I was re-watching Patlabor 2 the other day, and there’s a scene in that movie that I just can’t get out of my head.
It’s actually the scene that made me re-watch the film in the first place; I’d pulled it up last week when trying to explain — in a conversation about why I don’t watch much anime anymore — what my favourite type of anime is/was.
Before we go any further, check it out below.
This is a special cut of the sequence (you can see the original with its lead-in here), with sound effects removed and a remastered version of the score played over the top, but that’s OK, because this is how I remember it anyway: cold and clean.
For context, its from a part in the movie where martial law is declared in a near-future Tokyo and a branch of the Japanese defence force basically “occupies” the capital.
But you don’t need to know what’s happening here to appreciate how good this is, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk about it.
Whether it’s video games or film, I think the best parts of a story are the parts told without words. Words can be messy, dialogue ponderous and distracting.
You can say more with a shot, a glance and some music than you can with 1000 lines of chit-chat, and normally with more memorable results. The Patlabor 2 scene above, for example, is my favourite in a movie that also involves giant fighting robots. For a non-anime example, please see below.
Everything just comes together in those two minutes. The environment art captures the everyday minutiae of Tokyo. The animation work is amazing. The cinematography is like something we’d see in a stylish live-action film. The music, perfect. It all comes together to make two minutes of haunting, beautiful anime which could just as easily serve as a music video or trailer as it does the beating heart of a classic film.
It also encapsulates everything I loved about anime in the ’80s and ’90s. A darker tone than you find in most stuff today, a less stylised approach to character design, a willingness to use a movie about giant police robots to actually explore complex political and social issues like Japan’s uncomfortable relationship with its own military.
Watch the clip again knowing this and see how weird it is. It’s a Tokyo in which tanks are on street corners and soldiers stand guard outside stores, deliberately invoking images of the city’s actual post-war occupation, which ended in 1952 (only 40 years before this movie was made!). In Patlabor 2, it’s almost a civil war, almost an occupation, and yet…despite the upheaval and strangeness of the situation, everyone is trudging on with their lives, equal parts hesitant and curious. Nothing is happening, nothing is being said, and yet the absence of “story” is telling a story all of its own.
If you haven’t seen Patlabor 2 (or indeed any of the Patlabor films), I can’t recommend them enough. You might want to see the first one to get in on the ground floor to know everything that’s going on with the sequel, but it’s not a necessity; like the sequence I’ve been talking about itself, it’s just fine standing alone.