Night and the Cities

Hong Kong action flicks aside, the most sustained cult-movie enthusiasm of the past two decades has been for Japanese animation. Although it's never enough to give Disney a shrek, every few years sees the arrival of a Japanese anime that can be legitimately regarded as an animation landmark. In 1999, it was the would-be crossover Princess Mononoke; 1996 brought the cyber-noir Ghost in the Shell; 1991 was the year of the apocalyptic blockbuster Akira; before that, there were the various space odysseys contrived by the form's master, Osamu Tezuka. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, which opens Friday at Cinema Village, belongs with these—it's a superbly crafted science-fiction fairy tale that's both Grimm and grim.

Conceived by Mamoru Oshii, director of the voluptuously moody Ghost in the Shell, and directed by his assistant on that film, Hiroyuki Okiura, Jin-Roh offers an even more downbeat narrative in an equally dystopian urban landscape. Like some American science fiction, Jin-Roh—which has been dubbed into English—presents a vaguely futuristic version of the 1950s, but to far different effect. Here, Japan has been subjected to nuclear attack, defeated in World War II, and occupied for 10 years by a foreign conqueror. No one can say, however, that Japan didn't fight the good fight. The victors, in this particular alternate universe, are the Nazis.

The implications of this switch are fascinating. (Can World War II really be a floating signifier? Is this scenario a fantasy of Japanese absolution?) Suffice to say that where the victorious Americans set out, as Ian Buruma put it, to replace "samurai, feudalism, militarism, chauvinism, [and] racialism" with "Glenn Miller, baseball, chocolate, boogie-woogie, [and] demokurashee," the German legacy is one of ongoing civil unrest, several varieties of gas-mask-wearing storm-trooper secret police, and a gloomy cultural obsession with the classic kindermärchen "Little Red Riding Hood."

Shadows that cast shadows: from Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Photo: Viz/Tidepoint
Shadows that cast shadows: from Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Details

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade
Directed by Hiroyuki Okiura
Written by Mamoru Oshii
Viz/Tidepoint
Cinema Village
Opens June 22

W.I.S.O.R.
Directed by Michel Negroponte
Written by Gabriel Morgan
Artistic License
Screening Room
June 22 through 28

Saudade do Futuro
Directed by Cesar Paes
Film Forum
June 20 through June 26

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Oshii, who treated the subject of domestic terrorism in an earlier anime feature, has created something akin to the stylized pessimism of Night and Fog in Japan, Nagisa Oshima's 1960 account of doomed student radicalism. Jin-Roh is set largely at night, and though the moon is always full, the palette is never less than somber. The gray, sooty city looks like a cross between postwar Tokyo and a brick-walled concentration camp. The filmmakers lavish great attention on detailed building facades. By comparison, the character animation is much flatter. People seem to flit through the city like shadows—or rather like shadows that cast shadows.

Narrative emerges tabloid-style from a series of fake black-and-white news photos into a sensationally animated nocturnal street riot, pitting the "capital police" against masses of demonstrators and a fanatical sect of urban guerrillas. Not utterly devoid of manga cuteness, Jin-Roh posits a mythology in which innocent-looking, uniformed schoolgirls known as "red riding hoods" serve as couriers for the guerrilla army. One such riding hood is chased by the fiery goggle-eyes of the state Wolf Brigade through the streets and into sewers to be cornered by an elite cop named Fuse. Paralyzed perhaps by the spectacle of her big eyes and bare knees, Fuse can't bring himself to shoot her; she then blows herself up, knocking out half the Tokyo power grid.

The shell-shocked policeman is sent down for retraining, but he remains obsessed with the self-immolating schoolgirl. Periodically, the movie is rent by grisly, strobe-lit inserts of wolves pursuing and attacking Little Red Riding Hood. Visiting the martyr's crypt, Fuse meets teenaged Kei, who tells him she's the dead girl's older sister. Given this vertiginous development, the morose pair are soon keeping company in an emptied-out, if not quite haunted, Tokyo. The plot becomes convolutedly paranoid. Amid intimations of conspiracy and a civil war within the security police, the couple hide out in the Shinjuku district—then return to the underworld sewers, ultimate landscape of trauma. (This must be the only cartoon in history with an homage to Andrzej Wajda's bruising partisan drama Kanal.)

Like Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh is characterized by its sustained melancholy tone and considerable visual fluidity. Rain falls, light bounces, reflections reflect. Like the righteous outlaws of '60s movies, characters die in a hail of bullets and spasms of spurting blood. It's an evocative anachronism. Had Jin-Roh been released in an alternate past, it surely would have been the Madison-Ann Arbor-Berkeley cult film of 1969.


A more benign vision of urban sci-fi apocalypse, Michel Negroponte's digital documentary W.I.S.O.R. begins with a New York City water-main break and goes on to celebrate the creation of the Welding and Inspection Steam Operations Robot whose acronym gives the movie its title.

The overstimulation of metropolitan life was the great theme of early documentary filmmakers, and Negroponte evokes the tradition. Throughout, he cuts between present-day Manhattan and the city of a century ago, when the visionary venture capitalists of New York Steam Corporation made skyscrapers possible by constructing a vast system of underground pipes. The vapors suggest a paved-over Yellowstone National Park, and, like Old Faithful, these geysers do erupt. Because the world's largest (and oldest?) steam system is in constant need of repair, the Little Italy-based Honeybee Robotics company was commissioned in the mid '90s by Con Edison to develop a semiautonomous machine that can repair pipes from the inside: W.I.S.O.R.

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