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Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

director: Hiroyuki Okiura

99 minutes (R) 1998
Bandai / Viz NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Michael Bunning
In an alternate history, Japan lost World War II to Germany, who occupied the country. Once the occupation had ended, unemployment and crime spiralled, and civil unrest spread quickly, fuelled by anti-government terrorist groups. The police were overwhelmed, and the government was unwilling to call in the army. A third force, the MSP was created in order to impose peace upon Tokyo. Mobile and heavily armoured, the Panzer Corps division of the MSP clashed repeatedly with The Sect, the largest terrorist group.

Tokyo became a battleground, and both The Sect and the Panzer Corps lost the support of the population. Ten years after the end of German occupation, the MSP has almost reached its objective. Kazuki Fuse is a new member of the Panzer Corps, and during a riot, he corners a member of The Sect, a young girl named Nanami who is transporting explosives for the terrorists. Refusing to surrender, she detonates the bomb and kills herself in front of Fuse.

Although only slightly injured by the blast, Fuse is deeply traumatised by the girl's death. He is sent back to the Academy to recover and retrain. Haunted by her suicide, and doubting both his human worth and his ability to do his job, Fuse seeks to find out about Nanami. During his investigation, he meets Nanami's sister, Kei, who looks very similar to Nanami. Striking up a friendship with Kei, Fuse struggles to reconcile his growing romance with his feelings about Nanami's death and his future as a member of the MSP.

It's a fairly complex setup, and it lasts 20 minutes or so, with the first four minutes given entirely to voiceover exposition, but if you pay attention you'll definitely reap the rewards throughout the rest of the film; as Fuse's post-traumatic shock is displayed by dream sequences, flashbacks and his taciturn silences, all interweaved with subtle political infighting, manoeuvring and plotting, as the MSP seek to find a way to justify their continued existence. There's also a fair amount of the requisite soul-searching philosophy that anime movies seem to need in spades, and readings from a distinctly macabre version of Little Red Riding Hood, called Rotkäppchen. The result is a densely layered thriller which, although set in an alternate universe, eschews magic or speculative high technology in favour of ugly realities.

The story, whilst engrossing, isn't particularly groundbreaking, borrowing heavily from Le Carré and Graham Greene (including a sewer-based chase scene that could almost have been lifted from Carol Reed's The Third Man). This shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, though. Although viewers might be able to guess what's coming, the twists are not so telegraphed that they become overly obvious. The film is distinctly downbeat almost all the way through, but there are moments of optimism that are all the more affecting because of this. Thankfully, the filmmakers have the confidence and conviction to give the film the ending it deserves, rather than take the easy route of the quick and tidy resolution, which would have been obligatory had this picture been made in Hollywood.

Fans of ultra-violent gunplay won't be disappointed, as the Panzer Corps are a distinctly gun-happy lot; but it's a testament to the quality of the narrative that the combat scenes take a definite back seat to the human drama without feeling gratuitous. Technically, the film is incredibly solid. The animation is crisp, realistic and believable, and the quality of the artwork is exemplary. The score is excellent, alternating between brooding, tense menace and gentle melancholy; perfectly matching the mood of the movie.

The English language track is serviceable, but as with all foreign films, the only real way to watch it is with subtitles, and the translation is spot-on. Audio options come in the form of both DTS 5.1 and Dolby digital 5.1 for the Japanese language, and Dolby digital 5.1 for the English audio; and they're uniformly excellent, with clear vocals and other sound effects matched by seriously concussive bass effects for the gunfire, which can be felt as well as heard if your volume is set high enough.

The film isn't quite perfect: the political machinations occasionally disrupt the flow of Fuse's story, the supporting characters are a little thin, with no real effort put into their characterisation (and there's certainly no opportunity for them to develop); the Sect are initially placed as uber-terrorists and then virtually ignored after the opening sequence; and parts of the starting premise don't make any real sense (why not call in the army to Tokyo? And why, if there's countrywide unrest, form the MSP but limit them only to Tokyo?). This is the fourth story Mamoru Oshii has told in this alternate universe, so perhaps these questions are answered in other places. However, there's no real way the film could have been improved without an extra hour or so running time, and that would have bogged the main story down too much and lessened the film's impact, so the version we get is definitely preferable to one which explores all the possible avenues.

All in all, this film is excellent, and should be seen by any film fan, whether or not you like anime (if you don't, you just haven't watched anything that's actually any good). If you're looking to purchase it, though, the Region 1 DVD that I watched is not the way to go. The movie is excellent, as are the audio tracks, but aside from animated menus (which on any DVD are irritating after the first time you see them) you don't get any extras. There is a special edition available, with an extra disc of features, including trailers; interviews with the director and creator, and the cast; production gallery; a booklet and the soundtrack on CD, as well as a fancier case.

Whether you buy or rent, or whether you have to beg, borrow or steal a copy from a friend in order to see it, Jin-Roh is a movie that will draw you in and make you hopeful and despairing about the human race whilst simultaneously telling a great story.

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