It’s rare that I’ll rewatch a movie months after the effect, take its unpublished review, and almost completely scrap my thesis. Patlabor: The Motion Picture confounded my expectations when I watched it again after having rewatched the later, and alternate, TV series. It’s true that not everything strictly works about this project – some of the movie shorthand is too short – but one thing is clear: Headgear had almost complete understanding of their characters even before their most properly iconic incarnation.
Despite its 99 minute running time, this film is abrupt, but its animation and feel are superlative. If Oshii Mamoru had to cut his teeth somewhere, he couldn’t have picked a better project. I’m not convinced of the viability of this film as a standalone project, as it is best consumed within the context of tens of hours of other material but, rather like the OVA that preceded it, it’s definitely an excellent supplement.
After the roll-out of Shinohara Heavy Industry’s new labor Hyper Operating System across Japan, there is an epidemic of labors going berserk in the Tokyo Bay Area. Special Vehicles Section 2 are exhausted, and Asuma takes it upon himself (with some gentle encouragement from Captain Goto) to investigate the cause of the problem. At the same time, Inspector Matsui investigates the suicide of HOS’s chief programmer, Hoba Eiichi. As Goto suspected from the start, these cases are not unrelated, and they converge into one as catastrophe looms over Tokyo Bay.
The first Patlabor movie was made in the short period between the “bonus” seventh episode of the original OVA and the launch of the alternate continuity of the TV series. It has much more in common with the OVA, but it exaggerates and extrapolates on elements of both character and story that are not strictly present in either incarnation. SVII’s reputation precedes them on every job in a more extreme fashion than anywhere else, and Kanuka is construed as far more dangerous and trigger happy (ie American) than her other incarnations – which doesn’t strictly make sense but works for the finale, which is as grand as anyone could demand.
The feel that Oshii brings to this movie is unique among the Patlabor franchise (discounting the second and third movies, which I’ve yet to rewatch). The first major change is making a flagship Patlabor title feature Asuma as the nominal protagonist, as opposed to Noa. The nature of the movie form means that the situation has to be rather more grave than the sometimes deliberately petty or trivial story lines of both the OVA and TV series, and Noa is more of a physical and emotional character than a cerebral one. The personal connection of Asuma to the case is in line with the OVA and it is a reasonable course for Goto to set him upon. Upon getting used to this different focal point, the movie goes down much easier than it could have done.
The other traditionally marginal character to get a significant look-in is Inspector Matsui, on his contemplative trip through the backstreets of a disappearing Tokyo. Matsui doesn’t need much in the way of dialogue, and these scenes are ultimately what set the tone of the film, effectively establishing it as a proto-Ghost in the Shell. Kawai’s score is haunting and the scenery is hypnotic, and the languid pace of these segments of the movie are expertly offset by the final scenes.
Of course, Goto is the puppet master – and possibly a stand-in for Oshii himself. Goto directs all of the action, almost always one step ahead of his subordinates, but needing his incredibly prescient hunches to be backed up by groundwork. More chances are taken than strictly expected, with some scenes descending into little more than voice actors yelling as geometric shapes dance across the scene through a fish-eye lens.
Oshii is not merely an expert of mood and daring-moves: he can handle orthodoxy just as deftly. The action sequences that cap the movie are breathtaking in their fluidity and the height of their drama. While, at its heart, the main threat is as it always is in Patlabor – extreme property damage – the stakes seem high. The preparation montage features a car being launched into the air with a single shot from Hiromi; the final assault is so expertly executed that it impresses even 23 years after the fact.
When I watched Patlabor in August 2011, I was unimpressed because I felt that the story was “malnourished” and the ending abrupt. I still believe that Patlabor does not stand on its own if you’ve no prior attachment to the franchise, and Oshii had not yet mastered the subtle and satisfactory conclusion at this point of his career, but Patlabor undeniable has that something about it that makes it work.
True, it gets dressed up in unnecessary biblical references that don’t strictly make sense and the answers that Goto provides aren’t entirely satisfactory, but this is a worthy addition to the canon of what amounts to one of my favourite franchises. Without that connection, it might not work so well for others – but in the West this is now the best chance you’ve got of consuming any Patlabor at all. It’s not the best possible world, but it’s arresting nonetheless.