Why didn’t you shoot? I meant to. – Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

The thing is like a wolf.

The thing is a wolf.

Thus, it is a thing to be banished.

I’ve been an anime fan for a long time. At 22, the portion of my life in which I’ve been a fan is already half of that; and the period of time in which I’d been exposed to anime is closer to three-quarters that timespan. As such, good titles often fall by the wayside.Such was the case with Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. Produced in 1998, it was relatively new when I was first getting regular access to anime. Needless to say, at 11, dubs of Sailor Moon and Pokemon were infinitely more interesting. And so, without ever making it onto so much as a To-watch list, Jin-Roh left my consciousness for the next nine years. And like all good things, it was not only worth the wait, but indeed, a wait I needed. I don’t think I could have appreciated the movie to the extent that I did even five years ago, let alone ten.

Though he had little to do besides write the screenplay, Mamoru Oshii‘s touch is evident throughout Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. The movie continually threatens to pull the rug out from under your feet, all while providing a structure as organized as latticework. Directed by Oshii’s right-hand man and key animator, Hiroyuki Okiura (after he apparently kicked up a fuss about Oishii‘s handling of some scenes during Ghost in the Shell!) the film begins with a death: a “little red riding hood” delivering bombs to a resistance faction. What follows is a multifaceted account of a country, a man, and an organization. Jin-Roh is a dark film, but one continually punctuated by the light from molotov cocktails. Something’s better than nothing, I suppose.

The introduction to Jin-Roh must be one of the most stupefying experiences I’ve ever had. It starts as a factitious account of postwar Japan, and through a constant series of images, some sad violin notes, and steady narration, somehow warps into something different; all of a sudden we’re unsure of where the history ended and the fiction began. Police dressed like Storm Troopers are pictured marching through Tokyo, fighting a rebellious force of young, angry people who come to be known as “The Sect”. The transition from these still photos to animation comes through a series of images: one depicting a man being gunned down, the second depicting the Special Armored Police turning around, slow and alien.

Immediately after this, we cut to a scene of  a riot. The noise deafens; in contrast with the silence of the preceding images, the continual yelling of the crowd, the sound of brick and bottles hitting the police’s riot gear is cacophonous. A girl silently walks through the chaos, escapes through the gutters, only to be found by members of Armored Police. Fuse, our protagonist and a member of this unit asks her “why?” to which she shakes her head, silently, and pulls the cord out of the explosive she carries. Fuse spends the rest of the movie contemplating this question, and wondering why he receives no blame, all while repeatedly meeting with a girl that is her exact likeness.

The introduction’s fact-into-fiction transition is mirrored in the copy of Little Red Riding Hood received by the deceased girl’s would-be sister: in this case, the story begins with Little Red Riding Hood scraping her skin raw to escape clothing made of metal, then setting off into the woods, where she is forced to choose between the path of pins or the path of needles. For most, this is an unfamilliar permutation of the tale. The beastly, though elegant Fuse narrates the wolf’s lines near the end, in a ghastly way.

Fuse spends the entire movie in a kind of half-light: he reenters training on the behest of his superiors, meets with but never seems to advance very far with the female lead, Nanami, and on a metaphorical level flickers between being a beast and a human. The scenes involving Fuse almost perfectly flip from day to night abruptly, from light to pitch dark. The “beast” to be banished is the secret unit within the Special Armored Police itself, as other factions within the government seek either to absorb or slander its name. Either way, as a  time of peace seems to be settling on the nation, the era of a heavily-armed super-elite police force is drawing quickly to a close.

On the whole, Jin-Roh is presented with a pragmatism and verisimilitude which Oshii seems to have moved away from as his career progressed – the sky-high glittering church scene from Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence comes to mind. In Jin-Roh, There are jurisdictions to be dealt with, and the guerilla warfare the movie deals with is a clear nod towards Vietnam’s political and military strife decades earlier, moreover Japan’s own political situation at the time. It is cinematic in its execution, crystalline in structure, and atmospheric in the extreme, and well worth the watch.

