Lady Anne: No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
Richard: But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
— William Shakespeare, Richard III (I.ii.71-72)
When Pier Paolo Pasolini dared to tell his fellow Italian leftists that the police were just as much victims of the police state as the students they clashed with, he was making a point few people wanted to agree with, let alone think about. Police states are not built and run by robots, but by human beings, and every time we forget this fact we not only lose sight of how to roll back police stateism, but we forget that within each one of us is a cop — and a criminal — waiting to get out. Give any of us a good reason to divide ourselves off from our fellows, to hide behind a riot shield or throw a Molotov cocktail, and we will teach ourselves to think that not only are the guys on the other side that much less human, but that any of us are, anywhere.
Jin-Roh is about a man who stubbornly refuses to see the other side as inhuman, but is in the wrong place, the wrong line of work, the wrong lifetime to do so. I was tempted to say this is uncommonly impassioned material for Mamoru Oshii, since many of his works tend to tilt towards the icy and the intellectual (Ghost in the Shell), but there are just as many others that are cries from the heart (Angel's Egg). Under all of its grim violence and eminence-grise political machinations, Jin-Roh is a cry from the heart.
Even though Jin-Roh is only nominally a Mamoru Oshii film, written but not directed by him, it's still one of the best things to date that sports his name. Some of that, I attribute that to the way his collaborators pruned out the worst of his excesses while still staying true to the best and most personal parts of his vision. But all the same, there is more than enough of Oshii in it to call it one of his best works, and not just one of the best he's worked on.
A view from behind the riot shield
The dark side of every generation of anime is inspired by the most recent disaster within its memory. For this generation, it's 9/11 and 3/11 (Eden of the East, Terror in Resonance); for previous ones, it was the destruction and reconstruction of Japan in the wake of World War II. Jin-Roh posits a postwar Japan where the drive to regain prosperity has divided society, and in turn engendered protests and violent public clashes. To suppress civil unrest, the government created a special paramilitary police unit called the "Kerberos", equipped with ominous body armor, eerie night-vision goggles, and belt-fed machine guns, all of which make it easy for their targets — and the audience — to fear them as dehumanized killing machines.
The first scenes in Jin-Roh put a crack in that façade. During a riot, a Kerberos squad tracks several members of the terrorist cell known as the "Sect" into the sewers below the streets. Several of the terrorists are torn to pieces by Kerberos machine guns before the police finally corner one who threw a powerful bomb into the ranks of the police. It's a young woman, something we find comes as little surprise to the police; the Sect are known for using women and children as couriers. (The slang term for them is "Little Red Riding Hoods.") One of the Kerberos corners the girl, but can't bring himself to shoot her. She sets off the bomb she's carrying, killing herself and injuring the officer who has her at gunpoint.
Then the mask comes off that officer — literally and metaphorically — and he is humanized for us. His name is Kazuki Fusé (his last name written as 伏, the character for "prostration" or "bowing down"), and he's just as puzzled why he hesitated as his incensed superiors are. They send him back to be retrained, but all the practice raids and laps around the field can't wipe from his mind the image of the girl standing in front of him, eyes widening, yanking on the string to her satchel bomb. In that split second, he saw her as human, and if that has compromised his ability to do his job, he can't afford to show it.
Fusé has little human connection in his life save for two men. One is Tobé, his commander, who professes only to have his best interests at heart, but seems hidebound by the politics that threaten the Kerberos Corps. The other is someone Fusé should have even less reason to trust — his friend Henmi, who hails from Public Security, ostensibly part and parcel of the state apparatus that seeks to dismantle Fusé's group and move to counterintelligence as a more effect weapon against terror. But Henmi keeps Fusé in the loop about the growing unease over the Kerberos Corps, and as a favor he gives Fusé an opportunity to meet Kei, the dead girl's sister.
The man borne from the beast
The fact that Kei becomes an emotional presence in Fusé's life is significant enough, but what's all the more striking is the attitude Kei manifests towards Fusé right from the start. Even while standing at her sister's newly created memorial, she is strangely philosophical about her sister's death; after all, she rationalizes, the dead girl and Fusé both were just doing their respective duties. Paradoxically, this attitude serves only to attract Fusé to her all the more; maybe the two of them sense in the other someone who will simply provide them with comfort, without being judgmental. They begin to visit each other, surreptitiously, and she gives Fusé a copy of "Little Red Riding Hood" — the original, rather bloodthirsty version of the story, not the sanitized one most of us know — that was intended to be interred with her sister's ashes.
