A miasma of great sadness and anger hangs over Jin-roh: The Wolf Brigade. Here we have a violent but also heart-rending modern-day fable that takes "Little Red Riding Hood" as one of its themes and turns it into a grim meditation on violence and duty.
People who come on board expecting to see a John Woo action-fest are not going to walk away happy. The violence of Jin-roh isn't the exhilarating arcade-game exhibitionism of Ghost in the Shell (whose director, Mamoru Oshii, also oversaw Jin-roh); it's more like the bleak and senseless violence we read about in the newspaper. More, in other words, what violence is like when it actually happens to us, and not what we dream about it as.
The story is set in an alternate version of Japan's recent history. After the end of WWII, extreme social unrest provoked the creation of the Capitol Police, a special elite guard unit with heavy armor, night-vision goggles, and machine guns. Their masked, inhuman faces are reminiscent of death machines, or maybe more like abstract evocations of the emotionlessness of Nazi SS guards.
During a riot, Constable Fuse (pronounced "foo-say") and his squad are in the sewers below the streets when they encounter a cell of the terrorist group known as the Sect. The Sect are known for using women and children as couriers; the slang term for them is, appropriately, "Little Red Riding Hoods." Fuse corners one such girl, but can't bring himself to shoot her. She sets off the bomb she's carrying, killing herself and injuring Fuse and one of his men.
Fuse has no explanation for why he hesitated, and his superiors consider him a disgrace. He's sent back to be retrained, and in the meantime, he develops a peculiar obsession with the dead girl — and her sister, Kei. Kei is also a terrorist, although she has not yet been arrested. The two of them begin a strange, tentative relationship, both of them so cold and closed-off from emotion because of what they do — or maybe in spite of it. Kei gives Fuse a copy of "Little Red Riding Hood" — the original, rather bloodthirsty version of the story, not the sanitized one we're all familiar with — and soon Fuse sees himself, because of his emotional wound, as a man among wolves. The problem is that everyone else wants to see him as a wolf among men.
Against this is another backdrop of plot, involving Fuse's place in the Capitol Police and an attempt to infiltrate the underground through the use of moles. This part of the story is more tangled, but it's also intricately interwoven with the emotional elements, and soon Fuse has to choose between doing his duty as a soldier and doing his duty as a human being. Fuse has a horrific nightmare in which he sees himself chasing the dead girl, and with all of them in turn being chased by a wolf pack — but as it turns out, he's not one of the hunted but one of the hunters. This conflict is at the heart of the story, and the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale, told in voice-over, throws it into ever sharper relief.
Jin-Roh uses a very spare, flat, stripped-down look that serves its story well. A more extravagant presentation of this material would be self-defeating; about the only way it could have been improved on is if it were in black and white. As it is, though, there's barely any color on the screen, and half the time the only light is what little ambient glow appears from a human face. The faces themselves are hard-lined, closed-off, unsmiling, unsentimental. There's no "big eyes / small mouth" look here, no attempt to soften the material with humor.
A film like this, or like Grave of the Fireflies, is a good example of how mature and sober an art form animation can be. If the movie were filmed live-action, someone might argue, it would be just as effective. But the decision was made to animate it, and in the simple lines and clean colors of animation, the story's emotional and intellectual points are if anything made even more stark.
The story works on multiple levels: there's the John le Carre-esque plotting, where various covert organizations try to subvert each other; there's the psychological horror story inside Fuse's skull; and, most poignantly, there's the muted love story between Fuse and Kei, which ends on the most downbeat possible note. The ultimate message of the movie seems to be this: there are places in the world that, for whatever reason, it is no longer possible to be fully human, and the cost for that in terms of blood and sorrow has become incalculable. The terrorists are scarcely more human than the police and bureaucrats they fight against. The movie has no answers, no recommendations — just an unblinking snapshot of the tragedy itself. But that in itself may be more than enough.