Stephen reviews: Patlabor: the Movie (1988)

patlabor1Patlabor: the Movie [機動警察パトレイバー 劇場版] (1988)
AKA Patlabor 1

Starring Miina Tominaga, Daisuke Gouri, Issei Futamata, Kouji Tsujitani, Michihiro Ikemizu,  Osamu Saka, Ryunosuke Ohbayashi, Shigeru Chiba

Directed by Mamoru Oshii

This film takes place back in 1999 when the police used giant robots called labors, hence the abbreviation of “patrol labor” into patlabor. What, you don’t remember getting pulled over by a giant robot? Man, if you were that drunk, then you really did deserve that ticket.

The film is a sequel to the TV series of the same name, but it stands on its own very well. I could tell that the characters and their roles had already been established, but I never felt too far out of the loop to understand the plot. The story itself is the primary focus of the film, and while the characters definitely have their personalities, it never focuses on any one person for very long. Instead it focuses on an investigation that the entire team is working on, with all the characters performing different duties.

patlabor13The idea of giant robots running around town gives an implication of a very action-oriented story, but it’s actually not. There are some great action sequences, which are gorgeously animated, that open and close the film, but mostly it is a police procedural. They just happen to be police officers that drive giant robots instead of cars. Going into this film with an expectation of having a ton of giant robots kicking ass will only leave you disappointed. They spend almost the entire middle section tracking down clues and figuring things out, but neither is the film a mystery. The villain is known right from the start, and in fact, he commits suicide at the beginning of the film. They aren’t trying to catch and punish him; they’re trying to stop his insane plan from taking effect.

Thousands of labors are now in use as construction vehicles around Tokyo, and a new operating system that is far faster and more efficient has just been released, decreasing construction time drastically. Naturally, everyone is installing the new OS on their labors since it’s so much better, but it was programmed by that crazy dude, and he slipped in a few hidden programs that occasionally cause the labors to go berserk. And with the programmer dead, the police have to figure out for themselves why the labors are going nuts and how to stop them.

I was a little disappointed in the villain’s big master plan, which felt rather far-fetched to me, but then what’s the point of a sci-fi adventure if not to be a bit far-fetched. Anyway, by then they were leading into the fun part of blowing up a tower and fighting off a horde of rampaging robots, so I was able to forgive it. Up until then, the detective footwork was able to keep me interested as they tackle the problem from different angles.

Mamoru Oshii displays some excellent visual style here. It reminds me in some ways of his live-action films, Red Spectacles, and Stray Dog. But thankfully, it has neither the sheer confusion of the former or the sheer boredom of the latter. The intricacies of the plot combine with the dramatic visuals to make things watchable despite essentially being a long conversation. I do wish there had been something to liven up the investigations, but it did manage to keep me from drifting off at least.

movie1altposterOne of the most surprising aspects of the film is its focus on computers. I’m sure there are plenty of people today that won’t understand what they’re talking about when they explain that the program has installed itself into the SRAM and perpetually rewrites the operating system as it gets deleted. I can only imagine how well people watching this 20 years ago would have fared. I was amazed at how focused it is on the computer technology and how well it represented infectious malware years before the word even existed and public awareness of such things was limited. The plot works as well today as did back in the ’80s. Maybe even better. After seeing this, it is no surprise that Mamoru Oshii would later go on to direct Ghost in the Shell, which also deals with futuristic technologies, and has very similar themes in some places.

Where the film left me unimpressed, however, was the comedy. The characters are constantly expressing exaggerated emotions and distorted facial expressions. It felt much like slapstick comedy at times, and it clashed with the more serious focus of the plot. I’ve seen anime juggle humor and drama very well, but this time it didn’t work out for me. I’ve read that the Patlabor movies are far darker than the series, but this film isn’t very dark at all, so the TV series would have to be rainbow-colored candy bright if that comparison is true. Or maybe I’m just messed up in the head and have too high expectations for something described as “dark.”

All in all, Patlabor balances out to be pretty good. While the lack of solid action through the majority of the film will turn away a large number of viewers who wanted giant robots smashing things up, there is still a good story if you open your eyes and pay attention to it. Even though it has some flaws, it has a lot going for it, and discerning anime fans should check it out for its intellectual plot bookended by some cool sci-fi action.


