Patlabor 1: The Movie

I've avoided this film for a long time. My avoidance was not based on any one thing in particular, but it's often hard to see a movie based on a long-running anime series and get anything out of it, and I was afraid it would spoil watching the show somewhere down the road. Thankfully, Patlabor 1: The Movie is a class act that can be understood on its own. And really, this is a film that shouldn't be missed. It's a uniquely different kind of anime, thoughtful and laid-back at times, but also able to pull out all the stops when necessary.

In the world of Patlabor, mechanized units known as Labors are able to get construction-style work done in only a small fraction of the time it would take humans. However, that kind of power also attracts a criminal element, and the Patlabor (or Labor Police) make sure that these machines are kept in check. As the show starts, we see a mysterious smiling man as he throws himself to his death. Who is this man, and what has he done? We start to learn as Azuma and Noah from the Labor Police start investigating a rash of incidents where Labors have gone on mysterious rampages, sometimes without anyone even manning the controls. As Azuma digs deeper into the mystery, he starts to connect E. Hoba, the suicidal software engineer we saw at the beginning, with the problems the Labor units have had. Azuma has no idea how big the problem is, however, and soon all of Japan hangs in the balance of Azuma's discovery.

Patlabor 1 is not your average mecha movie by any stretch. Though there are three set action pieces in the movie--two near the very beginning and one near the very end--the rest is all discussion and unraveling of the mysteries involved. Frankly, mysteries are rarely represented in anime, and so this was incredibly refreshing. I also enjoyed the discussions and dialogue in this film a good deal. Not only did it have an interesting plot, but it also delved into the murky gray areas that surrounding our love of all things modern and computerized. Although no one will see this feeling like they saw a "message movie," elements of the movie will make you think for a long while afterwards. If you like your movies with lots of humor or frequent mecha battles, however, you'll probably want to pick up something else.

The animation is very good, and notable because the characters never deviate from their standard form. What I mean is this: in most anime, characters develop certain traits, such as big eyes, unusual proportions, etc. to accentuate their characteristics. Here, the players are treated as you would real actors--everyone stays in proportion! The music is also slightly different, mixing some throbbing rock elements with some traditional Japanese sounds in a way that I'll likely buy the soundtrack. In no way does the production distract from the storytelling, which is very strong.

There are only two complaints that I raise that keep this film from reaching the A+ rating--and I liked it well enough that it came close--but the issues are big enough that the movie is not perfect. First, about halfway through the film, there's a discussion about Noah and Alphonse, which happens to be her special Labor robot. However, the movie assumes you know this, and so if you don't, it's off-putting. The second and more important issue is that the movie ends very abruptly. Because the film develops its plotline carefully, using Biblical allegories to make its points and thoroughly engaging the audience, the ending feels weak because there is no closure, no discussion of what's happened, just a "we win" and credits roll. For some people, a third element might be that there is little character growth in the movie, but I discount that since there's a TV series to turn to that addresses that properly.

On the whole, if you're willing to think and enjoy a mystery wrapped in a hard sci-fi cover, make sure to pick up Patlabor 1: The Movie. I'm just sorry I waited so long to try it out.

Patlabor 1: The Movie -- profanity, mecha violence, themes appropriate for adults -- A