When you first start watching anime, there is usually one show or movie in particular that blows you away. Something that kicks so much ass that you are left searching for that same feeling of awe. The Patlabor movies were that show for me. The art, the story, and the entire experience really raised the bar for what I expected from an anime. Up to that point, I had only seen shows like Ranma and Tenchi, or movies like Ninja Scroll. This was so much more intelligent that I was completely unprepared for it. It worth noting that these movies are based on the OVA or TV series which is pretty hard to find at his point (25 years later), and the TV show focused much more on snarky clever humor instead of action and suspense. This was director Mamoru Oshii when he was at his peak. He had already received plenty of critical acclaim for the Ghost and Shell film (now considered an anime classic) and he brought that same brooding atmosphere to these two great films. It is a bit of a cheat to talk about both here, and the second one is my favorite of the two. If you haven’t seen the TV show or OVAs, I think it is better to view the two together.
The first movie is set in the near future (humorously 1999, but the movie stays remarkably fresh) where large manned mechs called Labors are used in a variety of roles. Their biggest job is a massive land reclamation project in Tokyo Bay called project Babylon. Unfortunately, the large construction mechs ended up being used for criminal activities and the regular police had a tough time dealing with them. This led to two divisions of Patrol Labors or Patlabors being formed. Based on a small piece of land in Tokyo bay, the straight-laced Section 1 and the misfit filled Section 2 handle any Labor related emergencies. The stars of the show and the movie are the misfits of course, who are currently being stretched thin by a rash of Labor incidents while Section 1 is away training. The characters don’t get the introduction I would like in the movie, but we do see a glimpse of their personalities before it goes into detective/thriller mode. Most of the action is saved until the end, but it stays fresh and interesting throughout.
The second movie is a set a few years after the first, and ups the ante considerably in the drama department. The film is an amazing example of the old school hand drawn style, being both beautiful to look at and listen to. The story gives a window into debates about Japan’s place in the world that are still being argued today. The commander of section 2 is the star of this one, and he is one of my all-time favorites (he also happens to be my avatar picture). An incredibly bright man who plays down his intelligence to avoid political problems and is masterful at using soft power to get the most of his officers. There is very little action, but it’s not something that you are likely to notice until after the movie is over. Patlabor 2 stands out as one of the more intelligent thrillers I have ever seen, touching on some serious questions about what the role of a non-superpower and its military should be. If there is one bad thing about these films, it is that they will make you wish that anime like this was still coming out of Japan. Since it really isn’t, all we can do is enjoy these gems from the past. I own both of these movies, so I’m not sure where to find them streaming, but with luck you might find them gathering dust at a half-price book store.
9 out of 10