Review: Patlabor 3 – WXIII (2003)

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There was an excellent documentary on SBS a little while ago, about filmmaking in Japan. In it, for perhaps a tenth of the overall screen time along-side mention of the great Japanese directors — Ozu, Mizuguchi and Kurosawa — and the post-war cult films of Toho Studios, stood a single representative of the modern anime industry, one Satoshi Kon. What he had to say about anime, that it was not the industry’s ultimate goal and that animation was a means to make films, rather than the other way around, is something that can be applied without any threat of inaccuracy to the third installment of the Patlabor series.

WXIII is first and foremost a film, and watching, one gets the impression that if it were live-action, it would probably make for a better film than many of the big-budget Hollywood offerings. Drama-orientated and character-driven, this anime has all the hallmarks of the first two Patlabors; an image of a society choking on its own invention, and the flawed grace of the individual’s struggle to remain human in it. A recurring theme, but WXIII manages to approach it so seriously, in both narrative and technique, that any question of its film credentials is academic.

And this is probably its most impressive strength. There is such attention to detail that it is hard not to mistake it for a live-action film. Establishing shots have a big-budget-film quality to them and some scenes are breathtaking in places. To stop for a moment and consider that it is an animation approaches astonishing. Dialogue and action too are what you would expect of a good thriller from a good director. There’s no need to prop the story up with overbearing soundtracks or fancy editing. WXIII is subtle and paced, confident that it doesn’t have to rely on flash in order to keep its audience interested.

However, it is also so unlike the first two Patlabor films, in that if focuses very little of the elements that won many a fan-boy’s heart — the mecha, or labors, and the Mobile Police who pilot them — that it has suffered in regard. And yes, the premise of the story — government experiments in genetics gone wrong for the sake of personal vengeance — is not afforded the distraction of cool robot suits and quirky characters. No this is all drama and as such is forced to stand-alone here as a main feature, coming off just a little less believable as a result. Yet credit where credit is due. WXIII might be related to the other two films, but it is clearly a stand-alone piece and it bravely ventures into unexplored territory, rather than retracing already worn paths. The main characters this time, Senior Detective Takashi Kusumi and his younger partner Detective Shinichiro Hata, are painfully vulnerable, both professionally and in private, and are perhaps all the more affecting for those vulnerabilities. The climax of the film, for all its monstrous mayhem, is in actuality a personal conclusion, a question of heart versus head.

Such questions are never easy, but then that’s the point. WXIII is not about giant robot action, and don’t make the mistake that it is. Instead, it harks back to the underlying spirit of the Patlabor series, a spirit that is small, human and vulnerable, and all the more precious because of it.

8 Gumshoe Twists out of 10.
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