Nearly a decade after “Patlabor: The Movie 2” comes “W(asted)XIII,” the long-awaited third Patlabor feature. Like its predecessors, “WXIII” is a science-fiction/thriller set in a semi-futuristic world where human-piloted robots (or “labors”) are part of everyday industry. Previous movies, TV shows, and made-for-video episodes had centered on the adventures of the Special Vehicles Section 2, the Tokyo Metropolitan P.D.’s “Pat(rol)labor” division, and their encounters with petty criminals, industrial terrorists, and other assorted techno-criminals.
“WXIII” is a “side-story,” taking place within “Patlabor’s” universe one year after the events of the first movie and two years prior to the second one. Side-stories are a well-used gimmick in Japanese animation, with “The Animatrix” being an example of a “Matrix” side-story. “WXIII” features a new creative team led by director Takuji Endo and co-writers Yuuki Masami and Tori Maki, with animation production by Madhouse Studios (“Ninja Scroll”).
The movie focuses on two brand new characters, Detectives Takeshi Kusumi and Shinichiro Hata of the Tokyo Metropolitan PD, with original “Patlabor” cast members appearing in cameo roles. The story is a police procedural, involving the search for those responsible for a series of attacks on labors around Tokyo Bay. As the movie opens, Hata is pitching for the police division’s baseball team when he’s called to the scene of a labor attack, where Kusumi is waiting. Later, Hata meets and gives a ride to Saeko, a woman whose car broke down. Thus begins an odd courtship between the soft-spoken cop and the mysterious woman.
During the course of their investigation, Kusumi and Hata happen to tag along with some uniformed patrolmen assigned to check out a labor worksite during a power blackout. There, they come face to face with a giant monster — part fish, part reptile, and all carnivore. Hata and Kusumi escape (the two uniforms aren’t so lucky) and focus in on discovering exactly what the creature is and how it came to be. And somehow tied into the investigation is Saeko, who is still haunted by the deaths of her husband and daughter, and is presently in the employ of a genetic research firm.
“WXIII” takes the same approach as the prequels, presenting its fantastic story in a very sober and dramatic way. For a franchise that prominently features giant robots, “Patlabor” has always eschewed typical giant robot “mecha” action, and “WXIII” keeps up the tradition but changes things up a bit — some for the better, some not. For one thing, as state of the art as “WXIII’s” production is, director Endo’s visual style is very matter-of-fact and understated, a fact stressed by the extremely detailed and realistic character designs. However, the movie lacks the strong visual sense and subtle humor that director Mamoru Oshii brought to the previous installments.
To its credit, “WXIII” does feature high-level production values that are readily evident. The police labors, as well as the city of Tokyo itself, have never been animated this well in any previous “Patlabor” incarnation, thanks in part to some very subtle and nearly invisible CG. Additionally, as bizarre as the title creature is (it looks like a giant mutant salamander with the head from H.R. Geiger’s Alien), the animators have given it a very real and tangible onscreen presence, the kind that’s lacking in many live-action movies.
“WXIII” was director Endo’s rookie feature, and he has made a movie that’s serious to the point of being sobering. It reminded me of “Unbreakable” and “Signs” and the way director M. Night Shyamalan took on generic fantasy and science fiction ideas, but presented them in a uniquely serious way.
“WXIII” also presents death and violence in a very visceral manner that’s a marked change from previous entries in the franchise. For the first time in a Patlabor movie, we see characters die and bleed, though this is still not enough to warrant the R-rating the movie got for its brief theatrical run. Being that the basis of the threat is biological rather than technological, it makes sense for the movie to get down and dirty with the blood and bodies.
Takuji Endo, Fumihiko Takayama (director) / Yuuki Masami, Tori Miki (screenplay)
CAST: Katsuhiko Watabiki …. Senior Detective Takeshi Kusumi
Hiroaki Hirata …. Detective Shinichiro Hata