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Third Time’s the Charm

more than 20 years later, commander goto is still the coolest bastard in anime

WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (HEADGEAR, Madhouse)

There are a lot of examples in anime, I’m positive, of directors leaving in the middle of continuing a series–be they TV series, movies, franchise projects–and as a consequence changing the style and challenging the identity already established in prior outings. Of course many of the substitute directors would try to follow the original spirit and to transfer the hallmarks of what made the preceding endeavors what they were, but the resulting product, in most cases, won’t be as charming or as interesting. Especially if the ex-director follows a flavorful style all his own. The biggest example of this I know would probably be Hideaki Anno and Kare Kano, where following a reported dispute with the original manga artist regarding the show’s creative direction, the director left production and wound up sending the rest of the series down the stinker (but not before giving Hiroyuki Imaishi his first chance to shine–his episode 19, to me, still is one of the greatest episodes of TV anime I have ever seen). I find that this is the case for the final installment of the Patlabor movie series–possibly the whole franchise itself–which in turn prompted me to type out my thoughts after an otherwise humdrum session of anime viewing.

 

Eight years after Mamoru Oshii’s seminal feature film Patlabor 2 comes the third part of the movie series included in the mecha franchise, WXIII. The artist group HEADGEAR returns to take charge of the creative duties of the movie, though this time, there’s a conspicuous difference from their former feature outings–and that is, namely, the absence of the much-acclaimed director Mamoru Oshii himself (not to mention the group’s main screenwriter, Kazunori Ito, is gone as well). The three remaining members of the group then went on a new course for this production, then, moving places from IG, where they produced the first two films, down to Madhouse, where they got a new director/screenwriter to fill in the void (HEADGEAR went to Sunrise somewhere in the middle to create the TV series). Successfully porting over the established potency of the first two films into a third using the hands of another creator is a challenge in itself, and building up on that is even more of a troubling task. WXIII, then, sad to say, made me feel more than somewhat disappointed, not only in terms of the movie itself, but also at what the series has come to after eight years. The Patlabor franchise in itself offers a broad range of subject material and storytelling areas, but it’s only at the hands of a highly skilled director that these things can be exploited and maximized to their fullest potential.

This may not be particularly obvious to anyone, but I actually am a fan of Mamoru Oshii. I liked how he approached his work with a kind of intelligently studied viewpoint, giving his works a scholarly appeal inflected with an awareness of events going on around him, not to mention his closely observed attention to the power of mood and atmosphere. Not a few people have infused philosophy and other subject matter into their creations, but Oshii does it in his own conscious manner, as if he knows exactly which scene or which line of dialogue on which to invest time and attention regarding that. Nowadays people don’t like him as much because of the way he over-extends his focus on mood and message to the point of coming off as obnoxious, and dare I say it, pretentious and self-indulgent, as if he was talking to himself through the boundary of animation. And I understand that perfectly. I myself don’t like the style he’d adopted for himself in the years after his legendary Ghost in the Shell feature film in 1995,  to which I was incredibly turned off. If he hadn’t gotten an army of excellent people to provide scrumptious technical work in his subsequent projects, I wouldn’t have been able to find anything to enjoy in them. Still, it’s the basic trademarks of his work as a director that I respect in the man. He knows what he’s doing, both as writer and director, although at times he makes too much of a show about the fact that he does know what he’s talking about, resulting in the rambling nature of his recent work, as ironic as that may sound.

