Finally available to watch on British DVD almost a decade after production began, Jin-Roh is a moving and beguiling animé that is a worthy addition to the oeuvre of celebrated Japanese director Mamoru Oshii. Part of the epic Kerberos saga that Oshii has been working on for over twenty years, this is a subtle and elegiac film that can be enjoyed without further knowledge of the wider multimedia project of which it is a part.
Set in an alternate Japan where Germany won the Second World War and then occupied parts of Asia, the film depicts 1950s Tokyo as a city on the brink of civil war as protesters clash with militarised police amid volleys of Molotov cocktails, and Panzer Cops wearing dehumanising uniforms patrol the tunnels beneath the city looking for terrorists. One such cop, Kazuki Fuse, corners a prepubescent female suicide bomber in the sewers and, finding himself unable to shoot, fails to prevent her from detonating a satchel full of explosives. Although Fuse’s colleagues rescue him from the blast, the Panzer Cop is traumatised by the event. Demoted, he seeks to befriend the dead girl’s sister in order to come to terms with the tragedy.
Although the opening scenes of urban warfare are spectacular and disturbing in equal measure, it is perhaps appropriate that Oshii chose not to direct his own screenplay, deferring instead to Hiroyuki Okiura, an animator who worked on Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor 2; the more extravagant directorial style Oshii displayed in those films may not have suited the material here. That said, a number of noticeable visual influences add intriguing anachronisms to the tale; the mixture of Asian and Germanic military styles recall the Taiwanese revolutionary army (who received Teutonic armaments and training in the 1940s) as well as the demonic shock troops in An American Werewolf in London. Elsewhere, the subterranean pursuit of suspects and the way the characters continually cross and double-cross one another inevitably recall The Third Man.
However, the most insistent leitmotif throughout the film is the Little Red Riding Hood theme, with references ranging from the prosaic – the name given to the young female terrorists – to the inspired – the nightmares that plague Fuse show the dead girl being torn apart by wolves. This is no Angela Carter-style deconstruction of feminine identity, though, rather a comment on the inability of soldiers to relate to supposed innocents mobilised by an enemy during wartime. Fuse is both woodcutter and wolf, and so is paralysed when faced with a Red Riding Hood who is more deadly than any wolf in Granny’s clothing. Needless to say, there is no fairy-tale happy ending to this film.
Although Jin-Roh began production well before September 11, the ‘war against terror’ that has unfolded worldwide over the past six years makes dystopian science fiction such as this increasingly uncomfortable viewing. While the somewhat glacial pace and maudlin tone may make the film hard going for many animé fans, this is a treat for Oshii aficionados teased by the concurrent release of the underwhelming Solid State Society. With the imminent release of its semi-sequel Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters, Jin-Roh is an ideal introduction to the director’s alternate Earth saga which can be explored further through manga and live action films that will hopefully also enjoy a release on these shores.