Jin-Roh (film review with pictures)

Jin-Roh is probably the best Japanese Anime out there - but no one knows about it. I've come to this conclusion after watching it for probably the eighth or ninth time the other day, and each time I watch it I am more and more impressed.

I'll start off by pointing out that I am only a moderate fan of Japanese Anime. Apart from Jin-Roh, I also own Akira, perhaps the best known Anime in the English-speaking world, as well as Kill Bill, which contains an anime section.

The reason why I don't own much anime is because I have had bad experiences. Ghost in the Shell is continually cited as one of the best Japanese films out there, but, to me, there was something wrong about a film in which nude female robots played an integral part. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi was an interesting film, but reminded me too much of H.R. Pufnstuf to get me going. I also attempted to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion many years ago but those big robots just got in my way.

Moreover, Japanese anime seems to consistently focus upon the theme of destruction and rebirth. The best example of this is Tetsuo Shima from Akira, whose journey into self almost manages to wipe out Tokyo again. It's also present in Evangelion.

The other thing about Japanese anime is that it is almost exclusively focused on science fiction and/or fantasy. Nothing wrong with that I suppose.

Jin-Roh, however, is not your typical anime.

The only thing "science-fictiony" about Jin-Roh is that it is set in an alternative history - a Japan in the 1960s that is beset by riots and leftist terrorist groups who are opposing an increasingly fascist federal government. As a result of its setting, the cars, fashions and street life are all consistent with Japan in the early to mid 1960s. Apart from this alternative history timeline, science fiction and fantasy have no place in Jin-Roh.

The story is essentially about two people who meet and fall in love - Fuse Kazuki, a member of a paramilitary "special unit" within the Capital police, and Kei Amemiya, the older sister of a young girl who dies fighting for the terrorists. The backstory is also very important. Leftist terrorist groups in Japan during the 1950s forced the Federal government to create an organisation called "The Capital Police", or Kerberos, who would assist the metropolitan police in controlling the upsurge in left-wing violence. Within Kerberos is a heavily armed unit named the Panzer corps, or merely "special unit".

The members of the Panzer corps wear heavy armour, Stanhelms, night vision goggles that glow red in the dark, and carry powerful machine guns fed by ammunition belts. Their appearance is so striking that they are probably the best known visual representation from the film.

But within the Panzer corps is a secret, almost mythical, group that calls itself the "Wolf Brigade". Members of this group actually view themselves as being wolves and not humans, as being "wolves in human clothing". The title of the film, Jin-Roh, literally means "human wolves" in Japanese.

But all is not well in Tokyo. Kerberos has been so successful in its war against the terrorists that it has gained the hatred of ordinary people. Moreover, the terrorist groups they sought to destroy have been driven underground and have united into one powerful group. As Japanese economic growth expands and people become prosperous, both Kerberos and the terrorist group are hated by the general public.

The relationship between Kerberos and the metro police is also at breaking point. It is obvious that the "co-policing" arrangement between the two is just not working. At the beginning of the film we see a major mistake by Kerberos leading to the metro police being unable to quell a riot, an event that results in the threatened merging of Kerberos - minus the special unit, which would be disbanded - into the metro police.

But there's more at stake than just organisational rivalry. There are people on both sides who have a stake in keeping the status quo, and those who have a stake in the merging. Not least of the problems is the increasingly obvious existence of the shadowy "Wolf Brigade".

In the midst of this political "dog" fight, we see the relationship develop between Fuse Kazuki, a special unit member who has disgraced himself (he was responsible for the "major mistake" I have mentioned above) and Kei Amemiya. As the film progresses it becomes obvious that neither Fuse (pronounced foo-zay) nor Kei (pronounced kay) are what they seem, and that both have actually been manipulated by the politics of Kerberos and the Metro police. The ending of the film is shocking and quite downbeat, but entirely appropriate.

The central image within the film is the faceless armoured soldier who make up the special unit. The image is powerful and frightening. Unlike the white-armoured Imperial Stormtroopers who die when hit by an Ewok stick, the black armoured special unit soldiers are the apex of brutality and effectiveness. On the one hand, their armour is so thick that bullets from pistols and sub-machine guns easily bounce off. On the other hand, each special unit member carries an MG42 belt-fed heavy machine gun which can shred a human being in seconds. Moreover, each member also wears a black armoured helmet, breathing apparatus and night vision goggles that glow red in the dark.

It is obvious that the armoured special unit member cannot exist in reality. The MG42 was a very heavy weapon to wield and totally impractical in close quarters. The thick armour would be so heavy that no member of the special unit would be able to run for any length of time. And, of course, the red glow of the night-vision goggles would give them away. But this is not the point. As an effect, the armoured soldier looks like a walking tank - impenetrable and brutal.

The facial area of the armoured soldier not only give an inhuman feel, but are reminiscent of a wolf's facial features, with a snout and penetrating eyes. Given the film's subject matter - human wolves - this is obviously deliberate.

Another interesting facet of life in this alternative timeline is that German weapons and cars - specifically World War II vintage - are present throughout the film.

Apart from the MG42, Special Unit troops are also seen wielding MP44 assault rifles, and Mauser pistols. The Metro police are also seen wielding MP40 sub machineguns and driving Volkswagen Beetles (the top execs drive Mercs).

There's an obvious link between the film's depiction of Japanese law enforcement officials using distinctly Nazi weapons and the film's depiction of the growth of fascism in post-war Japan. In other words, the tools that are used for oppression have been designed and created by oppressors themselves. I suppose that is the reason why no Japanese WW2 weapons were used was to highlight this fact for members of the audience who know something about war history.

Like a lot of violent anime, Jin-Roh does show the bloody effects of a person being riddled with bullets. Unlike violent anime, it does not dwell on this. Some anime has an unhealthy interest in gory deaths but Jin-Roh, while bloody, never goes to these lengths. Moreover, I also understand that some extreme forms of anime and manga have very explicit sex and nudity, something Jin-Roh has none of. In fact, sexual congress is only hinted at once in the film - and even then it is never seen.

Jin-Roh also has dream sequences and extended periods of dialogue that is occasionally interspersed with gory violence. It is similar to films like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Coppola's Apocalypse Now in that the storyline is actually quite opaque and introspective, yet peppered with moments of action and suspense.

What I enjoyed most throughout the film were Kei's little behaviours: A sudden wind gust causes her to shut one of her eyes; a phone call (the content of which is not revealed to us) results in her collapsing on the floor and lying down as she silently ponders its meaning; she tries to walk down a children's slippery slide but ends up having to compensate as she slides down; she shivers in the cold rain but is too shy to sidle up to Fuse for warmth.

Also interesting is Fuse's lack of emotion... and direction. When he encounters Kei he follows her around like a lost dog, with Kei walking along a path and Fuse following her. As the film progresses the positions reverse, with Fuse leading the way and Kei following. Only when Fuse is given an almost impossible choice to make at the film's conclusion do we see him show any human emotion at all.

Go see Jin-Roh. It is well worth the rental price and for adding to your collection. If you're not an Anime fan then it will probably surprise you with its depth and its subtlety - so deep that it demands a second viewing... and a third...

© 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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