Back when anime was slowly starting to emerge from its native land, we had to rely on shady VHS bootlegs, video rental stores willing to import and the occasional TV cult programming. Like many people of my generation in and around Europe, I got acquainted with some of the biggest anime features through the BBC, which programmed them after midnight. Patlabor: The Movie [Kidô Keisatsu Patorebâ: The Movie] was one of those films, so it's obvious I have rather fond memories of that first encounter. I've revisited the film since and still loved it, but that was ages ago. Apart from some broad narrative pointers I didn't remember much, so it was time to give it another go.
It would be a little weird to say that Patlabor is the film where it all started for Oshii. After all, just a few years earlier he'd directed Angel's Egg, which remains one of his ultimate classics. But all of his pre-Patlabor output feels somewhat disjointed. Though it's easy enough to recognize Oshii's hand in all these projects if you know what you're looking for, it isn't until the Patlabor franchise that everything came together to form a typical Oshii signature. And that includes the team surrounding Oshii, as people like Kenji Kawai (soundtrack) and Kazunori Itô (script) played considerable parts in what would come to be Oshii's most definitive works.
The Patlabor franchise was set up by Headgear, a creative collective that would later continue as Production I.G, one of the more famous animation houses in the industry. Patlabor: The Movie is the culmination of a short 7-part OAV series, produced by the very same crew. While that OAV series was pretty decent (and a solid introduction to the characters, though hardly necessary to enjoy the film), the episodic nature restricted the franchise's true potential. With that limitation out of the way, nothing was holding Oshii and his team back to create the ultimate Patlabor experience (except of course ... experience, as Oshii's greatly improved second film would demonstrate).
Captain Gotoh and his team are on watch, when all of a sudden construction labors start going haywire. Rumors are that the new OS update is to blame, but if true that would ruin the company, which in turn would cause some serious political havoc. Gotoh sends out one of his men to investigate. He finds traces of a deliberate attempt to sabotage the OS, related to a giant off-shore land reclaiming project. The problem is that the culprit committed suicide and no one else is smart enough to fix the code. Time is running out, but Gotoh and his team are willing to take a risk to save the city.
For an animated film from 1989, Patlabor looks well above par. It's still a far cry from the quality Production I.G would come to deliver, even compared to its biggest contemporaries (think Akira, My Neighbor Totoro or Wings of Honneamise) it doesn't look particularly spectacular, but the animation is solid, the art style is very crisp and detailed and the tech designs are beautiful. The finale is also pretty impressive, though the smaller budget and the reliance on purely hand-drawn animation do make it looks its age. Patlabor isn't a film that raised the bar for anime, but it did lay a solid foundation for Oshii and his team, one that would be greatly expanded on in the following two decades.
The music by Kenji Kawai wasn't quite on point yet either. There are definitely moments of genius, especially during the quieter, more atmospheric scenes, but the thumpy synth tracks underneath the action sequences sound a bit cheesy and outdated. Not so much that they ruin the film, but they're definitely not making Patlabor: The Movie better, which stands in great contrast with the later collaborations between Oshii and Kawai. The Japanese dub is great though, with Ryûnosuke Ôbayashi as Gotoh being the clear highlight. He really brings this puzzling character to life, which is key in making the plot stick. The US dub feels very flat and disappointing by comparison, then again I say that about all non-Japanese anime dubs. But unless you really can't stand the Japanese voice actors, there's really no good reason to skip the original dub.
Patlabor: The Movie is still a little too concerned with simply solving a criminal case, no doubt a remnant of its episodic OAV roots. While a similar structure also exists in Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell, it is not quite as leading in those films. It's a matter of balance, and for Patlabor: The Movie it tilts ever so slightly to the wrong side of the scale. That said, the soon-to-be committed crime of a criminal that is already dead is a very interesting premise and Oshii already weaves in several of his signature elements (like the religious symbolism and the activist foundation of the crime), which help it to rise well above its peers.
Most of the critiques I have comes from direct comparisons to its (spiritual) successors. That is not entirely fair, but it's a reality that is impossible to ignore. By itself and for its time, Patlabor: The Movie is an amazing film, but its faults are laid bare by the films Oshii and crew would make in its wake. Still, even if you've never seen this one, there's a lot to like here. Solid animation, amazing designs, an intriguing premise, several memorable scenes and a fun set of characters make this a moody, intelligent and slick sci-fi thriller. A must for Oshii and sci-fi fans alike.