Mamoru Oshii is best known for being a cerebral and experimental director, but even he had to cut his teeth on more relatively humdrum stuff for openers. It's tempting to say that an artist's personality is present in every part of his work, even when he's doing his works for hire, and an argument can be made that back when he was working on things like one of the feature-film installments for the Urusei Yatsura franchise, Oshii was still Oshii, even if only in miniature. Patlabor: The Movie is definitely Oshii in miniature, in the sense that barring the most fleeting of elements, there's nothing that would lead anyone to know he had a hand in it.
This has, I admit, an upside. Patlabor ranks among the least pretentious and most approachable of projects sporting Oshii's name, even if the cost of that is for it to contain so very little that is unmistakably his as we have come to know him. Oshii was also involved with the TV-series version of the franchise, where he wrote a number of episodes, so it's not as if this was his one-and-only involvement with it. But for someone coming in cold from his later projects, Patlabor is bound to be disorienting, if enjoyable. If you knew casually that the first part of Oshii's career featured titles like this, Patlabor is not a bad way to lead into an education about those early years.
It's not entirely required that you see the other Patlabor OVAs to enjoy the film, but there's little question the movie capitalizes on that knowledge whenever it can. For those who weren't around for the original briefing, though, the movie recaps most of the vital points of its setting through a few introductory monologues. Not far in the future (1999, by the movie's days-of-future-past calendar), demand for human-piloted exosuit-like robots named "Labors" has skyrocketed, not least of all to build the seawalls that keep the rising oceans at bay. With any new technology comes new crimes, and so the heroes of the story are part of a police unit tasked with investigating Labor-related crime.
The original OVA's tone was jokey and high-spirited; the action was designed at least as much for laughs as spectacle. (Japan's live-action cop-comedy TV series Bayside Shakedown, which came later, embodied something of the same tone as well.) The Movie continues in much the same vein, with hero and heroine Asuma Shinohara and Noa Izumi looking into a series of incidents where Labors have apparently gone berserk on their own.
The pressure's on to find an answer, given the number of Labors currently in use for a high-profile construction job. Dubbed "The Ark", it's a massive multi-storied man-made island, the sort of thing one would glimpse on the horizon of a Roger Dean painting. It's being assembled as part of a larger urban-renewal initiative to drain Tokyo Bay and make it habitable, the "Babylon Project" (the movie is not subtle with its references).
At first the culprit seems straightforward enough: all the affected Labors were loaded with a new version of their manufacturer's operating system, HOS. (The movie was released in 1989, and so the gags about holding the manufacturer responsible for its perpetually buggy software now seem all the more amusingly on-target in retrospect.) Things are complicated all the more by the fact HOS's programmer, Eiichi Hoba — his name is used as the basis for yet another cross-cultural Biblical in-joke — was a nutjob who deliberately planted said bugs in HOS, and who committed suicide shortly after setting in motion a plan to allow Tokyo to devastate itself. Now the team has to unravel the mechanics of his plan, and do their best not to trip over their own socks while doing so.
An earlier model of Oshii
When I first watched Patlabor: The Movie, my original impulse was to shake my head at how Oshii hadn't been given a chance to be himself, how he had been hidebound by the material and forced to deliver a product. I soon disabused myself of the idea, not just out of the realization that I was watching all this from a present-time point of view, but that the "typical" Oshii approach wouldn't even have worked for this material. Do you really want to take something that's supposed to be as rompish and lighthearted as Patlabor and turn it into the animated version of a Terrence Malick production? Actually, Oshii went ahead and did that with another Japanese SF property whose original incarnation was also a good deal more flippant and freewheeling than his version: Ghost in the Shell.
With that aside, I found myself noticing more the stuff in the show that stood on its own merits, rather than requiring Oshii's presence alone to be interesting. I always enjoy seeing how a story from decades past tackles issues that remain current and tricky, like the impact of technology on daily life, something Shell fans ought to nod their heads at. Patlabor had a late-Eighties outlook on such things, but it's surprising — and mordantly funny — how prescient it is in the little details that matter. When HOS turns out to be buggy, the manufacturer pulls a Microsoft and prepares a replacement, declaring "to avoid any public commotion, the process will be billed as a free upgrade." That and their version of 1999 wasn't too far removed from ours in terms of how everyday technology had progressed; we were still using removable disks, CRT monitors were still prevalent, and so on.
What doesn't happen — and this is where Oshii's touch is most missed — is for any of those insights to be part of some bigger insight into the nature of how we live technology rather than merely use it (as Godfrey Reggio of the Qatsi films once said). None of it ties into how the story actually resolves, which is by way of one of those gimmicky fight scenes where the hero has to do X to Y to get Z to happen. Most of how he manifests in ways familiar to more recent viewers are through individual elements — the Biblical references dropped by the story's Big Bad, for instance, or the meditative shots of Shinohara poking through the city's ruined backwaters. The latter in particular is almost like an outtake from those slow-motion travelogue sequences in Ghost in the Shell, except at normal speed and with some marginal relevance to the plot.
The original Patlabor OVAs were a mix of amusing banter between the team members and action, and here it's about the same, with a bit of shoe-leather detective work thrown in. The actual action is confined to three segments — a cold-open shoot-em-up that opens the film, a riotous chase of a runaway Labor; and an extended showdown where Shinohara and his cohorts try to scuttle the Ark and fend off security robots while a hurricane bears down on them. But it's splendidly animated — all hand-drawn, with only the most old-school CGI effects for things like heads-up displays or the imagery on a monitor. I do have to wonder how scruffy and antiquated things like hand-drawn mecha must look to today's audiences; where a connoisseur would see something that required hours of labor, someone today might only see uneven lines that shudder and twitch between one frame and the next. Some of this is comes from a rethinking of my own purism on the subject: who's to say CGI-generated imagery doesn't require a level of toil and precision to match that of hand-drawn work?
In the same way, who's to say that Patlabor: The Movie is any less just because Mamoru Oshii's involvement with the title isn't along the lines of his more, well, Oshii-esque work? Its aims are never immodest; it moves briskly and doesn't overstay its welcome, and it serves as a good introduction to the general flavor of the series that inspired it. Plus, there's a sequel. One, if memory serves, with more basset hounds in it.