Patlabor WXIII: The Movie

The Patlabor movies are a strange breed indeed. Set within the world established by the OVA and TV series, the movies nevertheless cover vastly different ground, using the characters from the shows only as cameo players. Cerebral and methodical, the first two films by Mamoru Oshii were very smart, enjoyable thrillers that nevertheless seemed a tad too removed from their characters. The third movie, known as WXIII, focuses on two cast members that are completely new to the Patlabor universe. You'd expect, then, that their introduction would leave us again without much personal development. However, that's not the case at all. WXIII gives us another brainy investigative plotline combined with subtle personalities that draw us in. With sumptuous animation and a good deal more action than the other two films, WXIII winds up being my personal favorite of the three.

Kusumi's a grizzled cop with a broken leg that won't heal quite right and an old phonograph set that keeps him company at night. Hata's a savvy young investigator who's up on the Internet and interested in playing baseball more than being out on the beat. The two of them are assigned to find out who's behind a series of grisly murders happening around the docks of Tokyo. As the two use their own techniques to try and solve the case, Hata starts falling for Saeko, a part-time science teacher at a local university. As the puzzle takes shape, Hata and Kusumi realize that they've gotten themselves into a web of intrigue involving experiments sanctioned by the US and Japanese governments. But when Saeko becomes the lynchpin jigsaw piece, Hata and Kusumi find themselves at odds as an unknown terror stalks the waterways of the city.

As always, Patlabor fans will find themselves disappointed if they come into this movie expecting to see old friends. The first two films should have rid the audience of any expectations of this, but it should still be noted. At the same time, knowledge of the world is helpful, as the labor units that are integral to the show do make an important appearance in the final act of the movie. Although newcomers will probably take to this movie better than the last two, the appearance of robotic units in the last twenty minutes may seem odd without further explanation.

The first twenty minutes of WXIII are a bit ponderous. Although the story is set up quite well, I had the strange feeling that I was in for "Law and Order: Special Patlabor Unit." This all changes about a half hour into the film when the main threat of the show is revealed. From that point, the movie becomes a tense, taut work. The slow opening then makes perfect sense in retrospect. I strongly suspect many viewers might get bored and turn off the movie right before the lid flies off; my suggestion is to stay with it.

Otherwise, though, I'm sold. What's so great about WXIII is the visual look combined with a solid story and nuanced participants. WXIII is marvelous to look at, a wonderful treat of animation. Its sense of utter realism is virtually unparalleled, and yet it looks so good at the same time. It's a delight to see, but in a completely different way from, say, Spirited Away.

Meanwhile, Hata and Kusumi are complex individuals whose lives are intertwined, sometimes intentionally and sometimes in spite of their feelings. They are friends who would never have met under normal circumstances, and their differences are an asset and burden simultaneously. I loved the small details of each character here--how Hata seems to catch small details yet misses huge clues, how Kusumi falls asleep each night with headphones on, listening to his antiquated record collection. It's the small insights that make WXIII seem so intricate. Although the characters aren't the emotional sort, we find ourselves attached nonetheless, particularly when we see things going awry with Hata and Saeko.

Freed from Mamoru Oshii's oblique, meandering style but powered by a script as intelligent as the last two films, Patlabor WXIII: The Movie is one of the best anime entries of recent memory. Director Fumihiko Takayama, known for his work on Gundam 0080 and the "Double Vision" episode of Bubblegum Crisis, creates a solid drama with a sci-fi catch worth seeing.

Patlabor WXIII: The Movie -- violence, profanity, rated R (inexplicably) by the MPAA -- A