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The Fine Print
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The Tokyo Metropolitan Police are baffled. In what at first appeared to be a series of terrorist attacks, several of the humanoid vehicles known as Labors have been torn apart while working on the massive Babylon Project construction effort in Tokyo Bay. Now the unseen perpetrator has begun going after other targets, and hazy surveillance photos indicate that it may in fact be some kind of enormous aquatic creature. As the crisis mounts, the detectives are forced to turn to the city's legendary heroes--the Labor-driving police officers of the 2nd Special Vehicle Division, Section 2...
It's been almost ten years since the last transmission from the Patlabor universe--years in which the turn of the millennium became first the present, then the receding past, and Patlabor's high-tech vision of a future Tokyo circa 2000 AD quietly morphed into an alternate history. For the production team of WXIII, a project which was originally launched right after the release of the 1993 theatrical feature Patlabor 2, the past decade seems to have been a continuing struggle to bring this new Patlabor story to completion. Even as the staff toiled to finish the film, the passage of real-world history overtook the setting of their story, and somehow the resulting work seems suffused not merely with the bittersweet nostalgia of the previous Patlabor movies, but with a contemporary sense of pessimism and despair.
Taken together, WXIII's gloomy, doomy atmosphere, slow pacing, and emphasis on twisted human drama rather than giant-robot heroics or monster action serve to place the movie more in the genre of modern Japanese horror established by chillfests like the famous Ring series and Cure. In fact, the film's themes of alienation and thwarted communication wouldn't be out of place in Cure director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Internet-enhanced ghost story Kairo (a.k.a. "Pulse"). So how did a tall tale of robot-riding cops fighting mutant monsters end up as a mournful character study?
A LONG GESTATION
When the Patlabor series was launched in 1988, it was one of the earliest examples of a premeditated multimedia franchise. A core group consisting of mechanical designer Yutaka Izubuchi, character designer Akemi Takada, writer Kazunori Ito, manga artist Masami Yuki, and director Mamoru Oshii--the so-called Headgear team--mapped out the basic premise, then spun it off into a variety of comics, movies, TV series, and original videos. Launched at the peak of Japan's economic bubble, the Patlabor series projected a dynamic near-future world in which grave social and ecological challenges were overcome by technological ingenuity and the scrappy can-do spirit of Section 2's misfit Labor cops.
Oshii's Patlabor 2 movie served as an epilogue to the adventures of Section 2, reuniting the Patlabor heroes for one final confrontation with paramilitary conspirators. For the third film, the creators decided to go back and depict an earlier adventure of Section 2, adapting one of Yuki's manga stories into the WXIII plotline. The production was supervised by Izubuchi, a veteran mecha designer for series like Gundam and Dunbine--and, more recently, director of the TV series RahXephon. Izubuchi tapped Fumihiko Takayama (Mobile Suit Gundam 0080) to direct the film, and recruited sci-fi novelist Miki Tori as scriptwriter. Tori, troubled by the inherent implausibility of Patlabor's ubiquitous robots ("a big lie," as he puts it), tried to balance the scales by devising a credible explanation for the story's monster--the "Waste Product XIII" of the title, a runaway biological experiment based on the principles of genetic engineering and cancer research (plus a little deus ex machina in the form of a mysterious growth medium extracted from the core of a meteorite...!).
Meanwhile, director Takayama decided to reconcile the story's uneasy fusion of sci-fi robots and rampaging monsters by de-emphasizing both elements in favor of character-driven dramatics; as he says in the movie's program booklet, "If the main storyline has a basis in drama, then robots and monsters will be regarded as sub-elements within the main story." Likewise backgrounded are the ostensible heroes, the officers of Section 2, who make only brief cameo appearances up until their climactic takedown of the rampaging monster; even more than Patlabor 2, this movie comes off as a spinoff, or "side story," of the mainstream Patlabor saga. Instead, the focus is on a pair of humble beat detectives--grizzled veteran Takeshi Kusumi and his fresh-faced young partner Shinichiro Hata--and a biotech researcher named Saeko Misaki who becomes both Hata's love interest and Kusumi's chief suspect.
