atlabor 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
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.