Golden Age Theater
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
In late 1988, Mamoru Oshii released a series of 7 OVA running 30 minutes each. By summer of 1989 the series had been remade into Patlabor: The Movie and exploded onto the market, which then demanded a 47 episode full series as a follow up. After the series, Patlabor 2 would take a drastic change in style and would be seen as the blueprint for the later masterpiece of Ghost in the Shell.
Mamoru Oshii had already made a name for himself by working on a few other series, and was in the news fresh from quitting a Studio Ghibli project. His famous love-hate relationship with Miyazaki, centered on what a story should be, likely influenced his hand on the Patlabor series. A call to intrigue and sinister ideals as the natural order, with only humanity and hope protecting us from cruel nature.
The biggest impact I got from the film was Oshii’s narrative structure and control. Wings of Honneamise and last weeks Macross both attempted to condense a larger story into a shorter film format, using montage and skipping details to crush the narrative together. In Patlabor though, we can see Oshii’s understanding that less can be more. He constructs scenes to imply that there is more behind the curtain, characters with more depth and storylines with comedic tones, while keeping the central detective adventure story intact.
The cold open of the battle intercut with the credits was a relatively new technique back then. David Fincher and the Scott brothers were the only directors making liberal use of it at the time. Oshii nails it though, communicating the power and destructive nature of these machines with the missing pilot.
We have our central plot set up before a word is spoken, and the stakes are shown in brutal fashion.
The first act is a bit heavy on exposition after the impressive start, but the time is used quite well to cement our characters basic qualities. The hot head, the rookie, the captain, and the whole crew are portrayed simply but maintain an air of ‘more’. Unlike Macross, I don’t feel the need to watch the series after this to better understand, I do want to watch the series because I want more to enjoy though. A small, but impressive, difference in end result.
A Change of Pace
Above the acceptance that the film is well made, Oshii’s shift in story focus and mecha use really changed the game. WIth an antagonist that exists only as an ideal, and robots made part of the daily life, the genre of Mecha split again. This isn’t a Space Opera like Macross, and it doesn’t fit neatly into the Super or Real Robot genres that had dominated the industry.
It seems almost absurd that the two key action scenes in the film are centered around the mechs being human. With our hot head firing wildly into a river, negating any control a mech seems to offer, and our final battle that requires our girl to leave her robot in order to win. This acts as a great central point though, that humans can be sinister or good regardless of the tech involved.
It feels very natural, especially considering Japan’s prolific 60’s yakuza and detective films. A detective mystery thriller with police working to thwart an attack, while investigating subterfuge at the highest levels of society. This is the meat of nearly every film Oshii grew up with as a child, and his homage to them with the addition of mechs creates a very natural pairing.
The artwork, animation, and directing skills in the film are impressive. The film is one of the first examples of the 90’s aesthetic that would follow, and instigated a lot of it. The story also inspired a lot of the 90’s grounded character focus, leading to Oshii’s own Ghost in the Shell and others.
Patlabor’s story is quite simple and doesn’t have the same grandiose nature of Wings or Macross. The execution and simplicity of its goal are really where it shines though. Working wonders to deliver another Golden selection of film that defined the anime medium.