18 thoughts on “Why didn’t you shoot? I meant to. – Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade”

  1. One of the most intersting thing about Jin-roh I thought was the use of underground sewer, as a metaphor for the forest (i always like how settings are chosen for certain purposes = D). On the surface world, Fuse appears to be a ‘dog’ under the eyes of other people, it is inside this dark sewer (where nothing will get out) that wolves disguised as humans show their true face, and eats them alive without mercy. And those red eyes glowing under the armoured helmets, and machine guns for claws, makes the wolf brigade that much more bestial.

    It would be interesting to see how Oshii would have directed this instead, iirc he did mention in an interview that he regretted not directing this himself. I personally don’t think that would have worked out as well though, considering how cold and sterile his characters are in GITS/sky crawlers, at least Fuse was more warm and human, and made the conflict between his human self and wolf self more dynamic.

    1. Mmm, I agree. Choice of setting was key in this movie, and I thought it was incredibly well-done. I was a fan of the landfill myself. Like I said above, the entire movie is sort of in a dawn/dusk type of setting, and the landfill was exemplary of that: a sky half-covered by clouds, light but somehow not light at all. If the sewers were a forest, then the landfill was the mountains. I wonder what the amusement park would’ve been?

      I don’t think it would’ve worked out either, actually. Jin-Roh was cinematic in a way that Oishii, IMO, has trouble handling. Oishii tends to postulate and wax poetic to the point of confusion and boredom. Moreover, as you said, his characters are too cold I find. The first time I watched Ghost in the Shell (at age 13, one might add.) It confused me to the point where I was angry,. The characters were about as easy to relate to as a brick wall, so, then and there in my limited viewing experience, I declared it to be the worst anime I had ever seen. Time has looked a little bit more kindly on GiTS (though I will never watch SAC) but my stigma of Oishii anime still remains.

      1. I highly recommend you check out Patlabor 2, Celeste. It captures the moment of intersection between Oshii’s more romantic/comedic roots and the more philosophical tone of his future works. I rate it as his best movie, if just because there’s such a bitter-sweet love-story laying at the heart of the film. It’s totally self-contained, too, so try not to let any lack of familiarity with Patlabor deter you.

        As for Jin-Roh, it’s a film I can only remember vague feelings about, so, reading this post, and especially going through those harrowing images of the girl detonating her suicide-bomb, has jolted my memory and reminds me why I remember it seeming so dark and sad. Thanks for writing about it. It’s clearly one of the most overlooked of movies of recent times, and I hope it’s not allowed to be forgotten. I really need to watch it again.

  2. Its been a while, but I remember being obsessed with this movie. Was one of my first anime movies, so much to my surprise the production quality had me dumbfounded, being so used to 12/26 TV shows. Of course Oshii’s enigmatic touch harbors throughout the movie. The man is relentless isn’t he?

    1. Heh, relentless is a good way to describe him :) Between, Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe, Hideaki Anno, Shoji Kawamori and him, the look, feel and themes of anime for basically the entire 1990s were defined.

      It is the type of movie that harbors obsession, I find. I watched it first on Tuesday night, slept, woke up early for work, and as soon as I got home on Wednesday afternoon I watched it again immediately. The last anime I did that to was Planetes!

      1. Of course most of the symbolism and depiction of terrorism went over my head, as a teen I was completely oblivious of such topics :P. What really interested me was the craftsmanship and work put into the movie. The amount of facial expressions are staggering, that scene where the little girl gets cornered and decides to detonate the bomb has stuck with me till this day. Without her saying a word I knew what she was thinking.
        And hey I liked Planetes! Such a fun endearing show, I remember the characters being wacky. I did stop at episode 16 though…I wonder why? I remember enjoying it so much.

        1. I’m more of a rewatcher than a watcher for a similar reason. I was a decent student, but in terms of the real world and the media going into my head, as a teenager I was about as observant as a frying pan. As such, I find that certain anime (Ghost in the Shell, read above) are infinitely better now that I’m kind of more human/aware of things now than they were when I was younger. Actually, I make a habit of rewatching FLCL every… 2? 3? years religiously, and I find that it changes a little bit every single time. Time and perception are powerful things.

