Patlabor: The Movie
I’ve written about Patlabor before. The TV series is a great sitcom about Japanese police officers in the future, that offers commentary on politics, humor working with strange people, and treats robots as nothing more than we would treat guns or police cars in a police sitcom set in 2015. The second movie is an sophisticated political and philosophical tale about foreign wars, Article 9, and the point of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. So what are we to make of the first Patlabor movie? Did Headgear go all out for the first time the heroes from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2 make it to the silver screen?
Just like the second film, Patlabor: The Movie was directed by famed living legend Mamoru Oshii, and written by the man with the golden pen, Kazunori Itō himself. The film takes place after the events of the OVA series. However a basic understanding of the main characters will suffice in understanding this film. As I’ve already noted, this movie takes place in the future of 1999 (lol), where the world is being transformed by robots aka “labors”. All different
industries and ways of life are being affected, either directly or indirectly, by this huge flux of labors. Patlabors (patrol + labor) are police labors used to deal with incidents involving labors, or used in situations where a robot would come in handy for the police force of Tokyo. This movie begins with Tokyo being expanded by many artificial islands, as there is a “land shortage”, so the government’s solution is to expand into Tokyo Bay and create fake land, in addition to demolishing smaller buildings, and creating large skyscrapers (build up + build out into the bay). This is known as the “Babylon Project” . At the center of the large industrial undertaking is the “ARK” which serves as a labor factory for the many labors needed to construct man-made islands.
The film reveals that since the instillation of a new operating system (OS) in most labors, known as the Hyper Operating System (HOS), there has been an epidemic of out of control labors. The police officers of Section 2 are assigned to handle this, and often have trouble stopping rampaging labors. This OS was created by Shinohara Heavy Industries, and pushed heavily by the government. One of the members of Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Officer Shinohara Asuma, is the son of the founder and head of this corporation. His relationship with his father is very complex. Asuma is eventually put on task to find out what going on with these out of control labors, by his commander Captain Goto. Ultimately this movie turns into a giant chess match between the manipulate and brilliant Goto, and the far-sighted, righteous, and canny programmer Eiichi Hoba, who created the HOS and installed a virus in it to cause mayhem and send a message. The twist of course is that from the beginning we learn that Eiichi Hoba is dead. Every time Goto and his team discover something, it seems like the dead Hoba (who put his plan into motion before committing suicide) is ten steps ahead of them. What’s worse is through some good detective work, Section 2 learns that during the next typhoon nearly all the labors with that OS will go haywire unless they can stop it.
Oshii studied to become a Christian Priest in his youth, quite an oddity when one notes Christians make up fewer than 1% of the country’s entire population. However something happened which seems to have made him lose faith, yet he still remains fascinated by Christianity. This film contains dozens of Christian references, that I’m unsure if the Japanese public at large fully understood. The “ark “, “Babylon”, and the themes of the film are all something the west would get more out of than Japan. Ultimately what’s interesting about the film is Goto and Eiichi Hoba might not disagree too much philosophically, just their actions are different. Not to give the main point away, but much of their ideas has to do with how fast things change, what we should remember, and what is erased by time. This is very relevant when one considers what we know about Eiichi Hoba.
With a finale that borrows a lot from Aliens (with a countdown until destruction and everything), and some really inspirational heroism from everyone’s favorite character, Kanuka Clancy, there’s a lot to like about the ending. Additionally I was really moved by Noa’s courage and spirt toward the very end of the film. The film is a slow buildup to a dramatic conclusion that actually uses the Labors in a great action packed fight, with a typhoon raging outside, and death always a possibility. Unlike the second movie where the brilliance lies in the philosophical and political underpinnings, it is the chess game and it’s ultimate conclusion filled with epic robot battles that makes the first film a huge success. This film is still very poetic, like it’s sequel. It takes it’s time, and uses its characters wisely. It’s not an action filled story, mostly a mystery, but the ending has enough action to be satisfying.
