Reviewby Theron Martin,
Patlabor: The Movie
DVD: DVD Collector's Limited Edition Set
In 1999, mecha called Labors have evolved from the industrial robots of earlier eras and become a staple of heavy construction work forces. Their development has opened up the potential for criminal activity involving Labors, though, so the Special Vehicles Unit has been formed within the police force specifically to deal with Labor-related crimes.
While work proceeds on the epic land reclamation effort known as the Babylon Project, in which Labors play a crucial role, problems have cropped up in the behavior of some Labors, problems that SV2 eventually tracks back to their HOS, a nearly universally-used new operating system. The HOS does dramatically increase Labor efficiency but may also have a fatal flaw, one that may have even been designed as such. The men and women of SV2 must put the pieces together while stepping around thorny political issues if a potential catastrophe is to be averted.
The Gundam franchise may get the credit for popularizing and modernizing the mecha genre, but the Patlabor franchise stakes its own historical importance by proving that mecha series don't have to be aimed just at teenagers. Patlabor teaches us that it's possible to have mecha that (gasp!) are actually piloted by adults and set them in a realistic environment, one where it feels possible that mecha could feasibly exist. Although it's questionable how much influence the franchise has had, as it's more an aberration in the genre than a trend-setter, mecha series like Gasaraki likely owe at least some credit to Patlabor.
The Patlabor franchise began in 1988 with an OVA series, which proved successful enough to spawn a 47-episode TV remake and an ensuing 16-episode OVA follow-up. Patlabor: The Movie, the first of three, came out in 1989 around the same time as the TV series, though it follows from the storyline of the original OVA rather than of the TV series. Though a Manga Entertainment production of the movie has been available in the States since the mid-90s, Bandai Visual has recently acquired the title and decided to give it a deluxe reissue. This Limited Edition comes in a special box with a second DVD containing a “Making of” featurette taken from the original Japanese laserdisc release. Two books, one a collection of storyboards for the movie, the other a collection of past Extras content, are also included.
So how well does the movie stand up to newer fare, given that it's now 17 years old? Pretty darn well, actually.
Although made in the era before digital animation and CG enhancements became prominent, both the artistry and animation compare favorably to much later works. Background animation was heavily based on photographs taken by the staff of actual scenery around Tokyo, which help lends a depth of realism to the artistry that is rarely seen in even the better recent anime movies. The somewhat flat-faced character designs are typical of other prominent anime from the same time period, especially Akira, and also favor realism over caricature and objectification, although the droopy-eyed look of Gotoh makes him especially visually distinctive . Both the technical designs of the mecha and the way some scenes are framed (particularly those involving traveling through the city) are very reminiscent of content from the later Ghost in the Shell, which shouldn't be a surprise since Mamoru Oshii directed both. In fact, in many senses the first Patlabor movie is a stepping stone to Oshii's later works. The animation is also very good even by current standards, with scenes of crowd movement in particular looking much smoother and more fluid than one would normally expect from such scenes in anime.
The greatest improvement over time has been the audio upgrade to Dolby 5.1, which is now available on both the English and Japanese language tracks. It fully accentuates the great use of sound effects in the series and brings out the best in an eclectic musical score which often, but not always, hits the right note.
The movie also stands up quite well on its storytelling. The Patlabor series certainly had their comedic and action elements, but were always more light-hearted mecha-centered police dramas rather than true action series. That standard continues in the first movie, although the balance leans more heavily towards intricate drama. It certainly doesn't get as grim and heavy as the later two movies do, but the action elements are limited to three sequences which together compose only a small fraction of the total running time. The rest is a thoughtful look at a two-pronged investigation into the enigmatic Ei'icha Hoba, whose revolutionary new operating system may have been structured specifically to have a fatal flaw which only becomes apparent under certain conditions. His motivations for doing what he has done before committing suicide stray more into the philosophical realm than any mecha series this side of Neon Genesis Evangelion, as do Gotoh's musings over the man's motivations, and some serious detective work and creative thinking is required to unravel the plot before a real disaster strikes. Although the series focused more on Noa, here she is merely another player in a large ensemble cast. If anyone is the star of the movie, it's Azuma and, to a lesser extent, the very clever Gotoh, whose skill at getting people to do what he wants them to do without them realizing it is a rare talent.
For this rerelease Bandai has commissioned a completely new English dub. Whether or not it's the equal or better of the original is entirely a matter of personal opinion; although most roles come out about even, the tone of Gotoh's delivery sounds significantly better in the older dub. Overall the new dub is not quite as sharp as the original vocals, but it's not so bad that English dub fans are likely to mind. The English script does stay reasonably close to the original Japanese.
Although viewers familiar with the original OVA series will undoubtedly get more out of the first Patlabor movie, it stands well enough on its own that no familiarity is required to fully appreciate it. Those looking for a slam-bang mecha action series are looking in the wrong place, but if you want a more mature and cerebral mecha tale then Patlabor is well worth checking out. Its basic version is a title worthy of space on any otaku's shelf, while the considerably more expensive Special Edition is probably only fit for diehard Patlabor fans.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Good production values, more mature and cerebral than most mecha series.
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