Set in an alternate history Japan in the 1950s, the story unfolds around Kazuki Fuse, a member of the military police force, who shuts down his human side for his duty. It develops into a psychological drama of Fuse who is torn between love and his loyalty to the Wolf Brigade.
Although Asian action and horror films have established a growing presence on the big screen in recent years here in the US, for the most part the trend hasn't translated to anime. Instead, most anime fans rely on home video to get their Japanimation fix -- personally, I have a better chance of giving man-birth to twins than finding such a flick at my local theater. It's particularly unfortunate because the genre boasts some truly challenging dramas, thrillers, and sci-fi epics that dwarf many of the films Hollywood spoon-feeds its audiences. Want proof? Look no further than a little gem called 'Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.'
In the film's alternate reality, Japan lost World War II to Nazi Germany. After a stringent occupation and a drastic restructuring of the Japanese government, the German army has withdrawn and left the country to fend for itself. In Tokyo, a terrorist organization known as "The Sect" works to rebel against the newly established political system, rioting and bombing tactical targets at any cost. The Capital Police combat this terrorism with their "Special Unit" -- a heavily armored battalion of soldiers who use firepower to maintain order. Our story focuses on Kazuki Fuse (voiced by Yoshikatsu Fujiki), an elite officer placed under investigation after he fails to kill a young suicide bomber before she completes her mission. As his superiors look into his actions, Fuse tracks down the dead girl's sister (Sumi Mutoh) and inadvertently falls in love.
The film borrows imagery from "Little Red Riding Hood" to weave a startlingly surreal series of dreams into Fuse's mundane reality. At first, the story seems intent on constructing a dense political landscape, but it's actually working to reveal the presence of power-hungry wolves who prey on the weakest members of society. Fuse's mounting dilemma leads us to ask whether a person in power should blindly follow commands or rely on their own moral compass for answers. In the film's heartbreaking climax, Fuse must decide where his loyalties ultimately lie, as he's forced to choose between duty and love. For me, the subtle story is so effective and resonant that I found myself seriously pondering what I would do if I were in his position.
I've read a lot of criticism of 'Jin-Roh' over the years. Some say the film is slow and anticlimactic, while others say its plot is bogged down by too many political details and organizations. I personally see it as a well-paced allegory of individualism in the midst of an oppressive ideology. It doesn't scale the futuristic heights of films like 'Akira' because it's interested in telling a more personal, intimate story, and it doesn't focus on battles and war because it's interested in exploring love and regret. While I agree the film isn't for every anime fan, I definitely think it's a compelling character study that poses many intriguing questions.
My only personal frustration with 'Jin-Roh' is that the Japanese society established in the story is so bleak and hopeless. Every character in the film is either desperate for power or consumed by the depressing aspects of their new world. As a result, it's difficult to initially care about their happiness.
'Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade' is a wonderfully dystopian glimpse into our obsession with power and the consequences of free thought. It may be too slow for some, but I found it a fascinating exploration of the types of debates we see on the news every night. This anime won't just make you think -- it'll tug at your heart and it may even make you question your own beliefs.
The Blu-ray Disc: Vital Disc Stats
Bandai Visual has put together an attractive package for 'Jin-Roh's high definition debut. An eye-catching outer box houses an individual case for the movie itself, a classy leaflet with artwork and background details, and a 200+ page book that features storyboards for the entire film (more on this in the "High-Def Extras" section below).
Unfortunately, Bandai Visual continues to package all of their high definition releases in standard-sized DVD cases. As a result, the 'Jin-Roh' box set looks awkward and bulky when placed on the same shelf as the more demure high-def cases.
'Jin-Roh' is presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that offers a clear improvement over the standard DVD. The animated palette is subdued and intentionally washed of any vibrant primaries, but the color fills are bold and efficient. Detail is generally much sharper on Blu-ray than it was on DVD -- the linework is more crisp, the background details are more clear, and the red-eyed enforcers finally look as harsh as they're meant to. The picture may not look as impressive as other anime transfers produced from digital sources (like 'Tekkon Kinkreet'), but it has a comfortable filmic appearance that doesn't betray its roots. There is a moderate level of grain, but it isn't distracting and actually adds to the somber tone of the film.
The downside to this filmic presentation is that while overall detail may be improved, it's still slightly soft at times, and the simplistic imagery and worn colors don't allow the transfer to pop like the best high-def anime on the market. All things considered, fans who've seen the DVD should be quite pleased with Bandai Visual's Blu-ray effort, but newcomers to 'Jin-Roh' may end up shrugging their shoulders.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Jin-Roh' features two main audio options -- a robust Japanese Linear PCM 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps) and a thinner English Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640 kbps). The DD track is commendable, but it doesn't quite have the power and clarity of the PCM 5.1 mix. Bandai Visual has also included a Japanese Linear PCM 2.0 track (1.5 Mbps), but it limits the entire soundscape to the front channels. My comments below refer to the Japanese PCM 5.1 mix.
'Jin-Roh' is a surprisingly quiet film with a subdued soundfield, but I rarely had difficulty immersing myself in this mix. Primarily a dialogue-driven experience, the film's whispers and hushed declarations are evenly spread across the front channels and I never had any trouble hearing lines. A confident use of ambient acoustics allow busy streets to sound sufficiently crowded, alleyways to feel claustrophobic, and interior rooms to seem enclosed. Likewise, on the occasions they're called upon, the surrounds come alive and envelop the listener in chaos.
I do have a few technical complaints. First, accuracy is more of a novelty than an actual merit of the track, with the sounds that fill the rear channels not always appropriate for that region of the soundfield. Second, the LFE channel kicks in to support gunfire and explosions, but is pretty much absent otherwise. The film's world would have felt more authentic if the dynamics were more engaging. Finally, pans occasionally stutter and fail to smoothly transition sound effects from one speaker to the next. None of these issues are a major problem individually, but they do combine to hold 'Jin-Roh' back from its full sonic potential.
Although the 3-disc Special Edition DVD released in 2002 featured a production art gallery, a series of interviews with the filmmakers and a soundtrack CD, the only extras from that release to find their way to this Blu-ray edition of 'Jin-Roh' are a set of trailers and the aforementioned leaflet with artwork and background details.
An animated character study that explores the complexities of the political arena, 'Jin-Roh' may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's extremely well done. This Blu-ray edition boasts a faithful transfer, an above average PCM audio track, and comes packed in an attractive box with a 200+ page book of storyboards. Unfortunately, the disc doesn't include any of the video-based special features of the 2002 standard DVD, and its high cost is in line with other over-priced Bandai Visual high-def releases. Although I think every anime fan should give 'Jin-Roh' a try, you may want to give this one a rent before deciding whether it's worth your hard earned cash.