          Oh, I loved it Planetes too! It’s absolutely endearing :). That said, I can almost understand why you’d stop halfway through – the developing romance between Hachi and Ai, considering how awkward both parties are, is a little bit difficult to watch at times. The thing with Planetes is all the characters are about as frustrating as real people at times. I think all anime fans, on a certain level (and film/tv fans, too) watch the stuff as a bit of an escapism from ‘real’ people. Not that this behavior is a bad thing, it simply is what it is. Kudos to the directors of Planetes for bringing them to life so much (and the ending, if you ever revisit it, is well worth the pain) but in comparison to the larger-than-life character types populating say, a Gundam series, it’s a little bit more taxing to watch.

          1. Yikes considering the backlog I’ve accumulated over the years because of college, I’d be rather hard-pressed to pick up Planetes again. I’m definitely interested in the ending now though, I’ll probably read up till the ending then watch the last episode for closure’s sake :P
            Oh ya I agree most of my favorite shows in my prime when watched now turn out differently, in my case to the worst. I was never a fan of Gits and all those philosophical shows, so much of the shows I watched were the shows that started all them cliches and fan-pandering “Moe” shows we know now. They seemed so fresh and spirited then. After a re watch…not so much. Its cause I personally was force-fed these horrible “Moe” shows hoping to catch a glimmer of that magic I fell for in the beginning. Alas didn’t go so well, thats when I turned to more intelligent shows, anime that nurtured the mind as it did the spirit, I’d like to believe :). Now that I have that out of the way! FLCL! I never took it as the deep kind, I remember it being a whole bunch of crazy and flashy art. Maybe it warrants a rewatch now that its been..what…10 years? Wow time sure flies

          2. Yeah. I was meaning to write a “it’s been 10 years omdkjfhskdj!” post about FLCL. i might just do that in a couple of days, actually. Frankly, FLCL is one of the best anime to rewatch (anything Shoji Kawamori is also great, including what little i’ve seen of the Macross franchise. a testament to him as a director, I suppose.) Truthfully, it took me until about the third rewatch (age 16? 17? something like that) to realize the entire thing was about adolescence. Watching it now, I realize it’s as much all stages of life: childhood (Naota & co. are in elementary school), adolescence (early symbolized by Mamimi, late by Haruko), young adulthood (the globetrotting Tasuku, their homeroom teacher, everyone in the Space Agency thing) and parenthood (Naota’s dad, granddad, Eri’s parents/secretary). Man, i should write that post.

            I know what you mean about backlog + uni too. I try not to think too deeply on it; watch what you feel like watching and let the list go to shit, I guess :)

  3. Personally I think Jin-Roh is better than most of the well known anime films which seem mostly to be famous for the animation boundaries they broke rather than their actual story (which is especially bad if you’re watching them 10 years after they were made and the animation is long since dated).

    1. There are definitely two types of ways to enjoy anime: for narrative, and for animation. Frankly, I can’t hate cutting-edge animation. I love graphic design and art, so things like Satoshi Kon’s films (Paprika comes to mind), though much more popular than Jin-Roh and often with weaker narratives are still good in my books. And frankly, anime which break boundaries are, in my opinion, still just as influential years later. Much of Studio 4C’s work is in this category, as is one of my favorite anime films ever, Spring and Chaos (and i’ll point you in the direction of ‘Weird Anime’ for more on that! ;) Though, as I write this I realize I may be misunderstanding your comment. What do you mean by ‘famous for the animation boundaries they broke’, precisely?

  4. Things like Ghost in the Shell (1st and 2nd) and Akira. I think a lot of new fans get confused when these are pointed to as must watch animes without it being made clear that this is because of the huge visual boundaries they broke rather than the actual substance of the film. I know Gits has thematic substance, in terms of questioning the concept of what defines a human being but this is completely let down by the plot which is garbage. That’s one of the reasons I preferred Stand Alone Complex.

