States Of Mind: Patlabor On Film – Part 2

If Patlabor the Movie took some risks with its depiction of a Japan failed by its future, Patlabor 2 the Movie is extraordinarily brave in confronting some of the most uncomfortable episodes in its past. 


States Of Mind: Patlabor On Film – Part 2


by Chris Rogers


The notion of there being little difference  between a just war and an unjust peace evokes painful memories in a country dedicated to total war for ten years and which then became a crucial bastion in a new conflict that would last for fifty. Japan’s strategic importance in that Cold War, positioned as she is a short distance from the southern extremities of the then Soviet Union, became clear in 1976 when Ukrainian pilot Viktor Belenko defected and flew his state-of-the art MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor to Hakodate in northern Japan. The incident was the inspiration for Tsuge’s faked aerial incursion, both in the film-makers’ minds and the screenplay – it is referred to by Arakawa.

Particularly delicately drawn is the mistrust, suspicion and conflict between the civil and military powers, something that resonates deeply and uniquely in Japan.

In the summer of 1945, despite the world’s only superpower having subjected their country to the ultimate weapon, the Japanese government vacillated over capitulation for days in a move that led to a tragic second attack. Even then, senior officers in her military attempted a coup d’état in a desperate attempt to prevent the Emperor’s recorded surrender message from being broadcast. Afterward, Japan was yoked by that same superpower to a peace settlement which brought massive investment but also the occupation that she was ready to fight to the end to avoid; for some, such as right wing writer Yukio Mishima, who attempted to inspire a genuine coup d’etat in 1970, this period might be regarded as that unjust peace.

Japan has, constitutionally speaking, no ‘army’, ‘navy’ or ‘air force’, but rather ground, maritime and air ‘self-defense’ forces. All are heavily restricted in their respective duties, to the extent that an armed escort ship for nuclear waste built in the 1990s had to be designated as a coastguard vessel despite it needing to sail well beyond Japanese territorial waters. Japanese participation in just the kind of UN mission depicted in the film’s opening scene has proven extremely problematic for a government trying to play a wider role in the world but whose military is prohibited from combat operations overseas.


The Cold War – one of Arakawa’s proxy wars – brought sustained military investment in Japan by the United States, source of Arakawa’s assertion that “Customs won’t touch anything coming from the US forces”. She is for example one of just three foreign states – alongside Israel and Saudi Arabia – to whom the American F-15 Eagle fighter, the most effective and successful combat aircraft ever built, has been sold – indeed, it appears in the film. This allowed Japan to become a strong bulwark against Soviet aggression, but despite such weaponry she still struggles to uncover the truth about the abduction of her nationals by North Korean agents. And whilst Japan is infused with American culture – baseball is the national sport –  the presence of US troops on Japanese soil brought about the infamous Okinawa rape incident, and leaves a legacy of delicate sensibilities that remains to this day.

Other anime draws on Japan’s political past, including Akira, Blood: The Last Vampire, Vexille and Oshii’s own The Sky Crawlers, but none do so quite so perceptively. Mixing this with genre writing and direction of the highest calibre – the air-to-air intercept scene is breathtakingly tense – yields one of the best yet least recognised science fiction films of the last thirty years.

In contrast to the first film, where almost all of SV2 have more or less equal screen time, in Patlabor 2 the Movie the focus is firmly on Nagumo first and Gotoh second, with the other team members far behind. This permits a deeper view of the two and of Nagumo in particular. She is remarkably convincing for an animated character. Her calm, professional demeanour is undermined only by her love for Tsuge and dismay at his betrayal, revealed in the film’s most lyrical and moving moment when Tsuge intertwines their fingers as she handcuffs him at the film’s end.

The other major character in both films is Tokyo itself. The city is lovingly depicted with precise attention to her actual topography, architecture and even season – Patlabor the Movie takes place in the summer of 1999, Patlabor 2 the Movie over the winter of 2001/2002.


Recognisable landmarks in the sequel include the TMPD headquarters, the NTT Building and the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Many of Tokyo’s real bridges are destroyed by Tsuge’s helicopters, and the abandoned Shimbashi underground station, from which SV2 depart to apprehend him, also exists. The distinctive twin ‘turrets’ of the new Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building or City Hall, opened only two years before the film was released and designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, can just be seen towering over an armoured vehicle in the night-time mobilisation scene. It is a neat summary of the narrative, one that is echoed in one version of the advertising poster for the film. At the more intimate scale of the first film, tight alleyways are strewn with rubbish bins and pot plants, a koban (local police box) stands next to a street temple, and the two detectives drink beer sitting on the tiled remains of a long-demolished public bathhouse’s pool.

