Behind the cumbersome title "Patlabor WXIII The Movie" lies a dazzling Japanese animated feature that unfortunately is further encumbered by its presentation in an English-subtitled version that is woefully inadequate. The route to the film's dramatic and poignant climax is so hard to follow that the pleasure, the potential for which is considerable, has been substantially diminished.
What is needed is an English-language version that has at least enough soundtrack narration to set the stage. (Sony is said to be releasing such a version in DVD; equally perplexing is releasing the subtitled version at the Beverly Connection, a mainstream mallplex, instead of an art theater.)
At any rate, reviewers have the advantage of a thicket of background material. The setting is Tokyo in the near future. Giant industrial robots called "Labors" have been put to use in an ambitious land-reclamation project in Tokyo Bay, but the Labors are being destroyed and their human operators murdered.
Investigating for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police is the ace veteran detective Takeshi Kusumi (Katsuhiko Watabiki) and his young assistant Shinichiro Hata (Hiroaki Hirata). Kusumi grows suspicious of Hata's new girlfriend Saeko (Atsuko Tanaka), a genetic researcher for the Toto Bio Medical Laboratory, which is secretly developing WXIII, or Wasted Thirteen, a mysterious biological weapon. (Kusumi has at his disposal his own "patlabors" -- patrol robots, hence the film's title.)
WXIII is a monster reminiscent of Godzilla; just as Godzilla embodied post-atomic, apocalypse/Cold War paranoia, WXIII represents the specter of horrendous biological warfare.
Director Fumihiko Takayama and writer Tori-Miki and their creative and technical team, including a vast number of Korean animators, have created a world that is recognizably ours. The Tokyo megalopolis of the near future has a flourish of immense and dramatic new construction but is still the city of the present, still filled with unexpected nooks and crannies where the charming, human-scale Old Tokyo persists. The film's striking look verges on the photo-realistic overlaid with a noirish atmosphere, and its economically but evocatively sketched characters have been given detail and dimension.
"Patlabor," which grew out of a popular, seven-episode home video series and a comic book anthology, has no trouble involving the viewer in its persuasively real and ominous universe. The trouble is that it's impossible to say with any certainty what's going on from one moment to the next -- and that at the end it becomes clear it has been a great deal more inaccessible than necessary.
MPAA rating: R, for language.
Times guidelines: Some four-letter words, some gruesome images and some scenes too intense for small children.
Voice of Katsuhiko Watabiki...
...Senior Detective Takeshi Kusumi
Voice of Hiroaki Hirata...
...Detective Shinichiro Hata
Voice of Atsuko Tanaka...
Voice of Ryunosuke Ohbayashi...
Voice of Miina Tominaga...Noa Izumi
A Pioneer Entertainment release of a Bandai Visual Co. Ltd. and Tohokushinsha Film Corp. production. Director Fumihiko Takayama. Screenplay Tori-Miki; from a story by Masami Yuuki. Supervising director Yutaka Izubuchi. Character design Hajime Katoki, Shoji Kawamori. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
Exclusively at the Beverly Connection, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd. (at the corner of Beverly Boulevard); (310) 659-5911.