War of the robots
Also known as Patlabor: The Mobile Police, this film depicts an alternate universe Tokyo of 1999, where the world’s industries receive a boost with the creation of “Labors”, robot mecha-suits used for everything from construction to crime fighting.
But something’s gone terribly wrong. Rogue Labors have been suddenly going berserk, endangering lives and causing massive destruction. It’s up to the Mobile Police of Division 10 to contain these monsters, while their superiors in government and industry try to figure out what’s causing the problem. Is there a glitch in the Labors’ programming, or is it a case of sabotage? And what can be done about it?
You’d think overworked Division 10 Special Section Officers Shinohara and Izumi would keep their noses out of the case and concentrate on rounding up the rogues. However, Shinohara has a little more at stake. His father, from whom he’s been estranged for many years, owns Shinohara Industries, the top producer of Labors in the world. He’s determined to find out what’s going on, if only to show up his old man.
Also at stake is Operation Babylon, a hydro system project that promises to help solve Tokyo’s drainage and land problems. Not only are the Mobile Police under stress maintaining order, but they also have to deal with the fact that their own machines may turn against them at any moment — including the sleek new Labor model, Labor Type 0.
At the heart of the mystery is the suicide of genius programmer Hoba, who wrote the radical software upgrade installed in all Labors. The more that is dug up on Hoba, the less that is understood, as the man appears to have been an enigma who hid his background with false identities and maintained multiple residences all over town.
The heroes finally decipher what triggers the Labor rampages, but will they be able to prevent a coming event that could cause 8,000 Labors to go berserk?
Fortunately, the Division 10 engineers didn’t trust the new HOS software, meaning the police Labors were not infected. The key to the massive sabotage plan lies within the gigantic floating platform called The Ark, a huge Labor factory. The mission set out for the Mobile Police: invade the Ark and destroy it!
What first appears as a sci-fi action tale turns out to be a technological detective story with the complexity of a novel. However, once all the details are worked out, the last 20 minutes are action packed, with plenty of crazed robot smashing mayhem. I was a big anime fan years ago, but I’ve become disappointed in the dregs that I’ve seen in recent years, so it’s a very pleasant surprise to find an anime feature like this one that draws a viewer in. Despite a dull synth score, the twists and turns of the plot, along with the kind of animated stunts that fuel flicks like Aliens and RoboCop, make this one a winner.
Patlabor originated as a late-’80s anime video series, which re-energized the fading giant robot genre by changing the setting from the usual superhero and space war background to that of a police drama — sort of like a Robotech version of Hill Street Blues. The series, and the two features that followed, were directed by Mamoru Oshii, the Urusai Yatsura veteran who picked up a huge fan following all over the world with the release of his anime feature Ghost in the Shell.
Ghost, though overly complicated and somewhat talky in places, was an exciting sci-fi action film, rendered all the more impressive with it’s stylish visuals and attention to detail. Watching the earlier Patlabor, one can pick out instances of Oshii developing the techniques and tricks that would make Ghost in the Shell such a smash.
Palm Pictures and Manga Video have given the film a fine transfer. Some of the English voice actors are bland, and the translations between dub and subtitles differ greatly, but generally they’ve done a fine job with the dubbing. After switching around between the options, I settled on watching with the subtitles and original Japanese dialogue.
The picture is mildly letterboxed. There is a flutter at the layer switch between chapter 8 and 9, though it may not appear on all players. Manga can be a bit heavy-handed in their promotion — there are trailers for both Patlabor 1 and 2 (which will be available on DVD by the time you read this), plus a promo featuring clips from various Manga titles set to music by KMFDM, and other promotional material, including a catalogue. A lot more can be found on their website — which you can link to from the disc — so the catalogue and fan club stuff is kind of a waste of space that I’d rather see devoted to shorts or documentary material from Japan.