This review is a part of the Reverse Thieves’ Secret Santa Project for 2010.

Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie is a film by Oshii Mamoru, director of Ghost in the Shell. Though it predates Oshii’s most famous film by a few years, there is no mistaking its pedigree.

In the world of Mobile Police Patlabor, mankind has embraced the use of giant robots to help with large-scale construction and manual work. Referred to as “Labors,” it wasn’t long until some people started using them for less altruistic purposes, creating a new problem in the form of Labor-related crimes. In response, the police begin deploying their own Patrol Labors, or “Patlabors” for short. One such force is the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2, a group of misfit officers whose ranks include a tomboy who names all of her pets Alphonse (her Patlabor being the latest), an overly aggressive gun nut, and a seemingly dull and lazy division chief. Nevertheless, they do their best to serve and protect despite their spotty reputation.

Given this scenario, you’d probably expect some combination of cop show drama and ensemble comedy with a dash of mecha, and you’d be right, normally. But while most of the Patlabor franchise falls along those lines, Patlabor: The Movie is instead a cerebral mystery. A recent string of “berserk” Labors threatens the completion of an important project and the most likely suspect, programmer Hoba Eiichi, is already dead, confounding Shinohara Asuma, the Division 2 member who has taken it upon himself to investigate. All the while, the film explores the continuing onset of technology and the eternal struggle of new vs old, with numerous biblical references strewn throughout. Given the tone and content, Patlabor: The Movie is like a stepping stone towards Ghost in the Shell and the eventual direction Oshii’s oeuvre would take.

The film still has a lot of the requisite elements of Patlabor; it has those same goofy characters (all of whom act as they should), robot fight scenes, and a personal feel to the setting. In fact, you need not have watched any of the previous material to understand the movie or to get an idea of the personality quirks and relationships of the characters. However, those aspects of Patlabor are either more subdued or less frequent in the film, instead putting the spotlight on the mysterious culprit, “E. Hoba” (Jehovah), and his motives. In this respect, it reminds me of another movie, Sengoku Majin Goshogun: The Time Étranger, a sequel to a super robot anime featuring a decidedly different tone and absolutely no giant robots, only Patlabor: The Movie is somehow both more extreme and less in its deviation. Patlabor: The Movie really feels as if Oshii (who also directed the Patlabor OVAs) was trying to push the franchise beyond the limits of its basic premise and bend it to his own personal will. It actually works pretty well overall, maintaining suspense throughout and giving quite a bit to think about, but I’m not sure if Patlabor was the place to do it.

In short, imagine Oshii Mamoru trapped in a giant paper bag called Patlabor, trying to punch his way through until he ends up wearing the bag like a Halloween costume, and you have Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie. He’s pretty dashing in that getup.

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