Jin-Rou (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade) is a film adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s Kerberos Saga (manga). For this movie, Hiroyuki Okiura takes the reins as the director, character designer, key animator, and storyboard artist. His work as a key animator includes many famous titles such as Akira, Metropolis, and even Your Name.
Jin-Roh takes place in an alternate reality where Japan has sided with the Allied Powers. However, World War II is won by the Axis powers. Post-occupation by Germany (instead of America), Japan takes a very different path. The Japanese government creates a paramilitary, forming the heavily-armed Capitol Police Organization. Following Fuse, a member of the Keroberos Panzer Cops, Jin-Roh questions humanity through a frightening world.
To make its alternate reality, Jin-Roh borrows images with historical or cultural relevance. From the weapons used by the Keroberos soldiers to the fairy tale used to reference its characters, Jin-Roh’s designs are purposeful and revealing.
For this article, I will discuss how character designs can influence our interpretation and enhance our understanding of a story. In doing so, I hope to reveal Jin-Roh’s use of symbolism and how it questions the depths of human morality.
Invoking Imagery: Historical Context
The Keroberos soldier carries more than a weapon; he carries historical precedence—a reason for why his design instills fear. The gas mask has a loaded and often negative connotation. During World War I, trench warfare, or the digging of trenches to defend key positions, was a common strategy.
The land between two enemy trenches would be deemed “No Man’s Land.” To traverse this space required soldiers to avoid oncoming fire and landmines—an often futile effort. In an attempt to break the deadlock the eventual use of chemical warfare became common, resulting in gruesome and agonizing deaths.
Gas masks were developed to stop the harmful effects of chemical warfare, but its use did not prevent all sickness. Scarred by the horrific war, a new condition called “shell-shock” was a common diagnosis for returning soldiers. This condition would later be known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Jin-Roh borrows from this fear, reminding us about mankind’s inhumanity towards one another.
Stripping Humanity and Questions of Identity
Functionally, the gas mask hides one’s identity, resulting in several thematic qualities. First, it makes the Keroberos soldiers indistinguishable from one another, melding them together as one unit. This reinforces a military mindset and the later wolf analogies—soldiers who act according to the chain of command are one with the “pack.”
Second, it strips humanity from its wearer, denying empathy and understanding. By removing the face of the Keroberos soldiers, it disconnects the viewer from seeing their emotions, making them seem robotic and inhuman, the tools of war.
This directly connects to a problem in the film. When Fuse questions the morality of killing, he also begins questioning his identity. When the inquiry board strips him of his position, it’s for insubordination—his refusal to shoot and kill a young girl carrying a bomb.
To further his training, he is given negative reinforcement. The film makes constant references to his inner nature, “Once a wolf always a wolf.” For him to wear his mask again and become a “proper soldier,” he is told to shed his exterior—his human skin— and accept his savagery.
Just as the mask denies empathy, it makes it easier to do inhuman acts. It grants the power of anonymity, a shield from prying eyes and consequence. In the context of the film, wearing the masks removes humanity, allowing “one’s true face to show.” In this way, the mask makes one lose their morality and thus the need to think about their actions.
Lastly, the Keroberos mask has a distinct feature: its red spectacles. Functioning like night vision, the red spectacles color their vision in red. In the darkness, their eyes glow like animals hunting their prey. Thus, when these soldiers are told to kill “Red Riding Hoods,” the red spectacles make it harder to tell their “innocence”. The mask transforms men into wolves.
Fairy Tale Context: Little Red Riding Hood
Little Red Riding Hood is a famous fairy tale that has many cultural variations. The version in Jin-Roh is an amalgamation of several, providing an interesting juxtaposition to Jin-Roh’s “wolves” and “innocent girls.”
Since Jin-Roh uses variations of the fairy tale, it borrows some of its symbolism. In particular, some versions of the tale are distinctly sexual. Charles Perrault, a French author in the 17th century, has a version in which no happy ending occurs.