One of my favorite anime of all time is actually something directed by Oshii himself: the 6-episode 1989 OVA series Gosenzosama Banbanzai, produced at Studio Pierrot (Bleach, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho). In that piece I saw him at his most quirky and brilliant, where he successfully crafts a marvelously layered story complete with all the bitingly hilarious social commentary and oddball humor I saw myself wanting to see more of coming from the man. He binds these elements together in a screwy yet fantastically stylish fashion, deciding to let his characters act out the story in the form of a whacked-out play, thus giving the OVA a more self-aware slant. The OVA is typical Oshii in that we see him willfully control the details of the story–plot, scenes, dialogue, characters–except for the main difference being that he doesn’t go overboard with it and overload people with droning discourses over matters only he appears to have an intimate knowledge of. The OVA series is a clear work of an intelligent and undoubtedly talented director, having fun with his concoction and running away with it. Adding to the madness are the innovative character designs provided by Oshii’s partner-in-crime for Gosenzo, the master animator Satoru Utsunomiya (Peek the Whale, Aquarion #19, Paranoia Agent #8) who brought to life expressive characters full of personality despite being drawn all cartoon-y and non-naturalistic (puppet-like joints and all). The designs and the animation flesh out and complement the script very well, adding in a dimension of realistic yet imaginative expression.

Some time after this Oshii went to work on his group’s first feature film, Patlabor the Movie in 1991, where he began to veer into his present stylistic direction of moody, poetic realism of which he became most known for in anime fan and critics’ circles. Patlabor the Movie being the first of this string of like-minded films, it doesn’t come off as feeling like the most polished or richly refined thing in the world. Rather, it felt more raw and rough, flowing as though Oshii was in the middle of finding the right balance and his desired way of portraying gritty realistic drama behind the backdrop of giant bipedal mecha running amok all over Tokyo. The film is quite endearing to watch due to that aspect. It’s interesting to see where and how Oshii started to find the artistic voice that predominantly pervaded the nature and feel of his subsequent efforts, and that also came to define how the man is perceived at present. The movie itself is quite pleasant, a deftly constructed  mixture of the fun humor of the characters and the hard-nosed drama of the script, and despite not gelling together well as of yet manages to maintain interest throughout its running time.

It’s in the second installment of the Patlabor movie series that everything comes to a head. Most people claim 1995’s Ghost in the Shell as Mamoru Oshii’s definitive masterpiece in the 90s and of all time, deservedly so, but after watching the second Patlabor movie I started to feel as if Patlabor 2 indeed was Oshii‘s masterpiece of that period, and is also perhaps one of his best works yet. The aforementioned predilection of the director for a brooding atmospheric ride filled with tension at every turn had reached its full maturity by the time of Patlabor 2. Every element he’d introduced into the film blended smoothly with the established tone of the characters and the setting, and there isn’t a scene that goes by without giving off that trademark sensation of tension and suspense. To my mind, it is Oshii’s undisputed masterpiece in the realistic vein. From the politically charged story to the meaningful personal interaction of the characters, the film is suffused with the director’s unmistakable eye for mood and slow, poetic pace. I mentioned the inherent flexibility of the original material in an earlier post, and it is to the merit of that said flexibility that Oshii succeeds at turning the original OVA over on its head by shifting in an altogether different direction, a direction that is practically situated at the extreme end of the spectrum. I also loved how there’s always a subdued yet clear feeling of dread and suspense even when there seems to be nothing outrageous happening on screen; there’s one or two signature scenes that stick to mind as being representative of that success: the scenes halfway through the film where the rogue JSDF forces invade Tokyo, and at the very end of the movie, where Nagumo makes her arrest. They are imbued with supreme poignancy, evoking different emotions from the viewer. Personally, I had goosebumps watching those. Ghost in the Shell 1995 is the next logical step in which the director took this approach, faithful adaptation of the original material be damned.

All of this rambling about Mamoru Oshii and his past work is meant to highlight the key element that hindered me from enjoying the third Patlabor movie as I wanted. The movie is a decent watch, and it does keep trucking on the same spirit that made the first two films the great films that they were, but you get the feeling that it lacks something substantial and important, that glue which binds all the elements together into a compelling whole. Deep into the film, I sort of began to figure out what it was that I was looking for, and that was Mamoru Oshii. Without him guiding the flow of the scenes and the details of the script, what remains is a drab movie that simply goes through its motions, following the blueprint of the two preceding films in terms of narrative succession and flow. I could sense that they did attempt, at least, to stick with the program built by the first two films in terms of mood and pace, but they failed to capture that same magic of those said films, thereby only coming away with just that–a blueprint. The film felt utterly flat and insubstantial, also lacking in suspense and drive. Its respective elements didn’t come together and mesh into an engaging whole, but felt rather meandering and tacky.

