Being an anime fan not in Japan in the 80s wasn’t the easiest of things. You had a couple of fanzines that you’d follow, some limited information on rec.arts.anime if you knew how to get to that, and whatever bootlegs you might find in the back of comic book stores or comic conventions. With the fanzines and limited magazine material that was out there, one thing that I knew at the time about the 1980s in Japan was that you couldn’t escape Noa “bloody” Izumi both in the anime sphere and elsewhere. With a popular TV series and OVA series, the lead character of the ensemble Patlabor property was everywhere and generated a lot of attention. It launched a million model kits and lots of merchandise on top of VHS tapes and laser discs.
It took a long time before I finally got to see the TV show and OVAs, but the films that landed in 1989 and 1993 made their way over here quickly through Manga Entertainment. Movies were easier risks to take and the mechanical aspects of these projects combined with a serious approach that the series didn’t always take made this really ideal to breakthrough past just the core anime fandom. Those first two films did a great job of being everywhere. Bandai Visual even re-released them many years later as collector’s editions at a premium price and got stuck with a ton of unsold material because the previous releases were so pervasive. The films, weirdly enough, were an area I struggled with. I liked them well enough in a technical sense, but even as accessible as they are I felt like I was missing out on too much.
With the property laying fallow for quite a few years in Japan, and some of the original material slowly getting released in English, 2002 saw the arrival of a new Patlabor film, the first in just about a decade. It actually had a premiere showing in December 2001, which is why we’re writing it about it now. This project had me really keen on it because not only was it going to be more of a property I wanted to experience, it was new for everyone and it was using the latest animation techniques. And we’d be getting it in North America quickly, thanks to Geneon Entertainment getting involved with it and putting out a really slick limited edition at the time. Unfortunately, the film didn’t go over well with a lot of fans because it was, at its core, a heavy police procedural and corporate intrigue film. Which, naturally, I found to be hugely appealing. So much so that it quickly became my favorite of the three films and remains so, which pretty much makes me an outlier.
The story here focuses primarily on two detectives that have been teamed together for a bit. There’s the older and more experienced Kusumi who is recovering from a wound and uses a brace to help him walk and get about. His partner is the young and eager Hata. Both have their pluses and minuses, the type of partnership where the two do complement each other nicely, but also provides some moments where they can rub up against each other. You have the moments where Hata utilizes the net to get information with ease, as well as being able to pick up on the smallest of details to realize something, but you also have Kusumi with all the experience and the knowledge of things that are no longer current that come back to play. When living in a digital world, it’s easy to forget that analog things can still affect it.
The two end up assigned to dealing with some mysterious goings-on in Tokyo Bay lately, which has resulted in some rather grisly deaths and disappearances. There’s talk among the fishing community about giant fish and other mysterious things, leading to some tall tales. The two go about their investigations both together and separately, each using their own natural skills to glean bits of information. For Hata, the story also touches upon a potential romance with a woman he gave a ride to, Saeko Misaki. Initially knowing her as a teacher at a local university, he ends up coming across her later on in a research company where he learns that she’s a rather involved scientist.
A good part of the early half of the movie is spent getting to know the characters, the budding subtle romance and the investigation itself, as well as the continuing missing people. Everything changes drastically though when the power goes out at one of the massive storage stations at the Babylon Project in the bay. Kusumi and Hata end up with a couple of uniformed officers at the scene and investigate what’s going on, trying to find out why the power went off. The entire situation goes to hell when the emergency power comes on and the red lights go up everywhere and end up revealing a massive, well, monster that starts chasing anyone it comes across and outright eats them. The monster proceeds to go after the two detectives, and we get an engaging and thrilling chase sequence inside this structure as the beast thunders across hunting for them.
It’s from here that things get intriguing; as they try to discover what the creature was, where it came from, and how to deal with it all while the higher-ups in the government are trying to cover it up. Probably one of the best aspects of this is that Goto from SVU2 gets involved in a few ways as he and Kusumi apparently know each other, which brings in a nice new level to things. Goto’s style and attitude is always welcome on screen and he fits perfectly into the tense situation with his laid-back style.
One of the things that I love about this film is that it’s not unlike the others in the franchise in that you keep noticing more and more details with each viewing. And with each viewing, I get even more impressed with just how gorgeous the visuals are, even twenty years later. The characters themselves are what we’ve come to expect from Patlabor movies with their realistic look, but it’s the city itself that becomes a full character in this film. At times, it looks so completely realistic that it’s almost breathtaking. Some of my favorite sequences are the quietest ones, where it’s pouring hard outside, and just seeing that rain come down, combined with the audio mix, it’s so close to being there.
To me, the Patlabor movies have always been a hard sell. In their own way, they irk hardcore Patlabor fans since the SVU2 cast isn’t huge in it, or it’s just one or two characters. The mecha fans don’t get too excited since they’re relegated to one or two key sequences. The ones who end up loving this stuff the most are the ones who come for the story and exploration of this world where Labors exist. Patlabor: WXIII has a great detective story with an enjoyable and well-rounded cast. The film kept me enraptured in it for its entire length without checking the clock once. I’ve found this movie to be quite engaging and definitely high on the repeat viewing list. It’s an easy recommendation for those who enjoyed the first, as they’re definitely close in style, but also to anyone who likes this kind of story even if you’ve never seen Patlabor. It’ll inspire you to dig into this world even more.