What would have happened if Japan had lost WWII to Germany rather than the Allies? That question seems to lie at the heart of this somber anime, written by GHOST IN THE SHELL's Mamoru Oshii and directed by his GHOST collaborator Hiroyuki Okiura. The film proposes an alternate history á la Robert Harris's Fatherland or Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and like them, it's set in the early '60s. But the social ramifications of Germany's victory are mostly evident (at least to the Western eye) in the film's details everyone drives a Volkswagen while the story is driven by the fairy-tale image of the big bad wolf. Rocked by violent civil unrest, Tokyo is patrolled by the counter-terrorist arm of the Capitol Police Department, the Special Unit, whose heavily armed officers wear full-body armor and infrared goggles that make them resemble sinister cyborgs. Their primary target: An underground rebel group called the Sect, who frequently use innocent-looking young girls, dubbed "Red Riding Hoods," to transport bombs. The ambiguities of guerilla warfare are brought home to Special Unit soldier Kazuki Fuse (voice of Michael Dobson) when he pursues a Red Riding Hood in the sewers. Her corners her but, reluctant to shoot a schoolgirl, hesitates long enough for her to detonate the powerful explosive in her book bag. The incident casts doubt on Fuse's fitness to serve, and he's sent back to the Police Academy for retraining. Haunted by the dead girl's face, he persuades an old friend, the politically well-connected Atsushi Henmi (Colin Murdock), to find out her name: Nanami Agawa. Fuse visits Nanami's grave and encounters her older sister Kei (Moneca Stori), who looks exactly like Nanami. Kei and Fuse begin a tentative relationship, but it's clear that both pawns are in some complicated intrigue that may involve the "Wolf Brigade," a rogue element rumored to operate within the Special Unit. Ambitious and painterly, the film's backgrounds and objects (especially the weaponry) are absolutely gorgeous. But its characters are undermined by the inexpressive animation that mars the majority of animated films: Their haunted inner lives are clearly meant to take center stage, but their faces are blank and two-dimensional. And though the English-language translation and voice casting were supervised by Okiura (a rarity in anime dubbing), the voice performances still sound hollow and disconnected from the images.
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