Whenever you hear mecha fans talk about their favourite examples of the genre, Patlabor is one name that always manages to come up. Achieving the delicate balance of giant robot action, human drama and comedy, few other titles have earned as much respect and love over the years. I must confess that the original OVA series is a particular favourite of mine, so it’s fair to say I had high expectations for this movie. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.

For the uninitiated, Patlabor is set in a world where large robots called Labors are used for tasks such construction and demolition. The story centres on a special police division that uses labors to fight crime, and the people that make up the unit. This time, Labors are running amok in Tokyo, and it seems be caused by a new OS upgrade. With the chief programmer dead, the police are left with few leads to follow, and there seems to be no way to stop more labors causing more destruction.

If you’re expecting an action-packed mechafest full of giant robots tearing each other apart, you’re in the wrong place. Patlabor is much more of a police story that happens to have big cool anthropomorphic machines in it, with an intelligent story that is told at a deliberate pace. Being an Oshii film, it has elements of philosophy and social commentary, as well as a number of references to the Bible, particularly the story of Babylon. The story has enough metaphors and subtexts to exercise the old grey matter, but it’s never as heavy (or as heavy-handed) as it is in the Ghost in the Shell movies.

Patlabor is unusual in the way that it’s a mecha anime that has less of a focus on the giant robots and more on the people that use them. Special Vehicles Section 2 is full of great characters, such as enthusiastic rookies Noa and Asuma, gun-nut Oota, and the imposing but gentle Hiromi. Commanding the unit is Gotoh, appearing to be overly nonchalant and carefree at first glance, while actually a calculating and steadfast leader (any Naruto fans out there, this is the guy that seems to have been the template for Kakashi). Occasionally someone new will turn up with little or no introduction, and although those that have seen earlier Patlabor titles will recognize the faces, newcomers will be left wondering who these people are – particularly when they act like they’ve been there all along.

What’s also striking about the film is the sense of realism throughout. The not-too-distant future depicted here really does not seem all that far away, and is made believable by the way the world has its own political and economical climates, each as capricious as the other. The mechs are handled with a practicality that is as unusual in the genre as it is welcome; Labors are driven to the scene on a big truck rather than being launched from a hidden base, they can be damaged easily and have minimal armament, and their artillery-sized revolver cannons have to be reloaded by hand (okay, so perhaps that’s not the most practical of solutions, but it does reflect the “shoot only when necessary’ mindset of a police force). It’s the kind of thing that could easily have been live-action, had the budget allowed for it.

This Honneamise release boasts not only a new dub, but also 5.1 surround sound and digitally re-mastered footage, and it must be said that the film looks and sounds better than ever. Each frame now looks crisp and clean, while then animation is just as impressive today as it was more than fifteen years ago. Extras are somewhat lacking on the standard version, with only a couple of trailers included on the disc (if you want extras you can get the special edition for £50), but it still comes with a wonderful 16-page booklet with information on production, characters and mecha.

In Summary

This film embodies everything that makes Patlabor so well loved by so many people – it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film, with some very likable characters and some great mecha action thrown in for good measure. For mecha fans, it’s absolutely essential, while others will find that it’s not just a great anime movie, but also a good film in its own right. If you missed out on the Manga release, there’s no better time to check this seminal film out.

9 / 10