Technically both of Oshii’s films are a triumph. Made just before computer-generated imagery came to animation – Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell two years later was the first to use the new technology – and thus relying entirely on traditional methods, cel animation was pushed to its limits in the service of a director with an original visual sensibility who wanted to bring the full range of live action techniques to bear.

As already noted weather, including summer sunrises and sunsets and the cold blues, greys and whites of winter, feature strongly in both films, whilst Patlabor 2 the Movie blurs the boundary between the two when, as Gotoh and Nagumo talk in their office after Matsui leaves SV2’s base, the twilight sky outside the window darkens with each successive cut. Man-made counterparts of these natural effects include the dazzling neon and harsh floodlighting of a city at night, highly realistic gun muzzle flashes, scenes washed with red military night-adapted lighting and even shots through a fish eye lens.


Beyond their aesthetic value such moments also often serve to comment on the story. Thus the sunrise metaphor is clear in the first film, while during the detectives’ unobtrusive search of the old town Matsui is at one point seen only as a reflection in a discarded mirror standing against a wall. In the sequel glass screens of all kinds – windows, televisions, cameras, windshields, a fish tank, computer displays, spectacles – feature repeatedly, reflecting the dual layers of reality in the script. Elsewhere a soldier is silhouetted against the window display of a fashion outlet, appearing as a rather sinister mannequin; the shop is called Lumiere at Ombre  (‘Light and Shadow’).

Sound also receives attention, adding another dimension. Regular Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawai’s music scores both films, with pumping theme tunes for each yet also exquisitely haunting passages for the dialogue-free montages, Oshii’s principal stylistic signature that also occurs in his Ghost in the Shell features too. Accurate effects include Japanese military pilots talking in English, the universal language of aviation, to the very recognisable aural signature of a video cassette recorder in operation.

All of this was principally Oshii’s vision. He prefers to create his world before populating it, a parallel perhaps with the work of live action director Ridley Scott. Oshii’s love of architecture and cities is reflected in his preparatory technique of walking the streets with a stills camera and photographing everything, recording each item’s textures and shapes. “We see,” he says, “that even a telephone pole is very complicated, with a very strange form, more interesting than a spaceship from a cheap movie.” Scouting Tokyo locations for both films, Oshii visited dockyards, elevated freeways and flood control channels. Chemical refineries influenced the look of the Ark.

A contrast to the harshness of metal, concrete and glass in the film comes from the many birds that quietly populate several scenes. They cluster menacingly on the Ark, surround the dirigibles that float around the city in the sequel, perch on vehicles and poles, feature as part of a music video, form the logo on the side of a truck, and fly up from around Tsuge. The natural world is just as important to Oshii, helping bring the city to life and adding an additional layer.

Organic life of a strikingly different kind is at the core of the third Patlabor film. Conceived after Patlabor 2 the Movie‘s release as a stand-alone OAV but not completed for almost a decade, WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3  is the only film not directed by Oshii. With a very different, more muted tone and focussing on new characters, the film therefore forms something of a coda to the franchise. The title is usually translated as ‘Wasted 13’, though ‘Waste product 13’ is occasionally encountered. Both are correct, and hint at the main element introduced from the plot of one of the Patlabor manga.


It is the year 2000. Two detectives, Takashi Kusumi and younger partner Schinichiro Hata, investigate a series of attacks on labors that have left behind the mutilated remains of their pilots. All have occurred in or near the Bay. A link with possible contamination of the fish supply is suggested, and Hata forms a relationship with a widowed lecturer, Saeko Misaki, who is also working as a researcher at a nearby bio-laboratory… and mourning her dead daughter, a victim of cancer. As the attacks continue, Kusumi comes to a realisation that will affect all three individuals, whilst Hata’s reluctance to concur is only broken down when confronted by the truth, and its brutal consequences.

The first two films having brought the story of SV2 to a conclusion, members of that team are almost incidental to the third. A nicely-judged appearance early on has the feel of a Steven Bocho crossover cameo, whilst portraying Gotoh as a former colleague of Kusumi provides a link to the detectives of the first film. Even the patlabor/creature battle at the climax is presented in a coolly detached manner, scored entirely to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, commonly known as Sonata Pathétique, through playback of a tape recorded by Saeko’s late daughter.