The net result of all this is the return of Fusé's nascent humanity, but with it comes immense pain — the pain of realizing that the world is full of precious things that once destroyed, do not come back, and that he was (and still is) part of the process of destruction. Fusé finds himself succumbing to fantasies where Kei is chased and eaten by wolves, or worse, torn to shreds by the machine gun he's wielding. His emotional wounds have left him feeling like a man among wolves. The problem is that everyone else wants to see him as a wolf among men — especially, and specifically, his superiors. Unless he is a wolf, he's of no use to them.
Where Fusé might be of most use to them, though, is as a patsy. We learn that Kei is not, in fact, as distant from her sister's cause as she made out, but was a terrorist herself, and that after being caught by the police she agreed to work for them as an informant. Her job was to form a liaison with Fusé so that information about their relationship could be leaked to the public, thus discrediting the Kerberos Corps and providing the political grease to allow the unit to be shut down all the more speedily. But Fusé and Tobé have been prepared for this — although perhaps it's better to say Tobé has been better prepared for it than Fusé, and Kei is, tragically, prepared for it not at all.
The bleak and the brutal
It's important to make a case for a thing as it actually exists, and not as we would like other people to see it. The former is criticism; the latter is PR and advertising. When I first watched Jin-Roh, I kept thinking how people coming on board and expecting a John Woo blast-a-thon were not going to walk away happy. Not just because of the movie's somber (although not lethargic) pacing and emphasis on emotion over action, but because of how the violence is handled. It isn't the exhilarating arcade-game exhibitionism of Ghost in the Shell; it's more like the bleak and senseless violence we have read a little too much about lately in the news. More, in other words, what violence is like when it actually happens to us, and not how we envision it. There are three fairly sensational action sequences, four if you count the mock-raid Fusé participates in (and flunks), but they are designed to be emotionally exhausting, horrifying even, not exhilarating.
This would be valuable in any movie that has pretentions to do more than just entertain, but it's doubly important in a film like Jin-Roh; the very core of the film's case depends on it. Glamourizing the exploits of the police, especially the paramilitary variety, has become a kind of subgenre of the war film, where (as Truffaut put it) war looks like fun even when really shouldn't. With this sort of war movie, though, the enemies aren't invaders from another country; they're those people who live on the wrong side of town, or happen to be the wrong color. Such distinctions don't vanish in a more putatively homogenous society like Japan; if anything, that very homogeneity (whether in principle or in actual fact) feels violated all the more thoroughly when some of those who are supposed to be "us" start lobbing bombs. If Jin-Roh made its action sequences feel like fun, that would undermine its politics, and put a glamorous patina over things that aren't meant to be glamourized — both the derring-do of the Sect as well as the Kerberos Corps.
Another thing that might have diminished the movie's power, if handled incorrectly, is its use of allegory. From the very title (Jin-Roh is written for the characters for "man" and "wolf"), to all of the allusions throughout — Little Red Riding Hood, Kerberos, Tobé's own speech about how Fusé and his kind are not men but wolves, the imagery Fusé is haunted with — the most obvious and pervasive allegory is human vs. beast, shown in the way both sides dehumanize themseves and others to achive their professed goals. Delivered wrong, it could have been heavy-handed, but it enhances the material instead, providing a contrasting flavor that's as mythopoetic and visionary as the politics of the story are prosaic and mundane.
Perhaps the fact that Fusé can have such nightmares at all is proof enough of his humanity, since most everyone else on both sides seem more disgruntled than conflicted about their aims. Both sides send their own people into the fray to die, but more than that, they condition their own kind to accept dehumanization and subordination as a worthy goal. They both see their own people as expendable, not just physically but spiritually as well; Fusé may not die because of the betrayal he's being lured into, but it means the end of the entire life he's known. And while Tobé is willing to protect his own people by setting a trap of his own for the would-be trappers, he cares little for what further damage he does to Fusé's spirit in the process. It's the unit he cares about, not any one man. After all, wouldn't the other side do the same? From all we've seen, they most likely have.