    Jin-Roh has a great plot but because it doesn’t represent any milestones visually it gets ignored.

    1. Ah, I see what you mean.

      Famous anime are famous for a reason is my take on this kind of situation. Perhaps there are things that Jin-Roh does better than say, Akira or GiTS, but Akira and GiTS are by no means bad, nor is it a bad thing that people watch them (or, for the sake of extending the argument – Evangelion, or Cowboy Bebop, even though arguably Kaiba does a way better job at certain things) I don’t think it’s simply a matter of visual boundaries with these two films either. In particular, Akira had a huge social impact, and reflected an ethos that wasn’t just limited to Japan – hence its phenomenal spread to the west, and the beginnings of anime fandom outside of Japan. I honestly think that social attitudes have more to do with the spread of anime (or any other type of media, be it music or film or books) than any factor alone. While things like Akira may not seem as impressive in comparison to their contemporary counterparts, the ability of a film (et al.) to convey, if indirectly as in the case of most fantasy-based anime films, a place, a time and a set of beliefs is incredibly powerful. The unique ability of these forms of communication is the preservation of that ethos for future viewers.

      I don’t think most people know what type of information their eyes are really taking in – training in things like visual composition, perspective, color theory and visual balance are essentially untaught in curricula. Therefore when I see people saying the “visuals were nice”, I assume they’re picking up on some other element of the film that they aren’t able to communicate properly. The atmosphere of a movie, for example: atmosphere is generally created via a combination of camera angles (visual composition) + perspective, color combination and length of shot. However, most people aren’t aware of at least 2 of the three things on that list, and since they’re watching a movie, they assume that what they’re feeling must be a response to visual stimuli, and thus, “it had cutting-edge visuals, and looked really cool”.

  5. An absolutely gorgeous film. I think part of what makes it so masterful is that it is so dark, but the characters are presented in such a way that you can’t help but do the hoping for them.

    Mamoru Oshii directed a previous live-action film that introduced the Armored Police (known as the “Kerberos Corps” – after the mythological guard-dog at the entrance to Hades) called “The Red Spectacles”. Jin-Roh is the only other film work about the Kerberos Corps, although Oshii has since published a manga series (“Rainy Dogs”) and a couple of radio dramas – though Jin-roh I think remains the strongest entry in the entire series. I think, as gaguri notes above, the lessened involvement Oshii had with this series makes it stand out in a considerably different way.

    1. I generally end up wiki’ing anything I watch out of curiosity; who produces what, when and how it’s related to other works/studios/anything is something I find very, very interesting. As such, I knew about the other films Oshii had directed; haven’t had the chance to check them out but the color looks very… graphic? flat? for a live-action; which I suppose comes from his extensive background in animation. Not a bad thing by any means, but it’s a question of whether or not I feel like mentally tackling that level of Oshii right now.

      Nice of you to drop by! I read your blog quite regularly :D

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Jin-Roh, but I remember that at the time I was impressed with the imagery it presented. Something about the scenes permanently imprinted itself in my mind (particularly the one you included with the troops marching in uniform).

    1. I love anime/movies that do the imprinting thing, though. For all the visual fireworks that anime offer, this is a surprisingly limited occurrence, I find. Even things like Utena, often lauded for its visuals doesn’t quite stick in your head like Jin-Roh manages to do.

      It’s surprising to see how many people, as they comment have either a) watched the movie 5+ years ago, and have this kind of “oh yeah!” reaction or b) haven’t watched it all but have heard of it.

  7. Stumbled across this wonderful blog while going through the Googles. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is my favorite anime movie of all time and even though Oshii is my favorite director, I’m happy he didn’t helm this project. I don’t think the characters could have befitted from his type of coldness, specifically because of how unrelenting the setting was. I was surprised not by the level of violence or frenquency, it’s brief, but because there was an emotional reaction to the violence for me rather than just the shock of HOW violent it was (Ninja Scroll and X/1999 being examples of that).

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