Wednesday, December 18, 2013

States Of Mind: Patlabor On Film

I'm breaking the very necessary radio silence that occurred over November. Nanowrimo, as ever, took up a great deal of time, and cruel as it may seem, something had to give.

Let me make it up to you.

There will be a fat dose of Speakeasy goodness coming up over the next couple of weeks in the form of Xmas treats-keep your ears peeled for that. In the mean time, I'm delighted to host a new longform piece by our friend, the mighty Chris Rogers. He promised us something on the influential Patlabor series, and he's come through in spades. Over the next two posts, he explores the themes, history and influence of a film series that would come to help define the visual grammar of Japanese SF as it approached the 21st century.

Strap in.


PART ONE: PILOT ERRORTen years into the future; a forest outside Tokyo. Night. From the dark sky, massive armoured bipedal machines descend by cargo parachute and retro jets to join soldiers, their faces set, moving quietly through the trees. A stop line is formed; weapons are readied. A rumble of noise becomes a roar as their foe, a prototype flying tank, crashes through the undergrowth towards them. It opens fire; the soldiers reply. Gunfire tears into the tank, but it doesn't stop. The automatic cannon of the bipeds adds to the unit's firepower, and now helicopters dive in to attack with missiles. Finally, a spider's web of cable strung across its path snares the shattered tank and brings it to a halt. As it lies immobile, soldiers close in, warily. They scramble on to the hull and level their guns, ready to confront the renegade crew. The tank's hatch is forced open. The cockpit is empty.

So begins the anime feature Patlabor the Movie (1989), an absorbing and intelligent techno-thriller that was a great success in its home country but also helped popularise anime in the West. The film became the first of a trilogy, each of which explored the same carefully-realised societal landscape but from very different angles. Thus Patlabor 2 the Movie (1993) is a densely-plotted political drama that audaciously draws on Japan's troubled history to posit a scenario uncomfortably close to reality, whilst WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (2002) is a sombre side story set between the two earlier productions that fuses characterful introspection with classic monster movie tropes. All three feature narrative complexity, incisive cultural critiques and often exquisite execution to form an intriguing, multifaceted commentary on today's Japan.

This is perhaps surprising given the genesis of Patlabor as an essentially light-hearted Original Animation Video (OAV) series. Devised by Yuuki Masami of creative collective Headgear and released the year before the first film, it was intended for a teenage audience and was complemented by manga and novel versions. The concepts at the heart of the OAV, however, suggested the potential for a more adult iteration. The involvement of Headgear director Oshii Mamoru in the series must also have made this likely. Oshii would later bring Shirow Masamune's Ghost in the Shell to the screen as well as his own original live action virtual reality drama Avalon, reflecting his long-standing interest in the dissection of worlds, meditations on life and the interface between the two.
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