Notably, his version has Little Red Riding Hood warned by her mother to “Not talk to strangers,” has the protagonist remove her clothes to get in bed with the wolf, resulting in her getting “eaten,” has no hunter, and ends with a moral warning to beware of strangers.
In the 19th century, another familiar version was written by the Brothers Grimm. Several similarities exist with Perault’s version, so we will briefly mention a few differences: the mother warns Little Red Riding Hood to “Not stray from the path,” the protagonist’s basket contains red wine (potential symbolism for virginity), and the hunter rescues the grandmother and girl by killing the wolf.
Using both versions of the tales as a reference point, we can now move into the character design of Nanami Agawa, the first little red riding hood, and Kei Amemiya, an adult woman who fakes her identity.
Mixing the Identity of the Wolf and Girl
Fuse’s change begins with his encounter with Nanami Agawa. With her escape route cut off, Nanami detonates her “package,” causing an explosion in the tunnels. Viewers later learn that Nanami Agawa was a “Little Red Riding Hood,” a label government officials used to define an “innocent” person influenced to join the rebels.
Almost immediately, Jin-Roh borrows ideas from the fairy tale. In this context, the government wants to label the rebels as “straying from the path.” Their influence on the public guides innocents to do evil, an interpretation similar to Perault’s fairy tale.
However, after Fuse visits Nanami’s shrine, he finds a mysterious lady, praying. When she sees Fuse, she claims to be Nanami’s older sister. Clad in the same clothing as her “sister,” Kei’s facade as an innocent girl hides her inner “wolf.”
Henceforth, the movie begins to intertwine Fuse and Kei’s fates. In choosing to show their interactions, viewers become invested in the moral dilemma facing them both: can a wolf ever shed its skin? In the context of earlier sections, once a person has committed atrocities and “shed their humanity,” can they become human?
Fuse’s moral dilemma fits perfectly with the World War II setting. After WWII, some of the soldiers responsible for war crimes were prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials. During 1945 - 1946, the Allied powers presided over 22 major Nazi criminals. During these trials, a common defense was, we were “Just following orders.”
While Fuse has not shot an “innocent” on-screen—the film wants to make viewers hopeful about his change— it is safe to say he has before. His trial by the inquiry board didn’t reveal any history of insubordination.
As viewers go further into the story, the organization over public security’s enact a plan: by scapegoating Fuse, they can make the belief in Keroberos weaker, changing the power dynamics in the country. Using Kei as a lure, Fuse was meant to take a public downfall.
However, in the last few scenes of the movie, it’s revealed that Fuse was never lured into that trap. In order to purge traitors, a counter-intelligence unit within Keroberos intercepted that plan. Once more, Fuse is ordered to wear his helmet—to kill his own countrymen. As Fuse kills each traitor, a fact emerges; Fuse always fires after being attacked. Even after he sheds his “humanity,” there seems to be some hope.
In the film’s final moments, there remains one last traitor: Kei, the false Little Red Riding Hood. Just as before, Fuse is ordered to kill Kei, the last hope for his salvation—the very person who wants to believe in their “fairy tale,” the lie that wolves can shed their skin. Bearing his “fangs,” fuse looks upwards at the sky, and a shot echoes.
The next shot reveals that another soldier was ordered to shoot Kei. However, there is no smoking barrel from this soldier’s gun. Left without certainty, the film ends on a shot of Kei’s gift to Fuse: a now muddied book about a little girl in red.
In its final shot, Jin-Roh summarizes its beliefs on morality. When the film fades into darkness, the ending credits scroll in complete silence. It was then that I knew what I wanted to write.
This article came completely out of the blue—purely out of my admiration of the film. From the decision to make the animation more realistic to the thoughtful character designs, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade easily defends its popularity.
It’s rare that I see a work so deeply connected to its intertexts that it becomes the very thing it references: a modern Little Red Riding Hood. If you’re a fan of historical fiction or interested in how visual media can borrow outside works to create a believable and compelling story, look no further.