Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1998) Movie Review

A movie like Hiroyuki Okiura’s Jin-Roh is why the Japanese are considered the pioneers of animation. Over the last decade or so the shortcomings of American “cartoons” and animation have become painfully obvious when one looks at what’s coming out of Japan now — and even in the past. Movies like Jin-Roh, Blood: The Last Vampire, and a host of others all uses traditional cell animation but enhanced with computer technology. The blend of old and new results in beautiful movies that moves, flows, and breathes like a real movie shot on real film, but free of the confines of reality.

Jin-Roh tells the tale of Kazuki Fuse, a cop who is part of an elite outfit called the Special Unit, which is itself part of a larger law-enforcement organization that patrols the nation of Japan. The Japan of Jin-Roh is not the one we’re used to; instead, the film uses an alternate version of Japan, one that has just shaken off American occupation to strive on the world stage on their own, and is in the midst of great civil unrests.

We learn that there are other units within the Capital Law-enforcement organization, of which the Special Units is a part of, and its various heads are vying for power and prestige. Among them is a civilian group who is constantly at odds with the Special Unit and would like to see them permanently buried if possible. This antagonistic relationship comes to light when, on a routine mission to stop terrorists operating in the sewer systems during a massive city riot, Kazuki’s unit encounters a young girl who is acting as a bomb courier for a terrorist organization called the Sect.

The girl, known as a Red Riding Hood, has been carrying bombs between the terrorists and their cells all night, bombs that have killed cops and worsen the rioting. She is a terrorist herself, and before she can be captured, she blows herself up with one of her bombs. Unfortunately, Kazuki was there, standing before her with his weapon trained on her, but unable to fire, when she triggered the bomb. This causes great stress for the emotionally vulnerable Kazuki. Days later, Kazuki, starved for answers as to why the girl blew herself up, seeks out an ex-friend who leads him to the dead girl’s sister, who happens looks remarkably like her sister. As Kazuki’s relationship with the dead girl’s sister develops, a web of deceit and conspiracy begins to unravel around him.

To begin with, Jin-Roh is a beautiful film. Its colors are pale and slightly drenched in browns, but the result is a haunting Japan where the rich lives comfortably and the poor hides in alleys. Director Okiura and writer Mamoru Oshii (Avalon) makes great use of the Little Red Riding Hood story, turning the seemingly innocent child’s fable into an allegory for modern Japan and Kazuki and the dead girl’s sister, as well as Kazuki’s relationship and bond with the Special Units. Needless to say, Kazuki is the wolf and the girl is Little Red Riding Hood, and this point is hammered into our heads over and over. Which leads me to one of Jin-Roh’s problems. The movie simply likes to repeat itself. Once the movie’s many conspiracies are unraveled at around the 60-minute mark, there really is little need to continue rehashing the same plot threads. We already know, there’s no need to have numerous other characters mention it “just in case” we’re too dumb to figure it all out.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I also have a problem with its length. The movie runs around 100 minutes, but could have been trimmed into a brisk 60-minute pace. (In Japan it’s common for feature-length animation to be 60 minutes or less.) There are too many scenes that are unnecessary, and most of them involve the Japanese tendency to let a scene linger and linger and linger. The result is a movie that opens with a bang and then crawls toward a thrilling conclusion. This makes the in-between 80 or so minutes somewhat boring, with only brief bursts of violence to distract us from the snail’s pace. Of course, this makes the violence that appear at the beginning and at the end all the more jarring. Still, I didn’t enjoy having to sit through 80 minutes of useless dialogue and brooding scenes. So much could have been trimmed and the movie’s A-plot, which doesn’t appear until the 50-minute mark, would never have been affected.

Besides Jin-Roh’s beautiful art direction, the movie’s character designs are also a winner. The design for the Special Unit commandos is simply stunning. When we first see them they’re armored commandos that move like lightning with glowing infrared eyes that allows them to see in the dark. It’s no accident that the character designs of the commandos are eerily similar to that of the Nazi stormtroopers.

This isn’t to say Jin-Roh sympathizes with the terrorists by casting the commandos as brutal Nazi-like enforcers. The terrorists themselves are shown as being just as capable of brutality and violence as their law-enforcement counterparts. The way they use the Red Riding Hoods to ferry bombs to and from protests is incredibly cold-blooded. In a way, there really is very little difference between the Sect and their enemies, the Special Units. They just have different uniforms, but neither could exist without the other. They’re both wolves preying on the innocent — the Little Red Riding Hoods of the world.

Jin-Roh is the kind of animated film that makes American-made animation seem like they’re stuck in the dark ages. Hopefully Hollywood will snap out of their funk and realize there’s a lot to learn from the Japanese besides how to build a cheaper stereo or TV. Until then, at least we have Japanimation to turn to when singing animals and household utensils get to be just a little bit too much.

Hiroyuki Okiura (director) / Mamoru Oshii (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Dobson …. Kazuki Fuse
Mike Kopsa …. Hajime Handa

Buy Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade on DVD