Patlabor 2: The Movie

If Hayao Miyazaki is anime's answer to Steven Spielberg, then Mamoru Oshii is its Stanley Kubrick. It's interesting in how the two of them compare, as a matter of fact. Both started with oddball comedy ventures, Dr. Strangelove for Kubrick and a couple of Urusei Yatsura movies for Oshii. Both moved into serious discussions of war and technology later, and the meaning of what it is to be human. For Kubrick, this meant 2001, Full Metal Jacket, and A Clockwork Orange, whereas it became the Patlabor movies and Ghost in the Shell for Oshii. Where the comparison really gets interesting is in looking at their artistic styles--both made films that move slowly and thoroughly through each scene, not so interested in what the audience wants and more interested in telling a story just as the director envisions. They also both have a decided tendency to avoid exploring deep human relationships, instead giving the viewer a detached viewpoint from which to judge the proceedings and absorb the message of the narrative. They are two masters at their craft, but their style has one unavoidable flaw: without truly caring about the characters, the audience can get restless. This is the only real issue I have with Patlabor 2: The Movie, which is in every other measure a brilliant, gorgeous film.

Patlabor 2 takes us to a point three years past the events in the original movie. With a single terrorist strike, the city of Tokyo is taken into chaos. Tsuge, one of the former heads of the Labor robotic unit, is suspected to be behind the blast, but there's little time to decide what steps to take. It's clear that our terrorists know exactly what they are doing, and in a matter of hours, the police, military, and Japanese Self Defense Force are all at odds trying to figure out who's in charge, especially once it appears that the US is also somehow involved. As the movie proceeds, Nagumo and Goto (the heads of the Labor force) get deeply involved trying to find out how to stop the terrorist threat from becoming a full-scale war. And for Nagumo, this is personal--Tsuge was very possibly her only real love, and a part of her life ended with his disappearance. Will the Labor unit be disbanded as they get into the heat of the political machinations that threaten disaster upon Japan? Are the terrorists actually the greatest threat at all?

Patlabor 2 is simply a stunning film, animated in such a way that even the most jaded critic will find it often jaw-droppingly beautiful. The look is very realistic, and this extends to the character designs. There is no doubt that the production is simply flawless. The soundtrack is moody and mysterious, setting the tone of the film perfectly. Every technical detail is superb.

Still, though, there is a measure of hesitation from me. Why? Simply put, there isn't enough depth of emotion here to really get excited about the characters themselves. Noa, the central lead of the original series and a great character, is relegated to what amounts to an extended cameo, along with most of the cast besides Goto and Nagumo. Even the personal element mentioned above--Nagumo's relationship with Tsuge--has no fire to it, as Nagumo keeps all of her emotions buried throughout the film. Thus, enjoyment of the film depends primarily on whether or not a political potboiler is the viewer's idea of a good time.

Now, that being said, it is an extremely well told story, with certain unexpected twists and a surprisingly touching ending. Although it features very few of the unique elements (such as the Labor robots) that make Patlabor different, and some will find the pacing just too slow, I didn't really find either point a problem--it certainly moves along much more quickly than Ghost in the Shell did to me, and it uses the Patlabor universe itself quite well. The pacing is actually a nice change from standard Hollywood fare--it builds its storyline to a solid conclusion, rather than having two hours of action that doesn't do anything but wow us with special effects. It also spends a lot of time dealing with certain core concepts--though it's not a message film per se, expect to be thinking on its themes long after the film is done rolling. (Kubrick again, anyone?)

Patlabor 2: The Movie is certainly an original, beautiful piece of work. Although a little too detached from its characters for my taste, it is hauntingly rendered and smartly written. Any fan of the TV show should see it, and those enjoyed the first film should also find a copy. I hope that Oshii is able to break through the barrier between his characters and his audience--a barrier that Kubrick didn't break in his own lifetime--because if he does, he could create some masterpieces that would surprise us all.

Patlabor 2: The Movie -- mild violence, plotline far too complex for most youngsters -- A-