This last is not accidental. A dolorous mood suffuses the entire film. In the opening scene, a tumbling cloud-filled evening sky is reflected in darkened waters; the buildings of the city are grey and forlorn, an unused stadium, abandoned part-way through construction, the setting for that climax; a cleared house plot, grass-grown and surrounded by a tumble-down wall, stands for a wider emptiness, and Kusumi himself embodies this. Middle-aged, a heavy smoker, and walking with a crutch following an undisclosed accident, he walks through cold subway platforms and streets to the apartment where he lives alone, taking refuge in its tiny, womb-like sitting room, lined floor to ceiling with old vinyl records. The cinematography throughout is mostly leached of colour, like a faded photograph, the only natural light slanting or otherwise intruding into scenes and then only through leaves or shuttered windows. Hata and Saeko watch a performance of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, whose themes of the death of a child, living in the past and the impact of profound social change mirror those of the film.


Much of this derives from veteran anime director Fumihiko Takayama. Knowing the limitations of animation’s ability to generate genuine mystery and suspense but also understanding that film in general is a visual medium that should show the ‘how’ of a situation rather than the ‘why’, he opted for maintaining and extending the realistic urban backdrop for the action begun by Oshii, with the everyday in Tokyo – its trains, docks, mini-marts and streets – here rendered even more believably.

Conscious, too, of the pitfalls awaiting the makers of any ‘monster’ story, Takayama was especially keen to help audiences accept an element that, viewed objectively, is as fantastic as the labors themselves. He therefore grounded the genetically-engineered creature in sound real-world science, with the script referencing such concepts as telemores, molecules that protect the body’s cells from cancer-causing abnormalities but in doing so guarantee eventual cell death.

Assumptive analysis of any genre film made around the turn of the millennium is to be avoided, but it is difficult not to read concerns about that particular time into the finished WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3. The period coincides exactly with what some term the Lost Decade, marking the end of Japan’s global economic primacy, and Takayama himself notes that during the film’s prolonged gestation two specific events that shook the country occurred – the Great Hanshin or Kobe earthquake, in which more than 6,400 were killed, and the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground. That the film-makers found their projections of Tokyo in the near future overtaken by reality even as they completed their work only adds to the overall atmosphere.

There are connections to the previous films beyond SV2’s presence, most notably the unease between the police, the Japanese military and America. The creature is intended as a weapon, presumably for foreign sale, and yet the military is also required by circumstance to help destroy it. Gotoh tells Kusumi of a link to the Marshall Islands, where America tested her hydrogen bombs, whilst the stadium is shown being prepared for a pop video shoot directed by a comically egotistical US film director who speaks English throughout. And yet the contemptuous disregard felt for the lives created and destroyed that are the ‘wasted thirteen’ is wholly Japanese in origin, and acts at least in part as a spur for Saeko to act.

More personal than either of the earlier films, its darkness enlivened by only occasional splashes of colour, WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 is a richly layered and thoughtful production. Although a second set of OAVs and a television series – the latter following a separate continuity – were also made, it became the last production to explore the world of Patlabor. Each explored a world of the future, but in doing so inevitably also explored our own world.


Today, ten years later, separatist movements and border disputes still threaten peace in many parts of the world, and the Japanese prime minister himself, seeking to expand Japan’s role in the region and push back the country’s constitution, is accused of ‘new nationalism.’ With such changes in the air, the trilogy rewards repeated viewings not just as an involving and beautifully drawn set of stories, but as a rare chance to understand a people and a country, their past and their present.

Chris Rogers writes on architecture, film and other aspects of visual culture for various outlets and his own website,


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

3 thoughts on “States Of Mind: Patlabor On Film – Part 2”

  1. As noted by the artful use of a digital clock in the movie, set at 2:26, Patlabor 2′s references are less directed at her post-war status and more at her pre-war politics. The reference is to the 2/26 coup of 1936 and events like it, such as the November Incident and Aizawa’s assassination of Nagata. The events of the movie have parallels with the ways in which civilian government was suppressed, negated or intimidated, granting the military (in particular the Army) overweening power. I feel you have to look further back to the struggle to direct the kokutai and the efforts of the nationalists to effect a Showa Restoration to understand Patlabor 2′s cautionary warnings about militarism.

  2. It’s worth mentioning that this take on the Showa era also places Patlabor 2 in opposition to many nationalist manga series. There are no end of ‘young men rise to restore the national spirit’ manga and anime series. Take examples such as Sanctuary and Silent Service, which fetishise youth and its purifying power and give a pass to those who perform questionable acts in the service of the kokutai. One is reminded of the way in which hotheaded young officers in the ’20s and ’30s formented coups, conducted assassinations and even provoked wars, sometimes with barely a reprimand from their commanders.

    There’s a whiff of totalitarianism about these series that Patlabor, with it’s portrayal of middle-aged public servants just muddling through, seems to stand against.

  3. This second part is also great! thanks. I think I like better the first movie even though the second one is more complex and interesting. I feel some sympathy for the third movie but I don’t really like it that much, is too far from what Patlabor means to me.

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