AngelsArcanum’s review published on Letterboxd:
*ripped from my MAL review*
Jin-Roh is a strange beast (no pun intended). It's like seeing an amnesiac searching for his identity being strangled and suffocating by Mamoru Oshii's ridiculously overbearing and silly script. Each of the creative minds behind the film are trying to deliver something potent and beautiful, but are constantly thrown under the bus by Oshii to the point where it seeps into each other aspect of the film and makes them decay; the creative dissonance is really felt here.
Let's start with the story and direction. The film begins with an introductory narration over screenshots of fictional news articles in the film's universe talking about some of the politics and chaos surrounding it before we jump into the current turbulence, but it brings up several factions that sound very similar and generic and it keeps jumping between war and economics and their respective rises and plummets, becoming kind of unfocused; by the time we get to the action, the ideologies feel kind of lost and the first skirmish feels rather weightless. As things escalate, we start to hone in on some of the key players and ideas of the film; lead Fuse and his actions in the civil war and the existential conflicts he faces. Fuse is probably the standout component of this film, but I'll divulge on him later.
Fuse meets a girl named Kei visiting the ashes of the young suicide bomber girl he encountered prior, and Kei informs him she's her older sister. Fuse, haunted by the image of the younger sister dying, wants to talk to Kei and make amends, and she holds no grudge for him since he didn't pull the trigger on her. Following this, the story just kind of goes between segments of the Special Unit's training and their dynamics along with some more affairs with Public Security and such and scenes of Fuse hanging out with Kei.
Both portions are largely uninteresting however, as the military relations provide run of the mill procedural events and very basic discussion that hardly amounts to much while Kei is largely an uninteresting enigma, cheerfully and nonchalantly talking about some of the horrific events of the riots without much significance or constantly quoting from Little Red Riding Hood while Fuse just analyzes her and occasionally offers the odd bit of input.
Things just take a rather dull, mechanical progression until some of the twists start to sprout up, but the content prior has been so emotionally muddled and barren that the twists get engulfed by all of the boredom and confusion behind the scenes that any dramatic heft they may possess is nowhere to be found. There's a big sting operation transpiring, but it's played out like any other innocuous scene like everyone was half-asleep while they were making this.
By this time we're also supposed to believe Fuse genuinely cares about Kei and is nearly showing signs of a love interest, but the have next to no chemistry and have hardly emoted more than a few emotions to each other, let alone the whole film. Nonetheless they escape and another table-turner happens, but again plays out soullessly as a big coup d'etat just kind of happens and the film heads to its conclusion which has one final, pivotal dramatic moment to close things off, but sans the actual drama and pathos, being largely alienated by its own creative composition - pining for an emotionally staggering final act, a grand ultimatum to a big existential battle and a thought-provoking open ended political upheaval but instead being a dull nip in the bud with more ham-fisted Red Riding Hood reference exposition the movie was already wrought with.
With all this said, I think Okiura had the intention of making some powerful little piece of cinema with some of its visual guidance, understated emotions and socio-economic glances, but it's more regurgitated than fresh, more inundated than nuanced and more barren and half-formed than accessible and relatable. Being based on a small meta-series by the same man in charge of the script, it felt so restrained by his presence like he was just trying to meet Oshii's demands the whole time that it feels like a manifestation of the complications behind the screen unfolding and some enslaved product as opposed to something free and organic. It seemed like Okiura just made the pacing so slow so Oshii could counter-balance everything and take the reins as director while doing the script, becoming an awkward fusion of an empty, glacial direction and an obnoxiously overstuffed allegorical script.
Honestly, while Ridley Scott and Cormack McCarthy's The Counselor was similarly messy, it had far more composure and hidden strength to it than this. With Scott's slow, but smooth direction, steady composure, great cinematography guidance and rich production values and coordination coupled with McCarthy's layered and poetic prose made things hella awkward with its contrast, it was a spring of potential.
Here, Okiura is trying to create something akin to Patlabor 2, but it just amounts to a really strained replication with Oshii's iron grip. Occasionally nice visuals of dream-like indulgence and emotional turmoil are softened by redundancy, some indifference and a forced sensation behind them all. Constant imagery of wolves and the main two women as Red Riding Hood being eaten by them just jam into the film and is all just eye-roll-inducing.
The world-building is so far removed that the only social commentary that can be pulled from it are incredibly small and underplayed visual cues and contrasts and just comparing the look of the Japan in Jin-Roh to the Japan in real life rather than actually dissecting it. Lastly, any potential the characters (Fuse) have for depth is truncated by general malaise, half-baked focus (no double-entendre intended) and an impersonal nearing-indifferent care to these characters which only kind of roundabout-ly achieves some depth.
On that matter, let's finally dig into Fuse and maybe even the rest of these "characters". Kazuki Fuse is a rather interesting character burdened with a really tumultuous movie on and off the screen - he's a man who has found his place in life and embraces where he is, his life choices and his role in the world and nothing more. He loves his job in the Special Unit as it gives him purpose and direction, and he gets satisfaction from the clarity and straightforwardness his job provides.