What came from the director's chair
Given the way Jin-Roh builds such a uniformly faithless case against both sides of its story's conflict, I found myself wondering how it wasn't simply taking the viewpoint of malign equivalence — the nihilistic view that everyone on all sides of a conflict are equally at fault and thus uniformly contemptible. (For the record, I can't get behind such a view.) But I suspect it avoids producing this feeling because it isn't asking us to side with either the cops or the terrorists. Rather, it's about men vs. beasts, with Fusé trying to take one side and being pitched headfirst towards the other.
The bleak politics of the film work on another level, as a more general critique of Japan's postwar reconstruction and as a reflection of Oshii's general anti-authoritarianism. Brian Ruh's study Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii does a good job of analyzing how the film works in those regards. Students of Japanese film might also see another another dimension to all that — how the movie became one of the dwindling examples of cinematic cultural criticism for the time of its release. By the end of the Nineties, when Jin-Roh was released, Japan's film industry had completed its pivot almost entirely away from the angry, barbed commentary so prevalent in the movies of the 1960s and 1970s. What were ostensibly genre samurai films, or even the Nikkatsu skin flicks of the period, were laden with attacks against many of Japan's most troubling traits: its postwar materialism, its use of tradition as a tool of repression, its conformity in the face of situations that urgently demanded dissent, its unwillingness to confront its past wrongdoing. But into the 1980s and 1990s, and through the 2000s, Japan's populist filmmaking beat all the more of a retreat from such a position and became all the more retrograde and reactionary. A movie like Jin-Roh at that time was a rarity, one matched only by the far more commercially successful Battle Royale released the same year.
One common criticism of animated films that dare to look realistic — Jin-Roh, but also Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise comes to mind — is that the same thing could have been made just as easily as live action. It's an inane point, made mainly by critics who snub animated films on principle, but simply swatting it away obscures two important issues. One, as Ruh also pointed out, having the film animated actually made it cheaper to put the precise look the filmmakers wanted on the screen. But the other reason is that by doing so, perhaps that made it possible to get the film made at all, given how at the time the industry was already pivoting away from sociopolitical culture criticism of most any kind. (I suspect a live-action version of the sweeping, epic-scale Honneamise would also have been too prohibitively expensive to produce the same results.)
Oshii himself did not direct Jin-Roh. Bandai Visual and Production I.G. elected instead to have Hiroyuki Okiura, then fresh from his work as the character designer and chief animator on the film version of Ghost in the Shell, take the director's chair. Okiura later became director of the charming A Letter to Momo, and as that one adjective implies there's almost nothing in that film to connect him to this one. In terms of mood, tone, story, motif, most everything that matters, it's Oshii's film. That said, it's hard to tell who is responsible for some of the more ingenious visuals: I particularly liked how the Kerberos soldiers's masks, nominally robotic and emotionless, are made expressive by a mere tilt of the head, or how, when seen at the right angles, the brows of their helmets provide their glowing eyes with human emotion. But if Okiura was responsible for the film's pacing and construction, it was for the better, since Okiura's approach seems more disciplined and less self-indulgent than Oshii's — Okiura lets shots linger in Oshii's manner, but not to distraction, and the whole thing clocks in at a trim 100 minutes or so. Emphasizing the love story, though, was Okiura's idea, even if Oshii was only politely fond of the finished product. ("Speaking as a director," Oshii once said, "I regret not having directed it myself.")
When I first watched Jin-Roh some ten or more years ago, I was prepared even then to call it "complex", not just because of its plotting but because of how well-layered and rich with multiple meanings it is. There's the John le Carré-esque plotting, where various covert organizations try to subvert each other and hearts get broken in the process; there's the psychological horror story inside Fusé's skull; and, most poignantly, there's the muted romance between Fusé and Kei, which ends on the most downbeat possible note. What I found difficult to take then was how the ultimate message of the movie seemed to be that 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 movie has no answers, no recommendations — just an unblinking snapshot of the tragedy itself. But I think now that act of witness in itself may be more than enough: to watch a man try to be a man and not a beast, to watch him do this with our eyes wide open, whether he succeeds or not.