Patlabor II

Patlabor_2Mamoru Oshii loves stillness. That the man can create action scenes of great tension and has a sense of humor means he can also invest his anime with the single most crucial (and missed) element for success: humanity.

This is a genre/artform guilty of technophilia at the expense of human feeling, where cardboard stand-ins and overcooked cliches have taken the place of characterization and motivation. Despite being highly political, about media, and existing well inside the standardized tropes of anime, Patlabor II is about something the only way art can be: it is about people doing things.

In general, Patlabor (the entire enterprise consists of a TV series, a couple of video series and, to date, three movies) is atypical for anime. It approaches the giant robot genre from a unique perspective: that of the working men and women who have to drive the damned things. The TV series is a police procedural, with interesting departures examining the various subcultures within the Mobile Police Force – the mechanics, the pilots, the support staff, and the brass. They all get their due.

Such background info. is important because without it one is lost in the sea of the film. The story focuses on two Mobile Police captains of separate divisions. They work together to discover who is behind a terrorist bombing of a bridge. Tensions escalate, different government factions shift the blame onto each other, and Tokyo is placed under martial law, supplanting the Mobile Police Force.

Political density and subtle characterization are the two most impressive features of the film. The action is largely relegated to scenes at the beginning and end (the latter being almost identical to the tank assault at the end of Ghost In The Shell, Oshii’s next film), and is quite secondary to the questions the film raises: Is it moral for Japan to try to exist apart from the world, since their long peace is really brought about by the blood and treasure of other nations, particularly the U.S.? Characters make serious arguments both for and against Japan’s “Unjust Peace,” and, to the degree that it’s revealed, the purpose of the film’s antagonist is to try and wake Japan up from its long slumber.

What would such an awakening entail? A return to fascist imperialism? An active but enlightened foreign policy? Amongst Patlabor II‘s failures is an inability to examine all the implications that its fascinating political questions raise, but in the face of what is so largely a successful film, the complaint seems minor. This is a rare thing for Japanese cinema (or at least for a Japanese film with wide Western distribution): it seriously considers Japan’s place in the world without resorting to the scapegoating so typical of such fare. Perhaps it is because Japan has never been colonized by a Western power. Films from former imperial colonies have a tendency to point fingers everywhere but within. Patlabor II is a much more intellectually serious affair.

The seriousness is reflected in Oshii’s typically somber direction. Images are held for extended shots, and some are repeated till what they are or what they represent becomes obscure – just as the situation in the story is obscured, and one cannot tell why events are transpiring, since the motives of the various characters get muddied. Oshii uses images where a lesser director might rely on words and exposition instead.

There’s plenty to complain about in Patlabor II. If you haven’t seen the TV show (and I’ve only watched 5 episodes), then the film will be confusing, since most of the characters have no real introduction. It also moves slowly, and the conclusion is neither as satisfying nor as revelatory as it might have been.

But heck, look at the rest of the field. Patlabor II has something akin to real people acting in something akin to reality. That the film comes s
hort of ambition is not the surprise. In a genre, and indeed a medium, where skating by on cliche and repetition is common, the fact that it has any ambition at all is the real surprise.
Rating: B


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