Futures Passed continues tomorrow with a bloodthirsty look at the year 2000. Any guesses?

7 comments to Stephen reviews: Patlabor: the Movie (1988)

  • This is one of those anime I always heard a lot about in the late ’90s, but I never knew exactly what a “Patlabor” was. I’m glad you finally cleared that up for me, and I like how the word comes from “patrol labor.” Although, I had always pronounced it pat-luh-bore, and now knowing where it comes from it seems like it ought to be pronounced pat-lay-ber. But that sounds dumb, so I’ll stick with how I did it before.

    Anyway, the movie sounds pretty good. I watched the first few minutes the other day when we were trying to hunt down movies and it seemed super robot action-packed. Interesting to find out that it’s more police procedural than anything else. Might have to watch it one of these days.

    Also loved that paragraph about the computer stuff and how ahead of its time it was. Even in 1999 that kind of talk was still strictly among the nerds, but it’s so impressive of a film from 1988 to tackle that kind of stuff. I know it’s the computer nerd in me, but I got so fired up reading about this aspect of the film.

    Oh, and speaking of giant robots, have you seen the trailer for Pacific Rim? It really looks like it has the potential to be a super fun giant robot vs. Godzilla-like giant lizard movie.

  • Stephen

    Well, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and keep pretending it’s French. In Japanese it comes across more like pah-toe-lay-bah. Although they don’t say the word very much, in fact i can’t remember them saying it at all, so it probably won’t crush your long held beliefs.

    I was blown away at how well it predicted computers in the future. I kept double checking the release date because I couldn’t believe it had been made in the ’80s. I’m not much of a computer geek, but it felt spot on to me. Definitely check this one out if it’s got your inner nerd all fired up.

    Pacific Rim looks like it has potential, although once the Glados voice from Portal showed up I wanted it to be a snarky comedy. I think I’m destined for disappointment now. And didn’t the trailer say the monster came from some dimensional portal? I think I’m ruining this movie for myself by over thinking it.

    • “pah-toe-lay-bah”? I think I will stick with my original pronunciation. ’88 definitely seems early to be discussing that sort of computer jargon, but perfectly fitting for a near-future movie. Good call, Oshii!

      Yeah that Glados voice in the trailer knocked me sideways for a second, but I just disregarded it and watched the spectacle. I don’t remember any dimensional portals being mentioned but that doesn’t mean they didn’t say it. But why does that kill it? …I just watched it again, they definitely say dimensional portal in the ocean. Whatever needs to happen so that giant robots fight giant lizards, I’m down. I really should start my kaiju series, maybe around this movie’s release.

      • Stephen

        I just meant that I’m giving myself all sorts of weird expectations that the film probably isn’t going to do, like tying it into Portal for no good reason.

        Still, I’ve never seen a modern giant monster vs giant robot movie (at least outside of anime anyway), so I’m not sure how to approach it without the goofy rubber suits.

        • Ah OK. The Glados voice is so distinct and a very odd choice for them to use in this way. I rationalized it as: This is our near future, when nerd culture has reached a fever pitch. We’re not only building giant robots and shit, we’re capable of doing this (which therefore means that nerds rule, although we still need the jocks to pilot the things). So naturally nerds love Portal, so they decided to give their AI its voice. I’m sure it’s just a not-so-subtle reference on the part of Guillermo del Toro, one of the planet’s biggest nerds, but who knows.

          I love the rubber suits and the little model Tokyos getting smashed more than the average person, and I’d prefer they continue doing it that way, but if you’re gonna go CG I think Pacific Rim looks pretty damn good. I hope it lives to my fun expectations. Also, Idris Elba is dope, and without him featuring prominently in the trailer I wouldn’t be half as pumped. He really brings it together for me.

  • I tried watching this, but I fell asleep.

    • Stephen

      I have a feeling lots of people will just be bored by this one. It does have a very slow pace, but the premise was interesting enough to me that I enjoyed it anyway.

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