© 1989 Headgear / Emotion / TFC
This is probably one of the most misleading anime I've ever watched. It's nothing to do with the anime itself, but rather what I expected. I originally saw this when I was a newbie, with only a few titles under my belt. I'd seen a preview of Patlabor on a Manga video, which seemed to emphasize non-stop, white-knuckle action. I'm not a huge fan of giant mecha, and mecha without a plot isn't worth watching in my book.
Fortunately, Patlabor 1 delivers one of the most engrossing story lines I've seen in an anime.
Patlabor 1 takes place in 1999, when giant robots called "labors" are used heavily worldwide in construction and law enforcement. In Japan, the construction of a giant land mass, dubbed "The Babylon Project", is underway. Things start going wrong, though, when a software engineer, E. Hoba, for Shinohara Heavy Industries mysteriously commits suicide at the construction site. Soon after, labors begin going on the rampage. Asuma of the Special Vehicle Division begins to investigate and soon learns that rampaging labors and bizarre suicide are only small pieces in a much larger plot; a plot that may end up threatening all of Tokyo.
While it is possible to watch this movie without paying attention to much of the underlying plot, doing so would be just plain foolish. The story line is carefully woven together with clues about E. Hoba's mysterious suicide, the unknown cause of the labor's rampages, and the strange connection to the Babylon Project. This is a true detective story and much of the fun is watching Asuma slowly unravel the mystery that Hoba so cleverly set into motion. There are also numerous Biblical references such as the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark, along with a quoted passage from the Bible. I'll admit I'm not the religious sort and can't go into the validity of these references, but they were so carefully integrated into the story that, frankly, it doesn't seem to matter.
Fans of the series will be happy to see their favorite characters here, even if some are only shown briefly. The main players in the drama that unfolds are Asuma and Noa, two young members of the Special Vehicle Division (ie Labor Police). Asuma is the primary character conducting the investigation with help from Captain Gota, a quiet, yet often brilliant man. Also partaking in the investigation is Shinobu and detective Matsui. One thing that struck me as being quite interesting is aside from a few rampaging labors (and one freaky looking raven), there is no physical antagonist. Only a brief glimpse of Hoba happens at the beginning of the movie and you only learn about him through what Asuma and Gota uncover. This is quite a refreshing change from the rather trite "arch-criminal" cliche found in so many other conflicts, and serves the further the mystery and drama that drives this movie.
Now for those of you expecting a somewhat light-hearted or even comedic tone, such as can be found in the television series, you'll be in for a shock. The mood of Patlabor 1 is a somber one, with carefully shadowed artwork and slow, methodical pacing. There is some action interlaced here and there, along with a frantic finale, but the pace of this movie is generally slow. That may turn of some viewers that are looking for more of a traditional giant mecha anime involving lots of pyrotechnics and thundering gunfire. Still, for who want a cerebral detective story that just happens to have some giant robots in it, this movie will be a treat.
The production values of Patlabor 1 are quite impressive. The animation was very smooth and the artwork was nicely detailed. The whole atmosphere was certainly a moody one, and the art nicely brought out that feeling. The music was also enjoyable, alternating between simple, single-instrument pieces to much quicker themes during the action sequences. And to top it off, the English voice-acting was superb. While there were moments when characters tended to overact slightly, all the characters were appropriately cast and the voice actors performed well.
As far as giant mecha anime come, Patlabor 1 isn't quite what I expected, but that turned out to be quite a blessing. Fans of Evangelion will probably love it, as they both feature intelligent, cerebral stories complete with Biblical references. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the better pieces of sci-fi anime available.
The Verdict: * * * * (good)
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