The crown jewel of the Patlabor franchise and one of the finest anime films ever made
Spoilers to follow…
To be direct, I love 1993’s Patlabor 2 and five days of the week, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it Mamoru Oshii’s best film. With each return visit, I love it more and more, and it never fails to live in my head, rent-free, for weeks afterward. There’s always something I can find a new appreciation for. A stray line of dialogue that suddenly brings its ideas into greater focus. A quick little detail in the animation or storyboarding that I somehow missed before that puts a huge grin on my face. Or simply just an even greater appreciation for the last outing, barring an awkward cameo nearly a decade later, of one of anime’s great ensemble casts. I’ve seen it said that Isao Takahata’s work yields new perspectives as you age, which is certainly true, but I’m finding that even more so, Oshii is landing much harder with me as I move through my 30s. Few films, anime or otherwise, fill me with such a complete sense of satisfaction and fascination to dig in as Oshii’s fantastically nuanced and surprisingly mature finale to the Patlabor saga.
Initially bouncing off of it years ago after blasting through the original OVA and first film in quick succession, I wasn’t really prepared for what it has in store, and honestly, I don’t think that’s a rare reaction. Even now, I struggle to fully articulate my feelings for it. On the surface, Patlabor 2 is a layered political thriller that deemphasizes many of the qualities that marked earlier entries and that can be very alienating. The regular cast of energetic Labor pilots and their backups don’t see nearly as much screentime as their decidedly middle-aged superior officers who spend much of their days behind desks. The loud, elastic comedic energy has been muted by a brisk winter setting. Even the titular robots have been largely transported into several thematic threads, never looking better but only making their material presence known during the opening scenes and a final claustrophobic tunnel assault. In their place is a significantly more restrained film, meditating on war, peace, and policing that while not as labyrinthian as Innocence, is certainly one of Oshii’s most densely intimidating works to date. Tackling more complex issues than the series has ever approached—with many ideas and images remaining sharply relevant to this day—Patlabor 2 puts a lot on your plate, and I think its dry approach turns people off, I know it certainly did for a younger me. But looking beneath the complicated web of twists and turns, where many of the moving parts exist off-screen and the central thrust of the film being deeply rooted in Japan’s real-world political discourse of the early 1990s, you’ll find an understated humanity at its core that ties everything together and resonates with me more and more as the years go by.
While Patlabor 2 has much of the returning staff from prior entries, creative collective Headgear, composed of director Mamoru Oshii, screenwriter Kazunori Ito, character designers Akemi Takada and Masami Yuuki, and mechanical designer Yutaka Izubuchi, don’t rest on past stylistic choices and push nearly every aspect of the production to new heights, fully embracing a level of visual realism rarely seen in anime and challenging the audience with a significantly more adult approach to character and narrative. Right out of the gate, Production I.G. makes a strong distinction from previous material, with Oshii drawing on his work in live-action with storyboarding that takes great efforts to imitate the presence of physical camera work. Familiar characters have had most of their exaggerated features refined, transforming them into believably human actors. Subtle facial cues and small shifts in weight replace the broad cartoony expressions. The regular voice cast brings a more weighted and lived-in experience to their roles, where the quiet delivery of a fleeting line can speak volumes. And oftentimes silence does more than dialogue ever could. A murderer’s row of talented mechanical designers including Izubuchi, Shoji Kawamori, and Hajime Katoki meticulously bring rather unsexy real-world machinery like tanks and helicopters to life, presenting them as cold weapons of war without flair or angling for model kits. Even the solemn winter is a stark contrast to the first film, which was set during a sweltering summer where the cast was constantly on the verge of melting and emotions ran high. Patlabor 2‘s February cold swallows up sound and color and it is a testament to the many layout and background artists that film’s unremarked upon short days and long nights can bring on my seasonal affective disorder in the summer. Kenji Kawai’s score is downbeat and menacing, building thumping and humming tension and releasing it to the wind over big celebratory cues. Decades later, Patlabor 2 is still a powerhouse of production design, technical skill, and artistry that stands above nearly everything else.
