Illang, Jin-Roh and the Kerberos Saga: A Brief History of the Dogged Pursuit of Justice

by Brian Ruh,

From his first film twenty years ago, South Korean director Jee-woon Kim has taken on a variety of themes and genres, from comedy (The Foul King), horror (A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil), and even westerns (The Good, the Bad, the Weird). However, Kim is also something of an international director - he helmed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner The Last Stand, and his first film, The Quiet Family, was the basis for Japanese director Takashi Miike's more well-known The Happiness of the Katakuris. With his most recent film, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, Kim is trying his hand at doing an adaptation of his own, creating a new version of the 1999 anime film Jin-Roh, which had been directed by Hiroyuki Okiura and scripted by Mamoru Oshii. It was just released outside of Korea on Netflix last week, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to take a quick look at the fictional worlds that the film inhabits.


Theatrical Poster for Illang: The Wolf Brigade

To call Illang an adaptation of Jin-Roh, though, is a bit of an understatement. In fact, it's just the latest film in a long line of titles across various media going back over 30 years in what could be called the "Kerberos universe". Begun by Mamoru Oshii in the mid-1980s, the titles in Kerberos are stories that are linked to a greater or lesser degree and often center on police in Tokyo who wear intimidating military armor called "protect gear". Although Oshii is more famous for works like Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor, the expanded Kerberos world has been called Oshii's “life work”.

The design of this protect gear is really the most immediately noticeable about Kerberos. Designed by Yutaka Izubuchi, the gear plays on the menace of fascist aesthetics, with the wearer becoming a faceless soldier encased in armor. It is supposed to look intimidating, from the rough boots to the helmet modeled on the Stahlhelm sported by so many German soldiers in the twentieth century. The depersonalization is completed by a facemask with glowing red eyes. After the protect gear designs debuted, similar suits of armor subsequently turned up in games like Killzone and Wolfenstein, although whether they were directly influenced by the gear or were drawing from the same sources of inspiration as Izubuchi has been a matter of some debate. As Mamoru Oshii later reflected, "The fact that some fans are obsessed with 'Kerberos' is more than anything due to the protective gear used in the film... This made me aware of the value of merchandising... I found out my otaku-ness actually has market value." It's a little funny though, that for a series so strongly identified with the visual elements of its armored suits, the initial incarnation of the Kerberos universe was as a radio program.

In North America, we have gotten some of the key pieces of the Kerberos universe, although many of them are currently out of print. Chronologically, the first of these is the live-action film Akai Megane, or The Red Spectacles, which was directed by Mamoru Oshii and came out a month after the previously-mentioned radio program in 1987. Set just a few years into the future in 1995, The Red Spectacles focuses on an ex-policeman named Koichi Todome, played by prolific voice actor Shigeru Chiba. He had been a member of an elite Tokyo police unit known as "the watchdogs of hell" or "Kerberos" (named after Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades in Greek mythology). Their special unit was the group that wore the fearsome protect gear, but they were deemed too violent and were officially disbanded. However, many Kerberos officers refused to lay down their arms and comply with the government's wishes, causing violence and chaos throughout the city. Todome and his two compatriots try to flee the country, but only Todome manages to make it out. Three years later, he returns to a changed Tokyo, trying to discover what happened to his former teammates.

For the military otaku entranced by the designs of the protect gear, the movie is something of a bait-and-switch. It opens with a shootout between Todome's team in their gear and a large gang trying to stop them, but this is the most we see of the gear for the film's running time (although it does make a brief appearance toward the end). Even the shootout itself may disappoint some action fans, as it is very stylized and far from realistic. More than anything, it's reminiscent of a kind of choreographed dance than a gun battle. Once the film transitions from color to black and white (where it stays for most of the rest of the running time), things get even weirder. The first real "wait, what is this?" moment happens when a mysterious group tries to capture Todome at his hotel after he returns to Tokyo -- the back doors on a van open with a (presumably nondiegetic) cat howl to reveal a team of men with guns, all dressed in black tank tops and wearing white face paint. Todome's fight with them is particularly notable - using wrestling moves and unusual sound effects, he takes out the commandos one at a time. As the feline caterwauling continues, he dives (literally) into a passing taxi. Of course, the whole scene is physically impossible, but if you use your imagination, you could see how it might work in animated form. At times in The Red Spectacles, reality behaves with the same kind of plasticity you might find in anime.

Following The Red Spectacles, the late 1980s saw Oshii bringing the Kerberos universe into manga form. Working with artist Kamui Fujiwara, Oshii began serializing a take on Kerberos that was far more serious and straightforward than The Red Spectacles had been first in the magazine Amazing Comics, then Combat Comic. Kerberos Panzer Cop (Kenrō Densetsu) shows a time before The Red Spectacles, when the Kerberos teams still had (admittedly violent) work to do around Tokyo in order to try to keep their version of the peace. This manga was later brought over to the US by Dark Horse as a 6-issue series they called Hellhounds: Panzer Cops, complete with Americanized cover art. (Well, it was 1994 and manga hadn't really boomed yet.) However, although the manga was playing it straight, Kerberos still needed an outlet for a bit of meandering, which takes us to the film Stray Dog.

Released in 1991, Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops (or Kerberos: Jigoku no Banken) was another live-action feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. This time, it was a prequel to The Red Spectacles that followed Todome while he was living as an exiled fugitive in Taiwan after the Kerberos riots. The first half of the film, though, is a quest to find him as we follow Todome's former subordinate Inui (played by Yoshikatsu Fujiki) through Taiwanese cities and countrysides. Although Stray Dog has a bit of the comic zaniness of The Red Spectacles in places, for the most part it's more of a somber, meditative film that at times seems like a travelogue, set to Kenji Kawai's languid score. Like its predecessor, though, Stray Dog spends very little time with the iconic protect gear, although there is a(n anti-?) climactic shootout at the end. For his part, Oshii admitted that the film was a “financial disaster” and “a bit of an amateurish attempt”.

