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Patlabor: The Movie Anime DVD Review

9 min read
Patlabor the Movie Anime DVD Review
Patlabor the Movie Anime DVD Review

An old classic feature returns in a new release.

What They Say:
Earth’s sea levels are slowly rising and coastal cities around the world have been forced to resort to drastic measures to keep floods of Biblical proportions at bay. Nowhere has the need been more desperate than in Japan, where the city of Tokyo has launched the massive Babylon project: a land reclamation undertaking so vast that it can only be completed with the aid of human-piloted construction robots called Labors.

Unfortunately, any invention can be used for good or for evil, so to keep the Labors from being misused the Tokyo police maintain their own units of Patrol Labors. Now the officers of the SV2 are about to receive their ultimate trial by fire as multiple waves of Labors begin to mysteriously go berserk all at once. As the armored blue line fights to maintain control of the resulting chaos, they must also solve the mystery behind the outbreaks. Are they random? Are they tied to the construction of Babylon itself? Or is there a human element secretly orchestrating the ultimate destruction of the entire city? The wrath of nature and the gods is unleashed an only the courage of a handful of brave men and women can save the city in Patlabor the Movie!

The Review:
For this review, I listened to the Dolby Digital multi-channel 48khz 448kbps English track. It’s a proper multi-channel mix from the start with clear directionality to the sound from the very first scene. The front and rear sound stages get plenty of work to do and the mix shines in the opening action sequence with the battle having clear movement. The trained ear will probably detect the slightly inferior sound quality of a Dolby Digital mix compared to HD audio, but as CD-quality audio goes, this is very good. Crisp, clear, clean without distortions. It’s not perfect though as on occasion there are times when dialogue should be balanced a bit better between the center and front speakers, as characters who are to the side and come out of the side speakers alone can be hard to hear without turning the volume up a bit. A little bit of speaker calibration might compensate for that, but it may be noticeable if you’ve kept your sound system on factory settings.

Originally released in 1989, the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and enhanced for anamorphic playback. If there are clean masters available, this might look quite nice on a blu-ray disc. But as upscaled standard 480i MPEG-2 video, there are quite a few video compression artifacts visible. For example, during the early overhead shot of the artificial island that is being constructed (a bit after the 5 minute mark), you can see significant noise in the blue water surrounding the piers of the harbor. There is a lot of movement that only gets worse once the brighter water that is reflecting sunlight makes its appearance. While there is also grain apparently which was likely intended (this is a feature film, after all), the dot crawl can be distracting at times. One can occasionally see scratches as well, but for a work of this age, that is hardly surprising and not a significant issue. Irony of ironies, the trailer for the Patlabor TV series included with the trailers looks better than most of the film does.

The front cover features the top half of a Type 98 patrol labor, the powered mechanical suit used by the police to deal with criminals using the commercial versions of the machines. It is shown in half-profile set against a rather dark and ominous sky. This is a very good piece of minimalist cover artwork and is in keeping with the film. The back has one slightly larger image from the movie and places the catalog copy in the center, surrounded on left and right by a series of still frames. The technical grid is at the bottom and interestingly includes a timeline for the various parts of the franchise, making this release easy for newer fans to understand where things fit into the larger story. The case itself is a standard single disc DVD case and the cover is not reversible.

The menus are static, with the same image as that used on the front cover shown to the right of the main menu and the four choices (Play Feature, Languages, Scene Selection and Also Available from Maiden Japan) to the left. Access times are fast and the layout of the submenus is similarly simple with other promotional images and they are straightforward to use. Pieces of background music are looped for each menu.

No extras other than a few trailers for other Maiden Japan titles are included on the disc.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Because of a major construction project, great technological advances in powered mechanical robotic suits, called labors have been made. With new technology, of course, comes new tools for both legal activity and crime. So the Tokyo Metropolitan Police have formed their own units employing labors to deal with labor-using crimes. That’s been the basic premise of the Patlabor franchise and it’s no different in this film. While the movie can be seen by itself as a standalone story that does not require deep knowledge of the original OVA series, it helps to have some familiarity with the characters and their backstories as the movie makes no attempt to reintroduce them.

Of course, coming from Mamoru Oshii, expect lots of conspiracies and hidden agendas and plots within plots.