Loosely borrowing from the original OVA two-parter “The SV2’s Longest Day,” a shadowy group attempts to destabilize Japan with a series of attacks that push tensions between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the police force into a full-blown occupation of Tokyo by the former. In the three years since the first movie, most of the familiar faces of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2—the SV2—have moved on in their careers and left the strip of reclaimed land behind, leaving only Goto, Nagumo, Yamazaki, and Shige at the station house with a new crop of officers. Noa and Asuma are using their experience in the field to develop new Labor technology. Ota has settled in as drill instructor for new cadets, finding a slightly less destructive outlet for his usual eyes-popping-out-of-his-head energy. And Shinshi has outgrown his timid personality and been promoted to a bureaucratic position at HQ. Following the first attack, a missile strike on a bridge with dubious evidence pointing towards a JSDF jet, Commanders Goto and Nagumo are approached by Arakawa, a less than scrupulous information officer, banking on their reputations as black sheep among the police force to investigate the truth. And while many things have shifted in focus, it wouldn’t be a proper Patlabor caper without the eternally put upon Detective Matsui chasing down leads and the maintenance crew pulling a fast one while no one is looking.
Patlabor: The Movie presented Tokyo as a city with a storied history and character slowly being demolished and overtaken by a rapidly expanding future full of unsure technology and hurdles, and Patlabor 2 continues this idea of being caught in an awkward present. Though here positioning Japan as a supposedly peaceful nation whose modern profile has been defined by wars of the past, benefitting and profiteering from contemporary conflicts around the world, and its rocky relationship with policing this illusory peace. At the center of the film is the rarely seen Yukihito Tsuge, left vulnerable by a denied request to return fire during a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Southeast Asia three years prior, who returns to Japan to shatter this fantasy through acts of terrorism. Oshii places a great emphasis on the obscuring lenses that divide observers from reality—strobing CRT monitors, untrustworthy video recordings, abstracted digital environments, radars, a pair of glasses, and even people’s own unwillingness to look at the truth of the situation—and the discord and confusion that results. Tsuge exploits these lenses, the very real missile he sends at a bridge doing far less damage than the manipulation of a few frames of videotape or the phantom signature of a rogue jet on a radar screen, but his ultimate goal is to tear them down and reveal the truth that while the country has not seen the ugliness of war in a half-century, it is always there, just out of view.
Arakawa muses to Goto during a long, hypnotic river ride (which has since become a signature of Oshii’s) that Japan has been in a sort of arrested development since WWII, feeding and growing off conflict far from its shores while remaining in denial, hiding the blood on its hands behind prosperity and the noble veil of forsaking war. And this refusal to own its actions pushes it ever closer to divine judgment, or in His place, the people delivering a verdict. In what has proven to be the most timeless scene of the film, the JSDF rolls its armed forces into Tokyo after the police jump the gun making several preemptive high profile arrests of military personnel, setting the country on the brink of civil war. The city enters a dream-like state of occupation with Kawai’s score truly shining. Tanks sit at intersections. Military Labors guard key locations as passing school children smile and wave to them. Fully armored soldiers stand at the ready with assault rifles in front of clothing stores. The military-industrial machine that a so-called peaceful modern society tries to politely hide from everyday life has crashed into the daily routine. The complicity is in plain sight. I can’t speak for how these images of realistic military hardware sitting in the middle of residential metropolitan spaces or soldiers sleepily watching snow beginning to fall on a silent city from their posts landed with audiences in Japan in 1993, but as an American in 2020, watching the daily dissolving line between police and military forces as they are routinely deployed against their own citizens renders these scenes as far more familiar and commonplace than they were likely ever intended to be. Simultaneously chilling and surreal.
Patlabor‘s relationship with policing up until this point had been not exactly benign but fairly mild. The bureaucracy had always been seen as uncaring and indecisive in moments of crisis, marred by political maneuvering and public relations efforts, and the SV2 was frequently sidelined as outsiders, exiled from the main body but their roles as officers of the law weren’t directly interrogated. Even by the time of the original Patlabor OVA, Oshii was already several entries into his Kerberos Saga, a cycle of stories about the brutality, corruption, and downfall of a militarized fascist police force and along with his involvement with the student protest movement of the 1960s, referenced heavily in his work, shows a strong dislike but none the less interest in unpacking corrupt bodies of authority. With Patlabor 2, this relationship becomes outright hostile, with the police looking to assert political dominance using Tsuge’s attacks as a pretense while being completely oblivious to the fact that they’re playing right into his hands. Their eyes far removed from the reality of what is happening and flexing their muscles using the excuse of upholding order only ends up creating more chaos that costs lives, driving Tsuge’s point home. In the most heated scene, Nagumo and Goto are grilled by the brass for taking steps to get ahead of the unfolding chaos. Sitting under a banner reading “Noble Aspiration,” the decision-makers of domestic law and order defend their brash actions and refuse to take any responsibility for their role in the escalation of events. Even as they insist on painting the situation as under control, Tsuge’s forces are outside cutting lines of communication with helicopter strikes all over the city. Oshii and Ito, already well-established collaborators, have no sympathy for this blind system that only exists to further its own gains and it is one of the few clear cut wins of the film when Goto and Nagumo fight their way out of the building after venting their frustrations to their bosses’ faces.