The music, by top notch composer Kenji Kawai, is both poetic and moody. It is the stuff of (good) hollywood soundtracks, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is not a soundtrack you would necessarily listen to on its own, however it is perfect background music for the film. The art and animation, while nice for 1989, don’t really impress like the second film does. In fact some clear shortcuts were taken with the animation that leads more to be desired (and made MTV famously made fun of it). I think the less than perfect animation and art style may be do to this being animated mostly by the competent but never impressive Studio Deen, while the second film was animated by the legendary studio themselves, Production I.G. The art and animation do not subtract from the film’s enjoyment, but it is disappointing. The dub however is another master work by the genius at Manga UK, Michael Bakewell. While not perfect, it is outstanding for the time and much better than the oddly written and much more complex and offbeat Bandai Dub recorded in Los Angeles. While the Bandai Dub for the second movie is at least listenable, the one of the first film nearly ruins it by making things much more complicated and harder to follow then need be. Things that are simple to understand become difficult to grasp, and the more complex moments become nearly if not entirely incomprehensible. The script is a major problem and I advice you not to watch this dub for that reason alone. The acting seems phoned in as well, although not horrible.
The script on the Manga UK dub was written by George Roubicek, one of Manga UK’s best scriptwriters (one of the best in the business actually). This script is a little liberal but I have no problem with that. Sometimes, especially with these types of movies, playing a little loose with the script makes for a better adaption then slavishly sticking to the subtitle script and thus losing out on much. Not to mention, as we can see from Bandai’s version, making things harder to grasp. The British dub is included on Manga Entertainment’s American dvd release (but sadly not on Bandai Visual’s great release of the film, which instead contains their poor dub). Manga’s DVD release has poor visual quality, but I’d rather deal with that than a bad dub. Maiden Japan’s release sadly only has the Bandai Visual LA Dub. I am still at a loss why Bandai Visual decided to re-dub these films in the first place, when they had such good dubs already. Then they didn’t spend money to dub Gunbuster and Gunbuster 2, which never had dubs and needed them. I’ve heard reasons why this was done, but they lack common sense.
Michael Bakewell’s UK dub, which was recorded in London, stars one of anime’s best actors Peter Marinker. Marinker is a near god in everything he does, and here too he is beyond brilliant. There is no one else on this planet who I would accept as Captain Goto. Briony Glassco makes for a less annoying Noa than all the other actresses that played her in the franchise. I feel she got the voice tone and feeling right for Noa. David Jarvis as Shinohara, was never my favorite. I think I actually like Dan Green in that role more, but he’s quite alright. I feel he’s better in the second movie, as here a line or two said by him come off sounding awkward. Tamsin Hollo plays a perfect Kanuka Clancy. There’s subtlety in her performance; she displays a foreignness and stoicism that’s very much a part of her character, without overdoing it. When she speaks you understand she’s not native, yet you get that she’s not fresh off the boat either. The direction is near perfect in this dub. A few one line characters come off sounding less than ideal, however, when looked at as a whole this is a great dub. Just not as amazing as the second movie, if only because Marinker has more lines in that. While all the actors are British, they put on authentic american accents for this film. Watch this dub!
Bandai Visual’s release is filled to the brim with extra features, booklets, brilliant DVD case, and plenty more. But this version lacks the good dub. Manga Entertainment’s version (the one to buy if you like dubs) is bare bone with bad video quality, but has the better dub. I do not own Maiden Japan’s Blu Ray, but it has the bad dub on it.
Ultimately what makes the film so good is the great actions by the many characters we care about deeply, like Kanuka, Noa, Asuma, and Goto. Additionally the chess battle between two brilliant minds, one of them being dead, is exciting to watch unfold. The Christian themes add another layer to this complex film. It helps that the dub is great too. The concept of run-away machines also seems ahead of its time, and was revisited in the 2003 TV series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Unlike the second film, some of the comedy of the TV series is still present in this. This is a film I highly recommend, the only real fault is it’s overshadowed by the pure brilliance of the second film (which everyone needs to see). And no I haven’t seen the third film yet. Maybe one day…
Positives: The “Chess Game” is fun to watch unfold, good characters doing good things, engaging, intelligent, well written, great dub (Manga UK’s London dub), and the linchpin ending is top notch stuff.
Negatives: Problematic and confusing dub (Bandai Visual’s L.A. dub), overshadowed by the better sequel, artwork and animation lower quality than expected.
* The screenshots were taken from Bandai Visual’s DVD release since their video quality is superior. I own both their release and Manga Entertainment’s release.