Subverting Expectations Before It Was Cool
by Bolt Vanderhuge
Red Spectacles (1987), along with its sequel/prequel, is not well known even among anime fans, even those who are aware of the last of the “Kerboros Saga” films, Jin-Roh. Its director, Mamoru Oshii, is generally better known for his animated works, especially the 1995 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, the production of which is actually the reason he didn’t end up directing Jin-Roh. More recently, however, people have been rediscovering what was Oshii’s first non-animated film, perhaps thanks to reviewers like yours truly retroactively throwing a spotlight on it. The problem is, a lot of people go into this film expecting it to be like Jin-Roh, and all the marketing for this movie really doesn’t help much in that regard.
Even the Wikipedia article would doesn’t reveal the fact that this film is as far from Jin-Roh as one can get while still being in the same alternate-history universe. I will try my best to explain, but one cannot truly have this film explained to them; it must be experienced.
The first step to understanding this film, is realizing that it’s not straightforward, at all. There are layers to it, and it’s difficult to realize it the first time you watch it, other than the obvious contrast of the segments that are in color with those that are in black and white. And the majority of the film is in black and white. The basic plot of film is that the “Special Unit,” created to combat a rising crime rate in an alternate-history Tokyo that had been occupied by Germans rather than by Americans, gained enemies among the Metropolitan Police and was overthrown when a new regime came to power. The “Kerberos Riot” resulted when the Special Unit refused to stand down, but after a siege it surrendered. However, senior detective Kōichi Todome, managed to escape Japan, and returns to Tokyo after three years in hiding, only to almost immediately draw attention from the government. However, it doesn’t take long for things to get stranger and stranger, and it becomes impossible to take seriously, as absurdist humor takes over the film.
It is better to think of this film as more of an exploration of concepts than as a narrative that is meant to be followed and understood by the audience. If anything, I’d say the entire point of the film is for the audience to figure it out for themselves. It’s difficult to determine what even actually happened in the “real world” as portions of the film are undeniably only taking place in Kōichi’s mind. It’s been suggested that the color portions of the film are the only “real” parts, but there are at least two different versions of Kōichi’s escape in color, so which is real? And who is the mysterious woman who keeps appearing throughout the film? Everything is pretty much left up to you to decide for yourself, along with whatever it was that Oshii was trying to tell you with this film.
All that can be said for certain is that this film is well worth watching and experiencing for yourself, and that no brothers or friends exist in a small restroom.
Fuck Yeah! Look it up!
The Red Spectacles (1987)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Distributed by Omnibus Promotion