Reviews of The Red Spectacles (1987) and related work

The Red Spectacles (1987Moving picture, 116 minutes)

Oshii Mamoru (director).

The late 20th century in an alternate history: Japan fought Germany in WW2 (judging by equipment, nomenclature, cinema, architecture etc.; it is never stated explicitly), but lost the war anyway. Postwar Japan, no longer occupied by the victors, is instead ravaged by organized crime, terrorism and popular protests against the government. This leads to the formation of the “panzer corps”, formally an elite police unit but equipped with black powered armour, belt-fed machine guns and intimidating eyewear, to keep the military nominally uninvolved. After some humiliating incidents planned in part by the unit’s own commander, the corps is disbanded in the 1990s. A handful of its members refuse to disarm, becoming hunted stray dogs in a still-darkening society.

In this film, three members of the panzer corps escape its disbandment in a stolen jeep. They used to work so closely that they earned the nickname of Kerberos, the three-headed watchdog of Hades. After an ambush, only one of them remains unhurt. He leaves the hideout and the country, eventually returning in a long and muddled sepia-toned quest, filled with strange action, an unfazed Shakespeare-quoting cab driver, uncertain awakenings and a symbolic undercurrent of cats versus dogs.

Kenrou Densetsu (literally “Legends of the Wolfdogs” with the kanji for wolfdog reversed) is a comic in 6 episodes, created by Oshii. It’s been translated into English as Kerberos Panzer Cop. Parts have been filmed, but the tone, content and media of the films vary greatly. Initial plans to film the whole thing as one project were scrapped.

In this first film, The Red Spectacles, indie tokusatsu craziness tickles neo-noir with an Itou script and Kawai music. Live action, mostly black and white.

It’s impossible to determine whether the many serious passages are intended to open it up to a thorough interpretation or not, but I think it’s successful postmodernist fluff. An eclectic syntagma where Chiba Shigeru gets to look cool himself, speak of tachigui sobaya à la film noir and suffer all the indignities of noodles laced with a powerful laxative.

moving picture Japanese production fiction

Stray Dog: Kerberos Panzer Cops (1991Moving picture)

Oshii Mamoru (writer-director).

One of the watchdogs who refused to disarm but failed to escape is paroled and comes looking for Todome Kouichi in the last year of his exile.

Slightly more consistent. Live action filmed entirely in colour, with too little plot and dialogue for noir. Less extreme gags. Itou is absent, but Kawai keeps up the good work, doing more than ever to maintain interest through the slowest parts. Note the posters for Tremors (1990) and The Hunt for Red October (1990): it’s a very narrowly alternate reality and a very low budget.

moving picture prequel Japanese production fiction

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999Moving picture, 102 minutes)

Oshii Mamoru (writer).

Unrelated to the dramatic plot of the live-action films. Back when the Panzer Corps was still active, one member of it fails to kill a young and unprotected terrorist courier, so she triggers her satchel charge just a few yards away.

Internally consistent in its style, which is totally different from that of the live-action films. Written but not directed by Oshii. You need a good translation (or Japanese fluency) to follow the conspiratorial plot, but once you crack it it’s intensely appealing.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”.

moving picture prequel animation Japanese production fiction