Look at the Patlabor 2 cover. You see a beautiful looking anime babe, hair flowing, in front of a giant robot. Giant robot… equals action! Animation… dazzling effects! Anime babe, sex appeal!
However, Patlabor 2 is not an action movie and with that in mind the cover is pretty accurate. There is indeed a lot of snow and a lot of birds. The animated characters share a similar pale color scheme, and the giant robots remain stationary, in fact, their presence is entirely inconsequential throughout most of the movie’s runtime. The Patlabors are merely an upgrade to the military hardware that exists today and when they do finally see action in the movie’s closing moments it’s like nothing from Gundam or Big O. Their battle performance is procedural, even mundane, though not without its own blue collar appeal, akin to Ripley’s clunky power loader at the end of Aliens, like these things could one day exist.
And that’s Patlabor 2’s greatest strength. Though often set far in the future, science fiction is about what’s happening today. The movie, made in 1993, is set in 2002 (so now it’s actually in the past), but it’s surprising how timely it remains. It is almost all dialogue so some viewers will find the heady philosophizing, dense monologues, urban vistas and political barbs very boring.
Those looking for something other than Studio Ghibli’s output and whatever’s on Adult Swim these days will find a lot to think about in Patlabor 2, and they should. It’s directed by Mamoru Oshii, the guy who gave us the equally intellectual Ghost in the Shell movies.
“Meditative”, “dense”, “brooding”, “cynical” and similar, uh, synonyms are all words that easily describe Patlabor 2, and most of Oshii’s Blade Runner-inspired brand of sci-fi. Like Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk classic the setting is endless urban sprawl, Tokyo of the near future, circuited with canals, a perfect place for the flow of this story, or flow in general. That is, everything floats, as something meditative often does. Boats, blimps, helicopters, facial expressions, silences, camera angles, the lazy eye of a suspicious G-man, birds… So many birds show up Hitchcock himself would raise a white flag.
The plot, as I understand it, begins with a jungle conflict. It’s mecha versus militia as a U.N. tank ends up demolished by opposing forces in a stark and hopeless battle scene. The tank’s captain survives, blood streaming down his face, his comrades killed. Presumably, the conflict is won and years later peace is protected by police that pilot mechs known as “Patlabors”, which are also used for construction and other municipal purposes. Led by the sleepy-eyed Gotoh and babe-on-the-cover Nagumo, the cops don’t have much to do besides put up with their boorish, hollering training instructor, Isao Ohta.
When Tokyo is rattled by a bridge bombing Nagumo and Gotoh take notice. Initial evidence suggests the U.S. is involved, perhaps to reinforce its Article IX-based stranglehold on Japan’s military structure. Arakawa, the G-man with the lazy eye, offers the Patlabor duo contrasting evidence through video footage that suggests maybe the enemy is a ghost from Nagumo’s past…
At first glance Oshii is not so interested in characters and story as he is in the ideas behind the story. Arakawa brings the case to a rolling start only to break it up with conversations with Gotoh, who’s suspicious of Arakawa’s circumstantial evidence. The ideas in this case stem from Arakawa’s cynical belief that peace won from war isn’t really peace at all, but merely downtime for the next conflict. All the while, we, as modern day citizens “reap the benefits of war but distance ourselves from it with a television screen.” We placate ourselves with virtual comforts as we “look away from foreign wars.”
The references to watching war on TV clearly draws from Oshii’s experience growing up during the Vietnam War, when Japan could do nothing but watch as it played host to many of the U.S.’s major deployment bases. Of course, today, war and other atrocities are a common image on the boob tube, watched safely at home. Reality is now fragmented, able to be picked apart and manipulated by VHS and video screens, “all this made possible by the power of digital technology” as Arakawa proudly states. Cue the now-obligatory Blade Runner “enhance!” tribute.
Vision, just looking, plays a major part in Patlabor 2’s composition, especially in the character of Arakawa whose highly reflective glasses and wandering eye fragment his view of the world. Oshii displays a remarkable use of mood during Arakawa and Gotoh’s conversations, which play out as they travel down Tokyo’s many canals. Using aspect-to-aspect transitions, fragmented shots of the surrounding city, mainly areas of industry, are shown as their dialogue is heard in voice-overs. The camera itself becomes a wandering eye, floating from building to building, image to image, and time seems to stand still, much as Japan and the Patlabors do. Motion and motionlessness comes to the fore in a similar driving scene. “The scenery becomes motionless even if you’re in motion.”
It’s very artsy and namby-pamby but a perfect way to imbue the sense of dreadful quiet that covers the narrative like a shroud, and the only way Oshii can get his beliefs out there without it being a total bore. As convincing as Arakawa is I think, or at least I like to think, Oshii might place himself in Gotoh, who believes that “it may be a peace that reeks of gunpowder but… I’d much rather settle for an unjust peace than a just war.” I assume Oshii uses Gotoh as his mouthpiece if only because he’s far more hopeful and he brings Arakawa and his musings back down to Earth. And his droopy resemblance to a basset hound can’t be an accident. Oshii loves those pups and he places them in each of his pictures.
The movie’s crucial turning point involves a few changes, seasonal and societal. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks martial law is declared in Tokyo and the shift from mundane peace to wartime is almost seamless. Helicopters and tanks become standard fixtures, as common as the real-life Tokyo locales Oshii frames in the distance. The military and urban worlds blend so they’re indistinguishable. As this happens winter arrives to blanket the city in endless snow and peoples’ breath floats frozen in the air. It’s Oshii at his most stark and stinging, and visually, it’s beautiful stuff. Actually, I’m a bit of a snow fan. If a movie has snow in it – really well animated snow – that alone nets it several points.
There’s much, much more behind all of it I’m sure, and repeated viewings will almost always yield new understanding when it comes to Oshii movies. They require a good degree of effort and Patlabor 2 is no exception. They ferment. I can watch the Ghost in the Shell movies and the subsequent TV series, directed by Oshii’s Patlabor protege Kenji Kamiyama, and notice something new every time. I gain a stronger grasp of the story and the ideas behind it, and a stronger attachment to the characters, “wooden” or subtly developed as they may be. I imagine these characters take acting lessons from Rick Deckard.
The character design is natural and realistic without too much of the usual goofy anime trappings. Everyone’s proportioned the way they should be and everyone acts like normal human beings. The color scheme is pale and muted, especially in the film’s latter half when winter hits and the city is masked in snowfall. Light and black really contrasts, especially in Nagumo’s own dreamy canal scene. Sad, nostalgic, it may be the best part of the movie, aided greatly by composer Kenji Kawai’s score. Pulse-pounding, paranoid, or romantic, the music complements the visuals perfectly. The most peculiar aspect of the sound is the occasional shriek or howl of a bird that often marks the end or transition of a scene. Yeah, I have no idea.
Patlabor 2 sounds more like a college course than blockbuster entertainment but that doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t move in interesting directions. This isn’t a movie you “check your brain at the door” for, not that you should ever do that to begin with. There are the usual twists and explosions in the end, and it all concludes in a satisfying manner. Once you attune yourself to the movie’s flowing rhythm you’ll be surprised how quickly it goes by, dense as it is. Dense, like a thick cake or a brownie, you’ll want to be sure to save some for revisiting later, just to see if there are any pieces you missed.