I’m compressing and likely shortchanging a great deal of the film’s political and societal mediations. It’s a complicated movie that invites different readings, and I am by no means well equipped to grapple with many of the specifics concerning Japan’s participation in U.N. military actions or the impositions of the post-war constitution. I think these are all engrossing ideas that continue to provide insight into the workings of the world and make for a piercing thriller on their own but what really hooks me about Patlabor 2, and what I think tends to go underappreciated when talking about the film, is the human element that guides everything. At its heart, Patlabor 2 is about facing the reality of one’s self with clear eyes, cutting through illusions, and looking towards the future. Everything about the film works in concert for this. Tsuge isn’t just a cold cog in the machinery of the narrative, he’s a past flame of Nagumo’s, who she still hasn’t let go of. Just as he forces Japan to confront its relationship with war and peace, Goto, Nagumo, and Noa all quietly reckon with themselves.
During the opening credits, we catch up with Noa and Asuma working at Shinohara Heavy Industries, one of the major robotics companies in Patlabor‘s world, running tests on a next-generation Labor. Noa goes about operating the basic motor functions and new interfaces. The friendly rounded shape of Alphonse, a machine she had previously treated as a pet, is nowhere to be seen and there’s an intimidating unfamiliarity to her test gear. The fingers respond to her own with nearly 1:1 precision. The intricate headset displays detailed readouts directly in front of her eyes and a digital environment (an early foray in CGI that Oshii would expand upon in Ghost in the Shell) from multiple camera feeds all over its body is displayed on screens in front of her. The complex mechanics of the Labor’s leg allows her to stop on a dime when Asuma sends a virtual cat into her path from the nearby control room. But when she steps out, with ears now visibly pierced, the hardware is a mere skeleton, safely fixed in place, far from the free moving mock-up seen on the monitors. This new form is coming along but far from complete. Not just one of the greatest showcases of mechanical animation put to film, the scene is a quite overt depiction of a matured Noa learning to walk in a new body. I honestly cannot believe it took me so long to recognize it as a direct spiritual precursor to Ghost in the Shell‘s opening credits.
The pair head over to visit Alphonse in a nearby hanger, decommissioned and now used as a data collection tool, their interactions are less exaggerated than in the past, quieter and more intimate, with the weight of a long friendship behind them. When asked if she wants to take her old mechanical companion out for a ride, Noa can’t find the words to express why she doesn’t need to anymore but gives it one last gaze. Patlabor has always stressed that the machines are mere tools but that idea in the marrow of mecha anime that the robots are literal vehicles of their pilot’s humanity, larger, stronger bodies better equipped to face the world and its troubles, underpins the scene. Personal growth and letting go can be a bittersweet thing. Even before the terrorism plot has kicked into gear, Patlabor 2 has its cards on the table.
Though Noa gets that early crucial scene, in many ways, it’s Nagumo’s movie, her past with Tsuge anchoring the entire thing as she tries to chase him down and wrestle with her unresolved feelings. She is ultimately the one to face him after the SV2 fights their way past his drones and their meeting is charged with an array of emotion. She is naturally angry at the national existential crisis he has orchestrated, but there’s a hint in her voice that his disappearance from her life still carries a personal sting, and when he says that the country must be punished for the sin of living complacently within the bloodied peace, she becomes resolute as she slaps cuffs on him. Though even as she does so, their hands come together tenderly and eyes meet. Goto watches from afar, finally letting go of his lingering hopes for a romantic relationship with his comrade, feelings that have defined the pair’s dynamic up until this point through all prior entries. The final time we see him, there’s a smile of relief on his face, like a weight has finally been lifted from his shoulders. And earlier, on their way back to Tokyo, Noa declares to Asuma that she won’t be defined as just a girl who likes robots and they push forward through a snowstorm. Finally, Nagumo, who is last seen looking exhausted, hollowed out by the experience. This nation and these people face these mirages, lingering personal shadows, or fantasies that stall them, head-on, and in doing so, are perhaps liberated from them. While Oshii does not show us what comes next, either in the aftermath of the near civil war, stated to have been a bloody affair, or what is in store for the members of the SV2 down the road, Tsuge declining to commit suicide after his plan is derailed in favor of wanting to see more carries a strong note of hope.
