Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 21st 2011
In a not-too-distant future where synthetic food has largely replaced real food, everything is carefully monitored, and wolves are but monsters of legend, Haduki Makino struggles to overcome a social communication disorder by trying to hook up in the real world with classmates who are likewise social misfits in an effort to complete a school project. At first the “magic” of rebellious hacker Mio and clandestine meetings at the home of sociopath Ayumi are all innocent fun, but things take a darker turn when fourth member Yuko is reported missing, with her last known whereabouts being the location of a recent murder. With the help of the unregistered foreigner Rei Myao, a martial artist and self-styled champion of the downtrodden, the group eventually finds and rescues Yuko from a bad situation, but that hardly ends their problems. Soon they all find themselves dangerously tied up in a deadly web of deceit and manipulation involving a serial killer who has set his sights on the lot of them and seems able to manipulate the system that is the foundation of society. As the killer and his allies eventually discover, though, other wolves lurk around as well, and they also hide in human form.
Werewolves have been staples of supernatural movies and series for decades (and folklore for centuries before that), no doubt in part because of a perverse fascination with how such creatures embody the most bestial aspects of the human psyche. The visceral appeal of werewolves as literal monsters has made metaphorical treatments quite rare, yet that is exactly what this Production I.G/Transarts co-production based on an original novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (who also penned the source material for Requiem from the Darkness) has done. Instead of having its characters actually change into wolves, the story here focuses on the monstrous depravity that can lurk beneath human skin even in a tightly-regulated futuristic society.
To cast the story wholly or even primarily in light of its werewolf themes would be a misrepresentation, however. At its heart it is a sometimes-dark, sometimes-fun-loving, and usually edgy story about socially dysfunctional teens struggling to relate to each other and cope with the Big Brother-like system that they live in. In this future, where every home has internal security monitors, guard robots patrol the streets at night, youths are systematically indoctrinated into continuing to protect the system as adults, citizenship separates haves from have-nots, and spy cameras can be found everywhere, virtual education has advanced to the point where buildings that used to be called schools are now “community centers” and children who spend much of their lives physically isolated, with only one in-person day a week, are not so unusual. (And this is actually not so futuristic as it may sound, since fledgling virtual charter schools already exist in the U.S. which are set up in a somewhat similar fashion.) In this setting where anime is (gasp!) a thing of the past and blandly-packaged synthetic food has become the norm, many youths – most notably lead heroine Haduki – define reality in terms of their “monitors,” hand-held devices similar to current smart phones which also serve as keys and tracking devices. That only a handful, like discontented hacker Mio and disconnected Ayumi, appreciate the intrusiveness of the system's ever-watchful eyes is a subtle but telling clue about how far society has bought into this benevolently totalitarian system. (Background material suggests that this futuristic setting developed in the wake of a plague which killed off a large portion of humanity, but this point is never made clear in the movie.)
The system has flaws, of course, and it is within those flaws that the bulk of the plot lies. The movie opens in the dead of night with pink-haired Yuko being chased down and cornered by two mask-wearing teenagers sporting metal pipes, but instead of her ending up maimed or dead one of her attackers is slain. But by whom, and what happened to her? And does this really have anything to do with a recent serial killer case, or is this a separate matter? As those events unfold in sometimes-surprising fashion in the background, with a counselor of the youths (who has an unfortunate family history with serial killers) and a detective getting involved, Haduki, Mio, and Ayumi, with the occasional additional presence of Rei, engage in foreground socializing that is mostly harmless if not always within the rules. Hints of darker elements are in play even at this point, though, as the ones who actually know something about the situation involving Yuko seem evasive about it and Mio tosses out an off-hand comment about “destroying the system” if it displeases her enough – a comment which cannot be taken casually given the implication that she has the means to do it. An eventual rescue of Yuko shows that the seamier side of society can exist even within these tightly-controlled environs, but that ultimately proves to be only a stepping stone to the real core of darkness present in this scenario. And the secrets at the source of everything are disturbingly twisted surprises that harken back to much older interpretations of what werewolves are and do.
