WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 is the third (and so far final) Patlabor anime feature, and it was never going to live up to its legacy. Patlabor 2 was a true milestone, both for Mamoru Oshii and the anime scene in general. The third film switched directors and shifted its focus to less serious elements within the Patlabor universe. It became a film that was ill-equipped to stand up against people's expectations, but judged on its own merits it was actually a pretty solid feature. It's been ages since I last watched this one, but I was looking forward to giving it another run.
Oshii's second Patlabor film is still one of my all-time favorites, which probably colors my perception of the franchise a little. I'm familiar with the (old) series and OAVs and I know there's definitely room for more nonsensical elements in the Patlabor universe, but since the first two anime features were directed by Oshii, the third film couldn't escape the weight of certain expectations. The team behind the film seemed to realize this too, because Kawai was summoned once again to do the score and the duo of directors spared no effort to mimic Oshii's trademark style as closely as possible.
That said, they must have known that simply trying to make a proxy Oshii film wasn't going to cut it, and so they went with a completely different angle. The Patlabor regulars still play a part in this film, but they are but secondary characters. The focus shifts to Hata, the private investigator who featured in a smaller part in earlier films. And rather than a poetic reflection on modern society, the third film became a tech-driven kaiju feature. It sounds a little implausible, but you better believe it.
The film starts when a number of labor suits are trashed by an unknown entity. It comes from the sea and flashes a couple of big fins when caught on camera. Unless you're completely unaware of the Godzilla franchise, what follows shouldn't come as a too big of a surprise. Hata is on the case and quickly realizes this isn't just some malfunctioning hardware or industry espionage situation. But the traces to the culprit lead to an empty PO box, which leaves Hata stranded. Soon after the SV2 unit is put on the case and things start to move along more rapidly.
Endo and Takayama tried very hard to stay close to Oshii's signature style. Their efforts are quite remarkable in that respect, but it's still very obvious that the film wasn't directed by Oshii himself. On a visual level, the muted color palette, the less exaggerated character designs, the prime animation quality and the high level of background detail all feel very familiar, yet the editing and pacing isn't quite on a similar level. The film lacks true moments of genius, next to the gravitas present in the original anime features. It's still a very accomplished work with some great-looking scenes, but it's never quite as unique or exceptional when comparing it to the second film.
The soundtrack has similar issues. It's amazing that they managed to get Kenji Kawai back on board, there's also nothing wrong with Kawai's score, which is as subtle and moody as always. But without Oshii's sense of pacing and delicately timed editing it never really reaches its full potential. If anything, this film is the perfect showcase of the importance of a director, and how he bring things together to create value that is more that the sum of its individual parts. Again, the soundtrack is more than solid and a real asset, but it's simply not as great compared to the earlier films. The voice actors on the other hand are flawless, which means you'll get more mature voice work that fits the mood and setting perfectly. That is, if you're smart enough to go for the Japanese dub.
The first half of the film is set up as a basic detective story, albeit one in the near future. Once the monster makes its definite entrance though, the tone of the film shifts dramatically and it becomes a full-on mecha/kaiju mix. I know I've stressed already how odd all of this feels, but that's only because I believe that getting in with the right mindset and the right expectations might give this film a much fairer chance. When seen as the next big Patlabor film it's normal to feel a little disappointed by the result, but judged on its own there really is a lot to like here, especially when the labors are finally going head to head with the monster.
WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 is a film that maybe shouldn't have been made, or at least not as part of the Patlabor franchise. But let that go and you'll find a film with more than enough qualities to stand its ground. The animation is strong, the art style detailed, the soundtrack a real treat. And how often do you get to see mechs battle it out against a giant monster in a future-realistic setting? I had a lot of fun with WXIII, it's just a shame that not more people seem willing to give it a shot, because this isn't some quick and dirty low-budget sequel. If you like fine animation, just give it a go.