The WXIII production effort continued for some four years under Takayama's direction before eventually grinding to a complete halt around 1998, only to be revived a few years later in the hands of the acclaimed Madhouse animation studio. Takuji Endo (Reign, the X TV series) picked up the director's reins in Takayama's stead, and the long-awaited film was finally wrapped up in time for a Spring 2002 debut in Japanese theaters.
LIVES OF QUIET DESPERATION
In its final form, WXIII is very much the atmospheric character study of Takayama's conception. Like its predecessors, the movie is filled with lingering views of carefully rendered Tokyo cityscapes, and the motivations and desires of the introverted characters are established by a myriad of tiny details and subtle clues. At first glance, the more-or-less friendly rivalry of the two detectives seems to be a case of newfangled gadgetry versus old-school investigative work; hotshot Hata is forever parking himself in front of the computer to fire off a round of web searches, while old fogey Kusumi would rather sit in his study listening to his archive of vinyl records and grumbling about the inferior sound quality of modern audio media. However, both men are eventually revealed to be lonely bachelors, and in one telling scene they exchange barbs about Kusumi's separation from his (never-seen) family and Hata's evidently luckless forays into online dating.
Perhaps it's the emptiness of Hata's cyber-centric lifestyle that leads him to fall like a ton of bricks for the enigmatic researcher Saeko, the loneliest and most desperate character of all. It's a convention of Japanese horror that, nine times out of ten, the trouble starts with women and their thwarted desires for love, vengeance, or whatnot. The nature of Saeko's particular trauma, and its relation to the monster prowling Tokyo Bay, is gradually revealed over the course of the movie. Since the ultimate outcome is scarcely in doubt--this being a prequel, we know the Labor cops of Section 2 will triumph over the mutant beastie--it's the incremental unraveling of the hows and whys and motives that provides WXIII with its narrative drive...or in other words, we'll spoil no more on this subject. Suffice it to say that Saeko, just like the lonesome detectives, is trying in her own way to reach out for some kind of companionship.
Just as Oshii's earlier Patlabor movies doubled as meditations on the state of Tokyo, and Japanese society at large, this one likewise places its characters' problems in a larger social context. Like the aforementioned Kairo, WXIII depicts Tokyo as something of a ghost town despite its surface bustle. A planned music video is being shot in an empty stadium, with cheering fans to be added digitally after the fact, while the monster picks off its victims along depopulated waterfronts and inside empty warehouses. In addition to its isolation and alienation, WXIII's Tokyo also feels stagnant, even decrepit. Patlabor's alternate world may have started out as an optimistic projection based on the confidence and energy of Japan's bubble years, but now the real world's funk of failure seems to have crept into this pocket universe as well. Instead of stirring up a frenzy of construction work and reshaping Tokyo overnight, the Babylon Project now seems to limp along in halfhearted fashion, with a handful of Labors dejectedly poking about in the bay in between monster attacks. Even the ubiquitous signs protesting the controversial project are yellowed and peeling from neglect, infected by the same creeping entropy.
It's against this backdrop of futility and gloom that the trials and tragedies of WXIII's characters are acted out. A world like this isn't hospitable to heroes, and whenever Hata and Kusumi cross paths with the familiar Patlabor cast, the latter's larger-than-life personalities and garish outfits make them seem like visitors from another world--a brighter, better one. Ten years ago, these people were lovable misfits in a world of gadgetry and excitement, but it appears that the passage of time has been no kinder to their world than it has to ours. The result is a story that's frequently melancholy, even depressing--and slow-paced enough to turn off a lot of anime enthusiasts, even with the inclusion of a couple of high-adrenaline chase scenes and a climactic robot-versus-monster brawl. But with its painstaking plotting and rich narrative themes, the end result of WXIII's decade-long development is a thoughtful and ambitious work which holds its own with both Oshii's justly acclaimed Patlabor movies and with the best works of Japan's live-action horror cinema.