He is an aggressor, he has killed people and does his job successfully, so that gives him satisfaction in being a key cog in the machine and fulfilling expectations. Otherwise, he doesn't know how to live beyond that, he doesn't really find leisure in things outside of his job, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, he's just a satisfied man with a controversial vocation. However, while he is totally fine with his role in life and is there of his own volition, he questions how others are brought to where they are, particularly when it seems they were forced to become a part of something dangerous against their will as we see when he encounters the suicide bomber in the form of a high school girl. Why is this young girl, seeking to get an education and make something of her life, on the frontlines with adult revolutionaries risking their lives? By not pulling the trigger on her and asking "Why?", he essentially allowed that girl to follow through with her plan, the one she was roped into doing and destroy any chance she had to live a more meaningful life, whereas if he had killed her himself, while she would still be caught under a banner of terrorism, she would simply be a casualty of Fuse's job caught at the wrong time which initially meant less harm to Fuse, but both results had their ups and downs even if the outcome was the same.
And so he has his doubts; the man comes out with very insignificant wounds as this girl gave her life for some ideal she wasn't a large part of and it starts to linger in his mind, so he seeks to make amends somehow. Fuse is an interesting character because of his early self-satisfaction and steadfastness, and his existential dilemma is an interesting one as the nature of his ideas of what shape an opposition can take has now changed into something more disagreeable and frightening and as a result, his job has harsher moral implications.
As he meets Kei, he feels a sense of relief knowing he is still forgiven to a degree with his inaction in response to the suicide girl. However, this is also when things start to diminish a bit; rather than a probing analysis of Fuse's ideological changes and self-doubt, the direction just has Kei cloud his mind with all these premonitions of forming a friendly relationship with someone outside the military and Special Unit.
The constant Red Riding Hood and Wolf dynamics and metaphors keep getting pushed again and again and again and just buys time repeating the same ideas instead of adding more dimension to the characters. It's a decent cautionary thing to be sure, but it replaces any other pressing, complex developments with simple messages screamed in your face trying to form this hour and 40 minute movie as one inflated Aesop fable and moral anecdote and it's quite irksome. His relationship to Kei is more a matter of circumstance and necessity for story rather than something genuine, and Kei is far more of a caricature as well, so when half of the core dynamic of the film is a floundering RRH lover and distant person, it really suffers.
The other characters have even less focus really, following the basic Oshii dogma of ideas > story > characters, here they just kind of play their part in the story while providing MORE Red Riding Hood references while the story still has a few small hints of theming unfold. Henmi stages the sting while kind of looking out for Fuse a bit, there's the Special Unit leader who runs the Wolf Brigade and is Fuse's mentor and then a few other officers and politicians who weasel in and make a few moves.
So, as previously stated, things really rest on Fuse's shoulders, and his decisions hold a little weight even while battling and holding up everything else, so there's some intent there at least, but make no mistake, this is no Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal either.
As far as the audiovisual end goes, Oshii's authority permeates into those departments as well as really high end and gritty animation, dense settings with lots of accentuation and minor little ideas to share and a superb soundtrack are diminished by the uninteresting content. Breathtaking scenes become uninspired and heavy-handed while characters' faces feel a little spare with their rendering and come off as basic, the intricacies of the setting are brushed aside to simply be a place for the story, and the wonderfully composed music pieces are rendered obsolete, typical and there for necessity when placed against uninteresting content trying to elevate it. Truly it's a shame that these people were trying to bring their all and deliver something grand but were left hung out to dry.
As much as I tear into this film, it's still above average; while there may be general ineptitude in its delivery all around, this film still has some modicums of depth to it, heck, pulling off a sting plot is in itself better than a lot of other mediocre anime can accomplish, and the production values--even if mismatched--are exceptional and some of the scenes still look marvelous and lastly the film can probably be watched if even just for those things and an interesting semi-character study in Fuse alone. If those are enough to satisfy you, then you can give the film a shot, otherwise I could say you can skip it.
If you want a more robust political thriller that digs into its ideas more, go with Patlabor 2. Even if Oshii's practice in storytelling mostly just centers around one random philosophical idea expounded by a character in the middle of the film, it's far less grating and more thought-provoking and satisfying than this. If you want to see an avant-garde departure from his normal style and what I'd argue to be his best film, watch Angel's Egg.
If you want to see Okiura stretch his directorial limbs, A Letter to Momo is currently his only other work, and while it isn't for everyone and has its stretches of boredom, it feels far more natural and is a sweet little film.
If you want to see another more visually resplendent and powerful fusion of history, politics, romance and thrills, do watch Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal instead. It's received overwhelming praise and attention for a reason.
Jin-Roh is a stunningly produced but forgettable and strange political thriller that is completely outmatched by various superiors.