Although the movie does sport some shocking bursts of graphic violence, its horror elements usually play out more subtly, such as in security camera-level angles which give an unsettling feeling of constantly being watched or the disconcerting notion that the handheld devices that have practically become another limb for many could also become a regulating tool for the Powers That Be. Social commentary can be read into many scenes, too; the movie can even be looked at as something of a cautionary tale, although the artificial structure at the core of the system ultimately limits how far the movie can go in that direction. The story does also allow at least some room for pure fun, such as the attempts by Mio and a more reluctant Haduki to duplicate the dance steps of an early 2000s girl band or an eavesdropping Rei's reaction to overhearing that Mio had, at some point, put a transmitter on her.
Director Jun'ichi Fujisaku (who also helmed Blood+) effectively uses alternate camera angles and distorted video feed to promote the Big Brother effect and crafts a setting which has tastes of futuristic elements but is still heavily-grounded in current-day technology. Otherwise, though, artistry is the movie's weakest aspect. It is simply not as rich and vivid as fans have come to expect from full-budgeted anime movies; even many series-derived movies surpass it in that respect. Characters look flat and cartoonish, with little of characteristic anime features beyond a cutesy mecha that pops up late in the movie, and while the animation does serve up one nice-looking late fight scene, it more commonly gives the feel of watching a high-end Flash production. (And this despite the fact that, according to the Extras, motion capture technology was used in the animation of the music video that the youths are using for reference for their group project.) Out of the character designs, Rei's stands out for the wrong reasons, as she is always shown wearing a traditional Chinese dress to reinforce that she is an unregistered foreigner “from the continent.” Ayumi is the only other distinctive design, and he/she (see below) stands out more because of an androgynous look and dress style. The movie has no content that even approaches being fan service, so its TV-14 rating is entirely for a few very violent scenes.
The soundtrack fares better, although it is also a bit uneven. It suitably ramps up the tension in some scenes but makes some odd rock-themed choices at other times. The music video that the students reference, one late insert song, and the opening and closing themes are all performed by the all-girl band SCANDAL (who has also done themes for Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and Star Driver); its members also have cameo voice acting roles as a group of kidnapped girls towards the end of the movie.
Sentai Filmworks' dub casting is predictable but solid. Hilary Haag naturally plays the role of the spunky Mio and Andy McAvin naturally plays the smarmy-sounding villain's role, both to great effect. Other casting choices are effective but unremarkable. The most interesting aspect of Sentai's translation is the constant reference to Ayumi as a boy, including giving him a male voice actor, despite substantial evidence that Ayumi is actually a girl; she is referred to as one in the included promo video and picture drama, and one late flashback shows Ayumi wearing a skirt and flashing a hint of an unboyish chest. Is this some confusion on Sentai's part, did Ayumi's gender change at some point in the production process, or is Ayumi meant to be a transsexual character? Nothing in the movie clarifies this.
Sentai is giving this release the deluxe treatment, with simultaneous DVD and Blu-Ray releases. They also give it a substantial set of Extras, which include interviews with the director, original writer, Japanese voice cast, and SCANDAL; the most interesting commentary in Fujisaku's interview is about the things he changed between the original story and movie version and his implication that any similarities which could be drawn between this and the American movie Stand By Me may be intentional. Other Extras include promotional videos, a movie digest, a promo film, and a picture drama which takes a more light-hearted look at the scene where Haduki first meets Ayumi. The Blu-Ray release uses DTS Master Audio 2.0 for both languages tracks and an AVC encoded 1080p 1.78:1 transfer. As befits a movie made in the digital HD age, the transfer is strong and artifact-free, with the limitation here entirely being the mediocre quality of the original artistry.
Loups-Garous does suffer from some logical lapses, such as how two of the main characters can walk more than 18 km in broad daylight in such a tightly-regulated society and not attract attention, but the parts that work more than balance out its occasional stumbles. Sentai Filmworks may have taken some big gambles in the past year with some of its acquisitions, but this is not one of them.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Effectively edgy story which capably mixes sci fi and mild horror elements.
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