Thanks to a couple of surprise presents from America named Fat Man and Little Boy, a cloud of fear has hung over Japan for the past 55 years. And nowhere has that fear manifested more than in Japanese animation.
And nowhere can you get a better feel for that fear than at this weekend's second-annual Japanese Animation Festival at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. From May 25 to 27, the festival will show on its giant 21-foot-by-50-foot screen 13 films that feature giant robots (Getter Robo), robot cops (Ghost in the Shell), feudal mayhem (Ninja Scroll), futuristic apocalypse (Dragonball) and the frightening specter that is Chim Chim (Speed Racer).
But perhaps it's Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade that has the most terrifying premise. What if Germany, and not the USA, had occupied and forced its will on Japan after World War II?
Set in the 1960s, the film presents an alternate reality in which German troops have just pulled out of Japan. Left to fend for themselves in an environment rife with social unrest, urban migration and massive unemployment, the Japanese attempt to revolt against the new government and its multitiered police forces.
Jin-Roh centers on Kazuki Fuse, a member of the elite Capital Police's Special Forces Unit who fails to pull the trigger when confronted with a girl smuggling bombs. When the girl is killed, Fuse is unable to shake her image. He's suspended by his superiors, who wonder if he'll ever be able to pull the trigger when necessary. While relieved from active duty, Fuse meets the dead girl's sister, Kei. They begin a romance that must be kept from Fuse's superiors lest he be branded a traitor.
The film could have easily been made into a live-action epic, but director Hiroyuki Okiura believes that "by animating, you can build characters from scratch. Without the anime format, I don't think we could have come up with the right cast. When you have seen an actor play a different character, they don't carry the same impact with the audience."
The film's author, Mamoru Oshii—who also directed 1995's well-received Ghost in the Shell—based his concept of political unrest on his childhood, growing up in Japan during the '60s.
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"I think the power that government agencies possess can be intimidating to the average citizen," Okiura said. "If you do not agree with the agencies' rules and you want to go against them, I think a fear of the consequences is what keeps the average citizen from breaking the rules."
Okiura was in charge of the character design for Ghost in the Shellas well as serving as one of the key animators. And no matter how strong an anime's storyline is, it's ultimately judged by the animation. Unlike a lot of today's anime, Jin-Roh is devoid of transforming robots or magical wizards. It relies instead upon terrifying images of the special police units' armor, which resembles a modern-day samurai suit.
"Oshii wanted the armor and weapons to be consistent with those used by the German army in World War II," Okiura said. "My impression of the armor was more toward conveying a sense of cool, edgy sophistication."
Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade opens the second annual Japanese Animation Festival, which includes a discussion with director Okiura and writer Oshii, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000; www.carpenterarts.org. Fri., 8 p.m. $5-$7.