, he hesitates to blast her away and pays the price for it. Kazuki, wondering why his trigger finger froze, soon finds himself haunted by the girl’s image and starts to wonder whether he’s more wolf or man.
What stands out most about Jin-Roh is its impressive back story. Oshii did an excellent job creating a believable scenario in which unrest with the government reigns. One could say it just boils down to another “people vs. the power” story, but there’s a lot more to it. The first ten minutes of the film are its most enjoyable, as it wastes no time throwing us into the fray. We dive headfirst into the riots as past events are woven throughout the action. Police and government officials even admit that they’re up against some very organized opponents, making for an intense scenario we pray the story will never move past. Unfortunately, it does, and we’re never as on edge for the rest of the film.
We also don’t receive any real character introductions until ten or fifteen minutes in, when we finally meet our virtually silent protagonist Kazuki. For some, this will be when Jin-Roh begins teetering into less interesting territory, while this is where things will really pick up for others. Like Vampire Hunter D, Kazuki has little to say, unless his commanding officers are giving him a hard time. But he’s not an altogether boring character; his disconnection and alienation from the world are things we can all find some form of empathy with. It’s the degree to which these are taken that becomes a finger-tapping frustration. We want to get to know him, but he grows so far from us that doing so is no small feat.
Jin-Roh is a riff on the “Red Riding Hood” story, if you couldn’t tell by now. While setting this premise in the midst of civil warfare is a good start, its driving philosophy can only be stretched so far. It feels like Kazuki is asked if he’s man or wolf a thousand times throughout the film. As he’s been trained to kill without batting so much as a mocking eyebrow, his confusion is understandable, but the film runs circles with this concept. We even have the story directly narrated to us within the film, lest we viewers cough and, God forbid, miss a detail that’s been drilled into us a dozen times in the last half-hour alone.
There’s as much to complain about here as there is to compliment. Jin-Roh is a decent anime flick that has its fair share of lovers and haters. Once the story comes full circle, you’ll either be in shock or shrugging your shoulders. Jin-Roh is extremely dark, and Kazuki’s melancholy personality helps to keep it that way. It’s a good dramatic film with elements of action, blood, love, and betrayal, but after the first ten minutes, this pitch-black fairy tale is one hell of an uphill battle.