(Japan 1993 113 min)
Director Mamoru Oshii; Writer Kazunori Ito; Music Kenji Kawai; Set Decoration Satoshi Kon
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
Of all animated films Patlabor 2 : The Movie, in tone, subject and style, is the last one for which you could say: “This could only be done in animation”. The film, much as Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, reconfigures perceptions of what subjects an animated film may broach; how it feels, how it unfolds.
The film concerns the attempts of a disillusioned and disenfranchised former head (called Tsuge) of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force to destabilise Tokyo with terrorist attacks designed to provoke civil and international war. The Patlabor unit of mecha (giant man-controlled robots) is deployed to try and pull the city back from the brink and dissolve Martial Law.
The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) has caused controversy in real life over its roles and remits – whether it can operate abroad or only on Japanese soil. A disastrous mission in Cambodia as part of a UN peacekeeping initiative led to the death of a soldier and great unrest. This is echoed in the first scene of Patlabor 2 where the Labors (the mecha machines) are comprehensively defeated in “South East Asia” and only one man, Tsuge, survives.
It is as if Tsuge (and maybe Oshii, who opposed the JGSDF’s use abroad) wishes to draw the poison that still courses through the city’s veins where memories and wounds of war remain unassimilated. He wants a revenge of sorts too.
The film makes you ponder on concepts of unjust peace and just war with a non-didactic approach counter to the clumsier musings of Ghost in the Shell. Yet Patlabor 2’s greatest achievement is not in its political discourse (cleverly incorporated and disguised) but in its sustained creation of atmosphere. It is an eerie mood piece that not once breaks its spell over the audience (see video below). In this respect it is closer to Oshii’s Angel’s Egg rather than what at first glance may seem the more apt comparison with Ghost in the Shell.
From the long wordless sequences of planes flying overhead or tanks rolling onto the streets, elevated with an unnatural, beautiful, disconcertingly angelic synth soundtrack, Patlabor 2 bleeds themes as feelings better left unspoken : warm bodies in cold mecha constructs, people lost in a world of communication, of ignorance, of dread, even of nostalgia. The city is in limbo and holds its breath. Scenes of unbearable tension move smoothly into others as the Patlabor team (official, unofficial, with the law but beyond it) fights to fight no longer.
Much like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, Patlabor 2 essays a wholly ‘cinematic’ feel. The drawn images mimic the characteristics and conventions of a camera in a live-action feature: fish-eye lens, blurring, shifting of focus. These effects are not intrusive and do not come across as pretentious. You forget that it is animated (which is neither a good or a bad thing in and of itself) and find yourself thinking that they are filming a parallel world that looks like an animated one.
In fact, one begins to wish that live-action films had these kinds of qualities – the right shot at the right time and a realisation that a story doesn’t require constant action and change. A film doesn’t have to move along, it can also move within and deepen itself through contemplation and sedimentation of atmosphere.
Mamoru Oshii was also one of the directors and storyboarders for a fun Japanese series, Urusei Yatsura (about an alien girl who believes she is betrothed to an Earth boy), directing two of the show’s film spin-offs Urusei Yatsura : Only You and Urusei Yatsura 2 : Beautiful Dreamer. Patlabor 2 is one of the movie spin-offs of what was originally a straight to video series as well as a manga.
Oshii is able to pull off different kinds of story, understanding the needs of each. With Patlabor 2 The Movie the stodgy and dry world of the political thriller is made exciting, riveting, meditative and not for one second is it dumbed down. It is pure class.