Patlabor: The Movie (1990) Movie Review

In the late 20th century, highly advanced robots, known as Labors, were created for construction purposes. Other labors were developed to be used in the military, for undersea exploration and even recreational purposes. However, with the growing amount of labors, there is an unfortunate side effect in the form of crimes involving the use of labors. These range from terrorist activity to drunken or disgruntled industrial workers running amok in their destructive robots of choice.

To combat this new type of crime, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department creates the Special Vehicles Section 2 (or SV2). The division has the use of Patrol Labors, or PATLABORS, which are labors specially designed for police purposes. There are two such units in the SV2: Shinobu Nugumo commands Unit One, and Captain Kiichi Goto commands the 2nd Unit.

Giant robots are a staple in Japanese anime, much like talking animals are in Disney animation. Throughout innumerable anime productions, robots have been big enough to sit in, small enough to fit in your pocket, and tough enough to use as fighters in battles against aliens and other robots. They can also level entire cities when called upon to do so. It would make sense that controlling these robots is a complicated process, probably requiring assistance from computers. And computers use operating systems; and of course, any operating system is bound to have flaws and bugs here and there, and some of those flaws are manmade. This is the premise of “Patlabor: The Movie.”

Viewers can be excused for expecting an action movie where robots beat holy hell out of each other when they’re not laying waste to the city. Indeed, the movie kicks things off as a military labor, a sort of hovering tank with legs, is hunted and finally disabled by a unit of the Japanese Self-Defense using troops, tanks, helicopters, and labors in a spectacular and wholly believable nighttime firefight. From there, the movie briefly recaps the “Patlabor” world and introduces the members of the 2nd Unit as they take out a runaway labor before settling into the meat of the story, which is at heart a slick and philosophical techno thriller.

“Patlabor” serves as a terrific introduction to director Mamoru Oshii (the “Ghost in the Shell” movies), whose style is striking. The handful of action sequences in the film are all top notch, but instead of going the predictable route by throwing one labor confrontation after another, Oshii understands the real conflict of the story is how and why the labors are going nuts. If the 2nd Unit can uncover the cause of these rampages, then they won’t have to deal with it. Not quite what you’d expect from a “cartoon”.

“Patlabor” is directed in a very restrained and subtle manner, sort of an anime film-noir. Exposition comes in the form of long stretches of dialogue more so than action scenes, all of it depicted in the trademark Japanese anime style. They’re not especially dynamic or exciting to watch, but they do fit the mood of the scenes. This artistic economy is also reflected in the storytelling. The pre-title sequence depicts the suicide of a character that will prove to be a crucial element of the mystery that unfolds. However, because he’s dead and the film doesn’t utilize flashbacks or time jumps, the character is never seen again. As members of the 2nd Unit follow the mystery of the labor rampages, they discover who the man is and what he was about.

But don’t think this is just some cerebral sci-fi chamber piece. The opening labor confrontation is extremely well drawn and animated, and lets viewers know right off the bat what’s at stake if more labors run amok. As for the finale, it serves to close out an incredibly well developed mystery where we’ve followed these characters and have come to understand their thought processes and motivations. It’s a perfect capper because the movie chose to tell its story from an unexpected angle, and yet still manages to give both “Patlabor” rookies and longtime fans the ending they demand.

Mamoru Oshii (director) / Kazunori Ito (screenplay), Masami Yûki (comic)
CAST: Shigeru Chiba …. Shigeo Shiba
Toshio Furukawa …. Asuma Shinohara
Issei Futamata …. Mikiyasu Shinshi

Buy Patlabor: The Movie on DVD