The late 1990s saw a resurgence in activity in the Kerberos universe. Oshii began working with Fujiwara again on more manga, serialized this time in the magazine Monthly Shōnen Ace, and showing the events that lead up to the beginning of The Red Spectacles. It also saw the release of the film Jin-Roh in 1999, which is probably the most notable (and most readily available) dip into the world of Kerberos. Unlike The Red Spectacles and Stray Dog, Jin-Roh was only written by Mamoru Oshii. Taking the helm this time was rookie director Hiroyuki Okiura, who was a noted animator who had previously worked with Oshii on the first two Patlabor movies as well as Ghost in the Shell. Taking place not too long after Japan's defeat in World War II, Jin-Roh sets a similar stage of chaos in the Japanese capital city, as it is rocked by frequent demonstrations against the government. In addition to the protestors is the Sect, an organization that the police see as terrorists and who frequently attack them. Kazuki Fuse (voiced by Stray Dog’s Yoshikatsu Fujiki) is a Kerberos officer who sees a young girl working as a munitions courier for the Sect blow herself up in front of him. This shakes Fuse, who is sent back for remedial training. In a seeming coincidence, he later meets and begins a relationship with the older sister of the girl who blew herself up. However, there are political machinations and betrayals that threaten to rip the couple apart. Without giving too much away (because you should really see it if you haven't), Jin-Roh ends on a heartbreaking scene that hinges on the film's central question of whether those who wear the Kerberos mask are more human or animal.

One of the interesting things about Jin-Roh is the connections it has to the manga that came before it. If you read the Hellhounds chapters, you'll see sketches of certain themes and ideas that crop up again in Jin-Roh, only in a slightly different context. Even after Jin-Roh, Oshii continued to create manga in the Kerberos universe such as Kerberos Saga: Rainy Dogs (2003-4) as well as Harahara Tokei no Shoujo (2006-7), whose title was an allusion to a leftist bomb making manual from the 1970s. It was also a crossover between Oshii's worlds of Kerberos worlds and those of his Tachigui (stand-and-eat) mythos, which he had been weaving throughout his works since his early days in the anime industry.



Top: Oshii and okiura's 1999 animated Jin-Roh; Bottom: Jee-woon Kim's IIllang: The Wolf Brigade

This brings us to Jee-woon Kim's Illrang, which is unique from the other parts of the Kerberos universe in many ways. As we have seen, the Kerberos saga is no stranger to live-action, nor to adaptation and re-adaptation. And if fact, Illang spawned its own comic adaptation by Tae-ho Yoon, a prequel to the film that ran on the Korean web portal Daum (http://webtoon.daum.net/webtoon/view/illang). But Illang was the first Kerberos title that Mamoru Oshii had no direct hand in, either as director or scriptwriter.



Top: Oshii and okiura's 1999 animated Jin-Roh; Bottom: Jee-woon Kim's IIllang: The Wolf Brigade

In Illang, the locus shifts from Japan to Korea, a few decades from now. To protect themselves from external pressures, North and South have agreed to unify. However this creates additional uncertainties, leading to protests and riots in the streets. From there, the initial setup follows Jin-Roh pretty closely - Kerberos officer Im is nearly killed when a young Sect member blows herself up in front of him, and he begins a relationship with her older sister. However, even though Illang is over thirty minutes longer than Jin-Roh, it spends more of its time on fight scenes and car chases than plot and character development. This is not to say that Illang isn't enjoyable, but it certainly doesn't come close to the emotional intensity of Jin-Roh. At the risk of giving away too many spoilers, I'll say that part of this is due to the fact that Kim tried to give Illang a far happier ending than the original Jin-Roh had.

It's intriguing that a live-action Jin-Roh doesn't quite work when there is very little in the Japanese film that necessitated that it be created in animation. (Aside for, perhaps, budgetary concerns.) In his article "A Tale Humans Cannot Tell:  On Jin-Roh - The Wolf Brigade”, Peter Y. Paik pins the film's existence in anime on a particularly arresting dream sequence Fuse has, and goes on to write that "Jin-Roh, with its heightened realism, is a film that need not have been animated at all. It is as though Fuse's confusion over his own identity mirrors the confusion of the film itself as to why it is a work of animation in the first place”. It's worth noting that such a dream sequence doesn't appear in Illang, to the film's detriment. However, in spite of its shortcomings, there is still something thrilling about seeing the protect gear onscreen in live-action again after so many years.

If you want to dive into the world of Kerberos, I'd still have to say that Jin-Roh is probably your best entry point. It tells the tightest and most straightforward story (and is also the most conventional of the Japanese films), and it also pretty easy to find since it currently can be found both subtitled and dubbed on Crunchyroll. I'd recommend The Red Spectacles as well if you're interested in a bit of oddity and formal experimentation. However, since the old US DVDs are now out of print, it might take a bit to track down. The same goes for Stray Dog, although it's not as essential as The Red Spectacles. If you like Jin-Roh, the six issues of Hellhounds are well worth looking into as well. Illang is entertaining enough, and is worth checking out if only to compare it to Jin-Roh. I haven't heard any recent rumblings from the Kerberos universe, but hopefully Illang will generate some new interest in the franchise and we'll get some new installments after this, in one form or another.

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