The English-dubbed anime Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade takes place in an alternate reality in which the Japanese lost World War II to Nazi Germany. The setting is post-occupation Tokyo a little more than ten years after the war. Anti-government sentiment runs rampant and a group called The Sect engages in regular acts of terrorism amid street protests. In response, the ruling regime has set up the Capital Police, the elite counterterrorist Special Unit that works beyond the local police force. Constable Kazuki Fuse (Michael Dobson) is a particularly adept member of the Special Unit, but one night in the sewers below Tokyo, he hesitates to kill a member of The Sect, a young girl named Nanami Agawa (Maggie Blue O’Hara). Kazuki gives Nanami the chance to detonate a bomb that kills herself and takes out the electrical power of several city blocks.
As punishment, Kazuki’s superiors send him back to the Academy for retraining, but he cannot concentrate. He sits alone and looks at the world through a different lens. His thoughts return to Nanami, and while visiting her memorial, he encounters her older sister, Kei (Moneca Stori), who bears a striking resemblance to Nanami. While a romance begins to blossom between Kazuki and Nanami, an internal power struggle in the government regime starts to affect their lives. Some of Kazuki’s superiors want to use him to create a public relations disaster for the Special Unit to be rid of the special forces altogether. They are concerned however that Kazuki might be a member of a rumored rogue group within the Special Unit called The Wolf Brigade. Atsushi Henmi (Colin Murdock), Kazuki’s friend from the Police Academy tries to help him, but can Atsushi be trusted?
If the central relationship between Kazuki and Kei sounds familiar, it is because Jin-Roh is a blatant take-off on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Ironically, the time period is the same as Vertigo’s, though the setting is otherwise completely different. Writer Mamoru Oshii and director Hiroyki Okiura try hard, but are unable to make Kazuki’s state of mind regarding either Nanami or Kei terribly convincing. After Nanami’s death, Kazuki relives the event over and over again, then mopes around by himself to maudlin music. After meeting Kei, Kazuki has dreams of her being torn apart by wolves. Kei’s romantic allure is lost by her overly earnest, silly and constant prattling on the philosophical and existential. She does not get any more insightful than observing how much bigger her childhood playground seemed when she was smaller. While the first half of the film dwells on the psychological, the second half abruptly abandons that aspect for plot twists. These twists reveal why we couldn’t dwell too deeply into Kazuki’s thinking in that that would have made these twists moot.
The whole story is not difficult to figure out anyway given Okiura’s heavy-handed use of dream imagery. Throughout Jin-Roh, Kei narrates the story of “Red Riding Hood” in patches with the allusion of her being the titular character in the current state of affairs. The use of this metaphor here makes The Sweet Hereafter’s usage of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” feel positively light. Throw in the obvious inspirations of Vertigo and The Third Man, and all is clear where this story is heading.
The alternate reality setting does not impact the plot so much as the theme. While the characters are seen reading in German and driving Volkswagen Bugs, no Germans appear in the film. The Capital Police, however, are clearly modeled on the German SS, with their helmet style and ruthless need to eliminate The Sect. The Capital Police also has overwhelming firepower over The Sect, which they put to effective use.
The one really notable element of Jin-Roh is the animation. While more lucid than lower-budgeted anime, its primary impact comes from nuanced details and just how beautifully its backgrounds are drawn. Unlike most anime pioneered by Ozamu Tezuka, the characters look like realistic Japanese. The Jin-Roh art style is clearly more influenced by Isao Takahata but more specifically Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. While Kei is walking, the hair above her ear falls down past her chin almost as if the animators themselves did not notice, but then a few beats later, her hand pushes her hair back in place. Jin-Roh’s art director Hiromasa Ogura does a wonderful job of making the meticulously drawn city streets and cable cars and shopping centers come to life. A monstrous junkyard looks like it extends forever in every direction. Unfortunately, the story does not match up with the art depicting it.