Contributing to the disappointment I experienced was the overall direction the staff chose to go with the story. Part of what made the prior two Patlabor films great was their choice of material to handle. The first one was more typically anime in that it involved a rather outlandish scenario regarding a rogue computer program that shorts out the mechas and makes them go berserk, while the second one was the most believably realistic of the franchise, involving another rogue high-ranking military man who hatches a conspiracy that threatens to undermine Japan’s national security. Now, though, eight years after the fantastic Patlabor 2, we are treated to a comparably inane and hackneyed narrative tack–this time, the enemy is neither man nor machine, but a mutated, man-eating  giant fish. Of course, Patlabor is no stranger to silliness in its stories, but suddenly choosing to use that point directly after the masterful showing of something like Patlabor 2 is downright uninspired and at worst, even terrible. From rogue mecha to rogue soldier to gigantic, man-eating fish that looks like it could very well have come from a cheap Hollywood B-movie, the film series sure did go in an unexpected direction. It’s kind of a shame that the franchise had this film to show for its final entry; it could have done so much better.

One thing I do respect WXIII for, though, is the daring decision the staff made to completely shift the focus to two new protagonists, relegating the main characters of the past Patlabor entries to cameo appearances and supporting roles. Patlabor 2 also went in a similar direction, but the focus of the story remained fixed on members of the much-loved Special Vehicles Unit Section 2–namely Goto and Nagumo, the latter having more significance in terms of the plot. It also didn’t help me that both of them are two of my favorites of the cast (no offense to Noa/Shinohara fans, but hell, all of the characters are very likable anyway). Anyway, I like that the new staff of the last film decided to start off on a new foot, but it would have been better for me if the new protagonists were as interesting or even as likable as the original cast. I’m not asking them to replicate the lasting appeal of the main cast, since after all they’ve already been around since the first OVA came out (I forgot the year, was it 1987?), but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt had they at least been a little more interesting. At least that guy Hata had some plot-related personal drama going on in the sidelines, but what of the older guy with a bum leg, Kusumi? Aside from the bad leg, there’s practically nothing noteworthy in the guy; you could replace him with anybody else in the list of grunts in the film and not lose a single thing. Perhaps that was the point, but it’s a point I don’t get–and a point I don’t like.

Their attempt at transporting the hallmark style of the two preceding films was commendable in that they even tried to do it at all; I was half-expecting the staff to go in another direction for this last one, considering the fact that Oshii wasn’t there anymore, but in WXIII they opted to replicate the sleepy mood of the two films probably to make the complete film series feel more homogeneous and unified in the final tally. It was nice, and the effort was there, but somehow it doesn’t feel right anymore. WXIII felt as though the staff had only managed to duplicate the skeletal framework of the prior movies, but totally lacked the all-important glue that was absolutely necessary to push the resulting film into new and richer territory. It isn’t nearly enough merely to copy the rough, basic elements of the older film entries, but an appropriate level of personal touch and savvy is also necessary to truly keep the film at the same standard of quality as the past movies, rather than just go through it in a normal, more rudimentary kind of way. Watching WXIII, I felt that they were only going through the motions from point A to point B, following a similar route of progression I’ve already seen, only this time more lackluster and drab. Mamoru Oshii at least managed to permeate an ever-present sensation of dread and suspense at every turn in his films, despite the slowness and languidness of the films’ flows. Here there’s almost none of that–though I have to admit the climactic scene (where they force the monster fish to listen to a Beethoven piano recording) was sort of nice. It was the scene that came closest to achieving the same heavy, solid effect as Oshii‘s scenes in Patlabor 1 and 2.

