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.”

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.

Using ancient nickelodeon footage as his most futuristic element, Negroponte playfully varies speed and reverses motion; his most whimsical conceit is to provide W.I.S.O.R. with an echoey, metallic stream of consciousness. Gendered male and increasingly phallic, this eight-foot-long, bullet-shaped probe dreams of Dirty Harry and boastfully calls himself “Robo Welder.” Although it sometimes seems that W.I.S.O.R. is a promo for Honeybee, the fact of a movie about heroic engineers is nearly as novel as their robot. The contentious all-male crew who build W.I.S.O.R. are given to their own stray metaphysical and political rants: “Optimism is a catastrophe waiting to happen.” Indeed. W.I.S.O.R. remains a theoretical construct, having not yet been put to work beneath our streets.

Twice the size of New York, the Brazilian megalopolis of São Paulo is portrayed in Cesar Paes’s infectious city symphony Saudade do Futuro as a fact of nature. There’s no particular history of São Paulo here, just an impressionistic immersion in its crowds and street life. Work is intercut with frequent performances. A sequence set in a tambourine factory segues to a hypnotic example of indigenous rap, with rival troubadours known as repentistas alternately dissing each other in improvised rhyme to the rapid-fire beats of their respective tambourines.

Paes’s city is populated by cops, cabbies, artists, and traffic managers. There’s a jaw-dropping image of near-naked male and female angels, along with a single Hare Krishna, soliciting drivers stuck in one of the city’s monstrous traffic jams. But mainly, Paes is concerned with the music. In addition to hanging with street performers, Saudade do Futuro spends considerable time in the local juke joints, watching folks dance the ferro—a hyper samba shuffle cum booty shake. The raw, impassioned, squeeze-box-based sound seems to synthesize fado and zydeco.

Although Saudade do Futuro scarcely hints at the horrific social conditions, the film is not without ambivalence. Nearly everyone who speaks to the camera is from somewhere else. The concept of saudade—a feeling of sweet regret or homesickness—recurs throughout their songs. The filmmaker gives it an additional sci-fi twist in his title, which seems to translate as “the nostalgia of the future.”

Speaking of people’s music (and animated cartoons), D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob’s performance documentary Down From the Mountain still has a couple days to run at the Screening Room. Basically recording a live Nashville concert of music from the ferociously popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the movie features Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, and others. The presentation is boilerplate, but in restoring voice to artist, Down From the Mountain dispels the often grotesque illusions created by the flagrant lip-synching in the Coen brothers movie.

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