Police with mechs, do I really need to say anything else?
What’s the Story?
In the near future, of 1999, a new technology has revolutionised construction, the Labor. These mechanical giants allow for building on a scale previously unheard of, such as the Babylon project which hopes to reclaim land from Tokyo Bay for the ever crowded city. Of course with every new technology there are those that would use it for ill and so the police set up the Special Vehicle Section 2 who, with their Patlabors (Patrol Labors), fight these new cases of crime.
The suicide of a leading Labor programmer leads the officers of SVU division 2 into a potentially devastating case. Something is driving Labors crazy, setting them loose to rampage across the city, but what is the cause? What’s more with a typhoon due to hit Japan the potential for disaster is at an all time high. Is this all the mad revenge of a twisted man, or a final warning before things go too far?
Patlabor is one of those franchises where I wish I could get hold of more of the content. As it stands I’ve managed to get my hands on the first two movies and the early days OVA series. I know there’s a TV series out there somewhere, but I’ve yet to track down a copy in the UK and this is an older series to begin with so my hopes have been steadily dwindling on that front. It’s kinda infuriating because Patlabor has such an amazingly simple concept, what if we had a mecha series where said mechs weren’t just weapons of war, but used as they potentially could be in real life (you know, if we had that kind of technology). The Labors of Patlabor are primarily used for construction, obviously the ones we follow are the ones used by the police and there are some military ones hanging around, but that’s not what the bulk of Labors were made for. There’s a depth and a realism to the world that this franchise creates that I just adore, not that the series is always serious, sometimes its just plain goofy and I love that side of it too (seriously check out the early days OVA series, the Godzilla parody is worth it alone, but there are some really great episodes in that series, especially the last three).
Enough talk about the franchise as a whole though, let’s get on to the subject of today’s review, the first movie. Honestly out of what I have seen of the Patlabor franchise this film is my favourite. It’s got an interesting plot, some gorgeously animated sequences and on the whole it’s just a lot of fun. My only real gripe with it is that it’s probably not the best place to start with Patlabor. I mean this film was the first thing I saw of the franchise, but I appreciate it a lot better after having watched the early days OVA series (which I’ll just plug again, go see it!). You see the film doesn’t really spend a lot of time introducing you to its characters or delving too deeply into who they all are. The characters are just there, doing what they do. Noah fusses over her Labor, which she calls Alphonse. Asuma takes the lead on the investigation, while also blowing his lid at several points and being a jerk to Noah on occasion. Ota is as gun crazy as ever. Then there’s Captain Goto, the puppet master, always one step ahead and manipulating everyone to do what he wants. Goto’s my favourite character.
The focus for this film is more on it’s plot and themes. It’s quite a ponderous film, but then it was directed by Mamoru Oshii, yes that one, so that should give you some idea of what you’re in for. There are several long, almost silent shots of Tokyo as well as scenes of characters quietly philosophising and yet the film never once lost my attention. Between some of the more gorgeous shots and animation sequences, as well as some fun character interactions, it’s hard not to be engaged with this film, but I also enjoy the ideas it’s playing around with. The central question of which is how much progress is too much? And in our rush to get the next new, shiny thing, are we leaving something important behind? You could apply that to this film itself, this is ‘old-school’ 80s cell animation after all. No matter where you stand on the debate between older anime and more modern productions, you have to admit that cell animation has a certain quality to it that is missing from anything since the 2000s. Not to rag on digital animation techniques, for me the majority of what we get today is better looking, but it’s also nice to take a break from the clean, bright colours and appreciate something a bit more textured every once in a while. Plus there’s all those great old school mechanical designs to look at.
Back to the film though, it’s not entirely all talk and philosophy. There’s plenty of great mecha-on-mecha action, but all of that action is grouped at either the start or the climax of the film. The rest is about the mystery of rampaging labors and police work. Asuma gets the lions’ share of things to do, which makes sense since he has a personal connection involved in this case and his job is supposed to be about strategy and directing the others so it makes sense for him to puzzle things out. Goto gets some great moments manipulating Asuma into working on the case in the first place and Noah gets a couple of moments, including a pretty badass one towards the end. Everyone else is pretty much relegated to the background unfortunately, but again characters aren’t really the focus here. The mystery itself is well-paced and always engaging, with the threat escalating as Division 2 realise the full scope of the problem. As I said, out of the OVA series and the two films I’ve seen, this is my favourite and one I keep coming back to. It’s also my favourite Mamoru Oshii work, you know just to get all the Ghost in the Shell fans angry at me.
In the end, while I don’t think Patlabor: The Movie is the best gateway into this franchise, it’s certainly the best of the franchise (out of what I’ve seen). A smart, atmospheric mystery paired with fun characters, gorgeously designed mecha and some top notch animation. If you feel like taking a step back in time to watch an older anime film, then I thoroughly recommend this. Also if you want to check out some of Mamoru Oshii’s work before Ghost in the Shell or watch a mecha story where the protagonists aren’t sullen teenagers forced to fight in a war (not that those aren’t great in their own right) then check this out!
Also if you want some more mecha action, make sure to check out Mechanical Anime Reviews this month for Mecha March!
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday or you can follow me on Twitter @ChrisGJoynson.