Today I watched Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor: The Movie (1989)
Mecha are giant robots piloted by humans, often taking a human form, though not always. Like many of the films we will look at this week, this film is based on a manga series of the same name and fits into the mecha subgenre of real robot, the equivalent of hard sci-fi in which the giant robots are grounded with plausibility. The Patlabor series focuses on a special branch of law enforcement who deploy special mecha to deal with threats that necessitate such a response.
The film begins with a series of freak accidents in which Labors, as the giant robots are called, go berserk under mysterious circumstances. Our specialist heroes are not just Labor pilots, they are Labor experts, and as such they begin investigating this issue. Soon they come to find that the berserking robots had all been updated with new operating system firmware. All the more mysterious is that one of the main software developers killed himself very recently and left a bread crumb trail of obscure clues for mysterious reasons.
Mamoru Oshii is perhaps most well known for his work on the Ghost in the Shell films and there are many notable similarities between the two. Firstly they both take place in a near future, cyberpunk world and focus on a specialist branch of law enforcement. Both films focus heavily on procedural crime solving within these worlds as well as existential issues raised by the practical application of theoretical technologies. Though this film’s comedic elements sometimes run contrary to the more meditative moments.
As it is the follow up to a series it feels like an episode of said series, in that it has a vast cast of characters, few of which receive much development here. That being said the characters are impactful with what little screen time they may have and the lack of development works considering how procedural the film is. The film moves on the impetus of a strong mystery and extremely compelling world which is built expertly.
This is a world undergoing radical development and change, both technologically and socially. Oshii is such a deft world builder that he never needs to beat the audience over the head with the rules of this world as the characters inhabit it so naturally. Despite this setting featuring giant robots who wield giant revolvers, the silliness of this never intrudes on the thoughtfulness of the story or the depth of character interaction. This film is incredibly intelligent in how it deals with the changing face of society in times of technological change and offers it up with a lot of heart, humour, and a little action. 5/5