“Patlabor 2”, the sequel to 1990’s “Patlabor: The Movie”, examines the unique status of Japan in the modern world. The country is an economic world power, but due to the constitution drafted after World War II by the Allies, Japan is not allowed a military presence outside its borders. Hence, its military, the ones we’ve all seen getting whomp by Godzilla, is the Japanese Self-Defense Force and its purpose is just that — self-defense only.
But in 1992, the National Diet, the legislative branch of Japan’s government, passed the U.N. Peacekeeping Cooperation Law that permits the SDF to participate in U.N. operations under strictly limited conditions. In the same year, the JSDF participated in U.N. peacekeeping and monitoring operations in Cambodia and Mozambique. For some Japanese, this is a pretty scary thought, as it was an aggressive military that led the country to ruin before and during World War II. Director Mamoru Oshii (“Ghost in the Shell”) and writer Kazunori Itoh, the men behind “Patlabor 2”, shares that opinion.
The clever thing about the “Patlabor” series is that it’s set at the dawn of tomorrow, like the world of John Carpenter’s Snake Plisskin. It’s a future we can relate to because people still live with some of same problems; they just have cooler gadgets to get by with. This allows the filmmakers to look at current events with a “what if” future hindsight.
“Patlabor 2” starts with a title card that tells us we’re in Southeast Asia and the year is 1999. A unit of JSDF military labors led by Capt. Yukihito Tsuge is set upon in the dense jungle by an unnamed enemy platoon. Due to rules of engagement, Tsuge’s unit isn’t allowed to defend itself properly and is wiped out, with Tsuge being the only survivor. Flash forward three years. Most of the characters from the “Patlabor” prequel have gone their separate ways, but Captains Shinobu Nugumo and Kiichi Goto are still in charge of the Special Vehicles Section of patrol labors.
The film’s main storyline begins with an air dropped bomb destroying the Tokyo Bay Bridge, and in the media frenzy that follow, the culprit is identified as a Japanese Air Force fighter. The Tokyo Metropolitan PD and the JSDF become embroiled in a power struggle over who has authority in this situation, resulting in the military occupation of the city and martial law declared. But soon it becomes clear that a terrorist group led by the embittered and enigmatic Tsuge is simply manipulating them for his own purposes.
“Patlabor 2”, in what might be a first for a mainstream animated movie from any country, delivers a science-fiction mystery thriller laced with heavy doses of political philosophy. Again, the labors are here to provide background while the story is told primarily through long conversations where the topic is the role Japan plays in the world stage, as well as the separation of police and military authority. This is heady stuff they’re talking about, and in an animated movie no less. It’s to the credit of director Oshii and writer Itoh that whether you agree with their sentiments or not, the movie delivers its message without coming off didactic or patronizing.
And this being an Oshii movie, there’s no shortage of arresting visuals that manage to stretch the most out of traditional “limited” Japanese animation. Whether it’s a dramatically lit nighttime dialogue scene in a moving car or a montage depicting the omnipresence of the military after the JSDF moves into Tokyo, there’s always something onscreen that catches your eye and keeps your attention.
As in the first “Patlabor” movie, number 2 serves up an extended action sequence to punctuate the ending. Interestingly enough, this sequence is almost an afterthought to the main plot, since by then the plot threads have been sewn up and for the most part the good guys, the bad guys, and those guys that fall somewhere in between, have been identified and seen to. “Patlabor 2,” like “Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country” (aka the 2nd Best “Star Trek” Movie Of All Time), is meant to give fans of a well-regarded franchise their last look at the characters before closing the book on their adventures. (“Patlabor the Movie 3: WXIII” was set between movies 1 and 2).
While the characters had matured and gone their separate ways, the familial ties built up over the course of the prequel, original TV series, and made-for-video releases, are reinforced here, as viewers are treated to one last team effort by the SV2. This lends an appropriate tone of melancholy to the film and it’s a credit to Oshii and Itoh that they still deliver one great movie in the process. Animation and science fiction don’t get any better than this.
Mamoru Oshii (director) / Kazunori Ito (screenplay)
CAST: MÃ®na Tominaga …. Noa Izumi
Toshio Furukawa …. Asuma Shinohara
Michihiro Ikemizu …. Isao Ohta
Issei Futamata …. Mikiyasu Shinshi