You wouldn’t believe it while watching the film, but WXIII actually had some heavyweight animators involved in it. The first three names listed are just some of the people who’d staked their claim to fame by working on many memorable feature films past to present, and they’re joined by other talented individuals, some of whom have gone on to do good work in lots of places. But still, even with their involvement, the animation in the film honestly looks and feels sedate and sterile, keeping faith with the other dull elements comprising the movie. There are some FX and action shots that were kind of nice, but ultimately there’s nothing arresting and noteworthy. It seems as if they’ve focused their attention on animating the little details of character movement, all in accordance to the approach of the film. Still, even in that department I didn’t notice anything fresh. Perhaps that’s the point and I’m just blind…but anyway, I’d say the film is decent in that aspect, though you would normally expect them to give more effort to the action scenes, since this is a mecha action film and all that.

Anyway, for the animators you have Kazuhide Tomonaga, Hiroyuki Aoyama and Atsuko Tanaka all listed at the top and in descending order. Tomonaga is a veteran animator who’s probably best remembered for his numerous contributions to the old Lupin III movies produced at Telecom (on which the likes of Hayao Miyazaki et. al had also worked). Aoyama, of course, has appeared in a lot of anime since this one (most notably working as one of the animation directors on Mamoru Hosoda‘s Tokikake, among other things), and I was surprised that he’d actually worked with Madhouse way back in 2001, though I suspect this job was in his capacity as a Telecom animator at the time. Atsuko Tanaka is a pillar of Ghibli’s animation, appearing in all their films since Princess Mononoke, and she also did a whole lot of work for 2001’s Spirited Away, where reportedly she took care of animating the witch throughout the film (There’s also another Atsuko Tanaka credited in WXIII, but that was for a voice-acting role; it was the same voice actress who’d given life to the Major in the original dub for the Ghost in the Shell franchise–this time she played the role of Misaki the scientist).

Then there’s also Takeshi Koike, who we already know to have directed the incredible Redline, appearing in this film as an animator. Hiroshi Hamasaki looks to also be included here, as was Soichiro Matsuda, who’d done some great work in lots of places after this one. Many an episode of TV anime was enriched by the man’s animation. Apparently Shin Itagaki (?) was also here, but I know zilch about him so I can’t say anything worthwhile. Then we also have Daisuke Nakayama (?), the director of the Global Astroliner short included in Studio 4C’s omnibus collection Amazing Nuts, on board WXIII both as an animator and one of the animation directors (also joined by Kazuchika Kise, it looks like).

One thing I also don’t quite get with WXIII is how they managed to wrangle the services of three mecha designers for this film despite the mecha shots being spread out in tiny splotches here and there for short spans at a time. And they weren’t just your typical, dime-a-dozen mecha designers, either. Hajime Katoki, Shoji Kawamori, and Yutaka Izubuchi reprise their former roles in Patlabor 2 for WXIII, working as the mecha designers one more time. Katoki is, for all intents and purposes, Sunrise’s go-to guy when it comes to designing mecha, his latest effort being for the Gundam Unicorn OVA series. Kawamori needs no introduction, while Izubuchi is best known for directing Bones’ own mecha series Rahxephon in 2002. There’s hardly any shot of mecha in the film to warrant the services of three such heavyweights in the field, in my view, but more power to the production committee for getting them in the first place. If they could, they probably would have gotten Satoshi Kon to contribute layouts here as he did for Patlabor 2, as well.

I haven’t watched much anime in the mecha genre to spout credible opinions, but I have to say the Patlabor franchise is the one I have most affection for, because of its natural flexibility and the strength of its creative direction, from characters to setting to story to actual mecha. It speaks of the talent level that was amassed when HEADGEAR was formed in the 80s, where a group of creators spanning both media of manga and anime united for a common goal–to create interesting and fun pieces of entertainment in the two media. In that way, it’s a bit more comprehensive than the formation of Gainax in 1983-84, whose birth ran on similar threads. It’s too bad they’re not making new Patlabor anime anymore. I believe the franchise still has a lot of untapped ground in terms of storytelling and subject material, and it’s just sitting in the cellar collecting dust, waiting in the wings to be rediscovered. Something like WXIII shouldn’t have been the last gasp of the franchise.

Oh well, on to the second OVA and TV series I go.

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