It all starts with the apparent suicide of Eiichi Hoba, a brilliant programmer who has authored a new operating system for the labors called HOS (Hyper Operating System). While the new system increases efficiency greatly, so much that Shinohara Heavy Industries, its maker, has nearly cornered the market for labor operating systems, there seems to be a problem: some labors running the system have gone haywire, causing random destruction. Special Vehicles Unit 2, led by Commander Goto, gets involved as the cases begin to mount and the connection between the labor incidents and Hoba becomes apparent. Goto and his subordinates begin to follow the leads trying to understand why the dead programmer made his new operating system set up to cause the labors to go berserk.

Asuma Shinohara, an officer of the SV2, finally figures out the trigger for the problem: the operating system is programmed to go out of control when a labor’s sensors pick up certain low-frequency sounds that cannot be heard by humans. Problem solved? Maybe…but maybe not. Goto has Shinohara and Shige continue the investigation and they discover that Hoba had a very intricate plan from the start: a massive labor maintenance tower called the Ark, located in Tokyo Bay, could become a massive emitter of the low frequency that causes the rogue operating system to run amok…though only if wind speeds reach 40 km/hour. Normally not a problem but it just happens that a typhoon is on the way. So we have our massive climax as Asuma, Noa and the rest of the SV2 rush to dismantle the Ark before it can cause all havoc to break out.

It’s all rather straightforward and simple in its way and might well seem a touch quaint to current fans who might expect a lot more convoluted nonsense and needless complexity to make it feel “deep.” Further, the character designs and animation clearly reflect the era this film was made where the style was very different (people have a more rounded look and fewer of the sharp angles that seem to be more in favor these days). There are also quite a few loose ends (par for the course with Oshii): while we are given hints about Hoba’s motivations, they are never clearly spelled out or explained in depth. We are presented with a man who seemed upset at the rapid pace of change in Tokyo, where the new technology of labors has made it even more efficient for those in power to demolish older neighborhoods and replace them with new high rise buildings, though nothing is said about who is gaining and who is losing from this process and we cannot know for certain what exactly was upsetting him: whether it was the destruction of the past just by itself or the fact that those at the top seemingly go ahead with their plans for “progress” without taking into account the costs to those who are pushed aside.

But this is an interesting piece of anime history at this point as well as being a piece of entertainment that does continue to have good value on that front, especially as technologically-based science fiction has long lost its central place in anime, having been replaced with magical fantasies more and more for action-oriented shows. While this is a pretty barebones release with no extras, it is at least a lot more economical than Bandai Visual USA’s attempt to give the Patlabor movies a fully-loaded limited edition treatment several years ago…that is unless you waited for the time when you could get both of BVUSA’s fancy numbered LEs for about $25 for both (as I did). You might still find a few of those floating around but if all you are interested in is seeing the film and have not yet upgraded to blu-ray, this simple release will serve just fine.

NOTE: The English audio track included is the newer Los Angeles dub from Elastic Media that was created for the BVUSA release. A full cast listing is included in the credits but none of the dub production credits are provided outside of Sentai Filmworks’ production staff who worked on the physical product. It’s a passable dub featuring many recognizable voices (not always with recognizable names), though it lacks some of the flavor and character of the earlier English dub which I heard at some point during the mid-1990s.

All on-screen credits during the film are the original Japanese versions. During the opening, English translations/transliterations of names are overlaid next to the originals while the final credit scroll is left untouched, followed by an English credit scroll.

In Summary:
While visually it does show its age, the first Patlabor feature still manages to provide an enjoyable and entertaining police action/mystery story with animation that may seem stylistically dated (depends on how much you like late 1980s animation), but is still impressive. As Goto and his team attempt to unravel the connection between a dead programmer, his new operating system, and labors that are randomly running amok, a deeper conspiracy comes to light. Classic Mamoru Oshii, including the dangling loose ends that never get fully explained. But if you like science fiction and mystery works, this will still be worth your time. It’s also a piece of anime history at this point, worth checking out for that alone.

English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, English Subtitles.

Content Grade:B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: B
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B+
Extras Grade: C-

Released By: Maiden Japan
Release Date: May 5th, 2015
MSRP: $29.98
Running Time: 99 minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL-32S5100 32-Inch 1080p LCD HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Sony Bravia DAV-HDX589W 5.1-Channel Theater System connected via digital optical cable.

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