When Goto confronts Arakawa later on, revealed to be a member of Tsuge’s group, and states that “public servants who aren’t upright fall into two categories: villains and Allies of Justice,” it’s something out a day time television show for children, but it acknowledges that the only people out in the fray trying to stop Tsuge’s engineered conflict don’t fit with the establishment. It’s the film’s farthest step into an outright fantasy that a group of plucky misfits exist on the fringes to push past the limitations of the system for the greater good, but hope has always run strong in Patlabor. There’s no point of no return that signals the downfall of humanity, there’s no final verdict. The future is unwritten. The cops might actually work to serve and protect and we can change and learn to meet whatever hurdles present themselves. Patlabor 2 may be the franchise as its most somber, but the possibility for improvement and reassessment remains. On their bike ride over to Alphonse’s hanger home, Asuma says to Noa, “people can adapt to pretty much anything” when talking about the difficulty of new Labor developments. Patlabor 2 isn’t about accepting bad circumstances and turning away from reality. It’s about understanding the past, facing the present, and using those experiences as tools to face the future. This is Patlabor‘s optimism, stronger than ever.
Intended from the get-go as an ending to the franchise that had exploded on to the scene in the late 1980s with multiple animated projects, novels, and manga, Patlabor 2 is utterly indifferent to the idea of giving the lovable scamps of the SV2 one last celebratory ride into the sunset. Instead offering the less flashy notion that life, of individuals, organizations, and nations is more a series of small credit rolls moving through careers, relationships, stages of merely existing in the world. That nothing can stay the same forever, and shouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that transition is always a clean affair. The static idea of the SV2 family has already been done away with before the title drops. These stalled states of living, for Japan and the cast, are unhealthy and limiting, something to be pushed through. Change is necessary but it can be hard, bringing sadness, compromise, and maybe ultimately catharsis with it. Noa actively works to expand herself. Goto accepts that romance isn’t to be with a smile. And Nagumo takes her trial the hardest but it was necessary to undergo. Unlike a lot of anime concerning transformation, Patlabor 2 isn’t about the transition from adolescence but more about how adulthood isn’t a monolithic state of being and that we can continue to grow and redefine ourselves, out of both necessity and desire. The previous film ended with a triumphant hand to hand clash between Noa’s iconic Ingram, Alphonse, and an overtly menacing successor machine controlled by a computer virus. It’s slam-bang entertainment that perfectly suits the film’s goals. Here, Oshii ends on a quiet moment mixing melancholy and curiosity, reflections on hypocrisy, missed opportunities, and the march of time. This is by no means a knock against either film, I wouldn’t dream of it, the two simply have vastly different priorities. Patlabor 2 offers no easy solutions because the issues at hand cannot be resolved with a robot fistfight, no matter how cool.
In struggling to lay out my thoughts on Patlabor 2, I am confident that I bit off more than I could chew. It’s a daunting movie to talk about but one that I’ve wanted to try to hash out for a long time. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the truth of the movie yet or hauled out all of its riches, there’s just so much to engage within its 113 minutes. Check out all those birds looming over everything! The robots become even more obvious instruments of their pilots’ expressions when they’re equipped with clothing in the third act. Despite claims to the contrary, there is in fact a sense of humor, wonderfully mannered and wry. It’s quiet and sad and doesn’t offer a lot of solid answers to its many open-ended questions. The cast doesn’t get a lot of time in the spotlight and the politics can be a lot but that underlying emotional intelligence makes it a gut punch for me every single time. The film isn’t the ending that many might want and that’s kind of the point. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it and I certainly don’t believe Patlabor 2‘s sharp insights will dull anytime soon.
Patlabor 2: The Movie has seen numerous releases over the years across various formats, most recently included in the Blu-ray set that sports nearly all of the animated incarnations of Patlabor. However, if you are interested in the production background of the film, I highly recommend the Bandai Visual Limited Collector’s Edition DVD, that while long out of print, is still floating around the grey market for reasonable prices. It includes a bonus disc with 40 minutes of interviews, a full storyboard book, and a second book of essays, behind the scenes material, and more. It is unquestionably the most comprehensive release of an anime film I’ve seen in English.