Patlabor, The Movie
I adore patlabor, so please take this as a warning of bias. The reserved laid-back style, the complexity of the stories and the delightful characters are just my sort of thing. And this movie manages to take the good elements and go a step further. I've seen it so many times, over many years, and it still draws me in and entertains.
In a world just a little bit into the future from our own a story begins with an ending. A lone figure leaping to his death from the Ark, a huge construction platform in the middle of Tokyo bay. Even though he dies his story has just begun, but it will be a while before the authorities even begin to realise that this is a story that they need to understand before it reaches its planned end. At the moment only the fringes of the problem, an increase in the number of "rogue" labors (more on labors in a bit), is visible.
Naturally enough it is special vehicles section 2, the much reviled police mecha squad, that ends up on the front line. Not only has the increase in labor related incidents stretched their endurance, especially with section 1 out of action, but some odd hints are beginning to make them nervous. Even Gotoh, possibly the most laid back captain in Japan, is beginning to have a serious look on his face... and that means something big is cooking.
First, some general spiel which gives a background on the patlabor world. The primary thing to realise is that while this show contains mecha it's not really a mecha show. Indeed this show seriously irritates the serious mecha fiends, I've seen an anime fan reduced to incoherency by the fact the most "sexy" weapon these mecha have is a mecha-sized revolver, with 6 shots, which has to be reloaded by hand. But it also makes sense, in this world mecha are primarily construction machinery, not weapons of war and any sort of armament is a rarity.
I've read that the spark for this show came from the American TV series "Hill Street Blues". I'm not sure if that's true, but it does give a pointer to the strengths of the series. Namely it has a fairly large cast, full of well fleshed out characters, who provide some wonderful character drama. This being well supported by good writing and very well observed character animation. This group are more than capable of entertaining without anything external actually happening, and there are stories which are entirely character driven.
Of course, as police, there's no shortage of things that can happen. And even here the stories, as this one, often have a strong human element. There is no faceless implacable enemy, instead it is just another human being whose situation demands the police get involved. SV2 (Special vehicles 2), having 2 of the 4 active police mecha in Tokyo, ends up getting called to even more exotic jobs than most cops. And because of this, and the fact their hanger is physically isolated on a landfill in Tokyo bay, they are used to working as an independant unit, depending only on each other.
This story is a superb example of the strong writing that makes it all work. Being a movie it has a bigger story, and a relatively short running time, which does cut down on the pure character work quite a bit. But what a story it is, just a beautiful progression as the first hints become a realization that something funny is going on. They come to understand they are working against a timer, and they don't have all the pieces they need to make sense of it all. This allows for active detective work and a strong sense of tension. I sometimes pick on a story for having no progression (Phantom Memory Kurau being the most recent) and this movie is an almost perfect example of progression done right... each step fits together and builds steadily to a very satisfying conclusion. It even has moments of perfect calm, of nothing happening, but those actually end up being perfectly integrated too.
What more can I say, its a superb movie. If I had to point to a weakness it would be that its strengths may not be to everyones tastes. The intelligent script and subtle character do come at a cost in action (there is a lot of talking) and raw energy. The flavor is also quite prosaic, the rather dull "mecha revolver" being but one example, so those who don't like a sense of reality limiting their fantasy may also be disappointed. These are not weaknesses in the film though, just expressions of the fact that nothing will please everyone.... and yes, I am a complete Gotoh fanboy. His adroit manipulation of Azuma in this title being a near-machiavellian masterpiece.
Much as it pains me to say it the animation has dated a little. It's still excellent, and more than sufficient to tell the story and express character, but it comes from a time before computers dominated production. As a result it has the heavy color and linework of hand animation, and the action scenes will probably not impress although they retain an impressive sense of scale. The strengths of the movie, strong story, character and well realised world and technology still shine through... the tech design especially still looks convincingly modern, which is a very impressive achievement for a 15 year old movie! (although there is a tiny bit of computer animation, for a TV add, which is staggeringly anachronistic now).
It also has a strong sense of style, albeit subdued, that is hard to pin-down. Certainly the voice cast has a large role in making it work and giving life to the writing. These sort of ensemble dramas need depth of talent, even lesser characters need strong voices, which is one reason to avoid the dub. The fact it blunts some elements of the story being another. My latest viewing was the commercial DVD and I wasn't that impressed, the sub and dub differ dramatically and the sub had gaps... very lame. The music is decent enough, however some of the ambient sound / music (it's sort of both) during the film is very potent.
A plan has been put into motion, but the threat it carries is only beginning to surface. Special vehicles section 2 may have police mecha, but they're going to have to rely on brains to work out what the heck is going on... and they'll have to do it fast. An excellent story, and strong writing make this a classic, but its patient progression and subtle style may not be to the taste of the action and energy addicts.