"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."—Message left by Eiichi Hoba (from Genesis 11:7, KJV)
Every now and then, when you play silly games like truth or dare, you get a question like, "Which cartoon character is most like you?" I always answered, "Captain Gotoh, from Mobile Police Patlabor." Through two direct-to-video series, a television series, many volumes of manga (Japanese comics), and two feature films, the crew of Special Vehicles Section 2 and their giant robots have battled crime in the near future. Now Manga Video makes available the two Patlabor theatrical features. Both are directed by Ghost in the Shell's Mamoru Oshii. But does Manga Video's DVD treatment do justice to these excellent films?
Facts of the Case
The year is 1999. In order to reclaim much needed land from Tokyo Bay, the people of Japan have put their trust in the Babylon Project and a new technology called "Labors." These giant industrial machines have created a new type of crime, and a new type of police. The Patlabor (Patrol Labor) squad tries to fix what the traditional police cannot, in spite of their reputation for creating as much chaos as they stop.
But now, a new menace may be more than Captain Gotoh and his Special Vehicles Section 2 can handle. When a rash of berserk Labors suggests a sinister conspiracy that may destroy Tokyo, our heroes must uncover the secret plans of computer programmer Eiichi Hoba as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Hoba committed suicide a month ago, their computers are infected with an unstoppable virus, and their own police department is trying to shut down their investigation. With all that, and a typhoon on the way, do they even have a ghost of a chance?
If you are looking for superheroic mecha action like Gundam or even Evangelion, you will probably be puzzled by Mobile Police Patlabor's more realistic, almost laid-back approach to the giant robot genre. The series stresses a strong ensemble cast and a healthy blend of cop show and sitcom. While the series has its share of action, the consequences of giant robot rampages (massive property damage, financial cost, political fallout) have always been evident in Section 2's terrible public reputation and the exasperation of its chief, Captain Gotoh (as well as the embarrassment of Captain Nagumo, Gotoh's Section 1 counterpart). The group dynamics of the ensemble cast—including Noa (naïve and emotionally attached to her Patlabor "Alphonse"), Asuma (Noa's partner, always trying to move out of the shadow of his Labor-magnate father), Ohta (the trigger-happy maniac), and many others—is a major factor in the show's success.
Patlabor 1 (really titled Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie) was the first of two theatrical features based on the series, both directed by series co-creator Mamoru Oshii. The extended format allows Oshii to stretch out and not only develop a more intricate story, but slow down the pace to allow long, brooding shots of the Tokyo cityscape (which he will do much more extensively in the second film). In part, the film is a meditation on the pace of progress, with the Biblical fate of Babylon (the Tower of Babel story) as its metaphorical centerpiece, and the paradox of modern Tokyo, with its blend of old and new, chrome and trash, as its emotional heart. The Patlabor series has always been ambivalent about the problem of technology: it brings positive change but also potential threat. Of course, Japan has always been ambivalent about progress, being the only nation hit by an atomic bomb, then rebuilt and flourishing by the same technological miracles.
This first movie develops that theme with a deliberately paced and engrossing mystery. The giant robot action is saved for the climax, and when it comes, it is fast and furious. But until then, the focus is on a logic and realism. The bright color palette of the film is similar to the earlier entries of the series, but Oshii takes advantage of the feature film budget to provide more shadows and smoother animation (the art style will become much more realistic in the second film). Slow tracking shots focus on Tokyo's changing architecture (an important plot point, as well as being crucial to the themes discussed above), particularly during Detective Matsui's investigation of the mysterious Hoba. In some ways, the limitations of this first film, targeted toward mainstream audiences and by necessity reliant on standard movie formulas (the climactic mecha battle, for instance), seem to chafe on Oshii, who ambitiously adds depth to what might otherwise be a pretty straightforward action comedy, like the television series. This ambition will result in the far more complex and subtle Patlabor 2, as well as later cyberpunk projects like Ghost in the Shell and the forthcoming Avalon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie itself is wonderful, but now comes the hard part. I have to talk about the English dubbing. This is not going to be one of those "sub v. dub" arguments that proliferate among otaku ("fanboys"). Many dubs are quite good, and the inclusion of both audio tracks on a DVD allows viewers to choose their particular comfort level. But Manga Video's dub of this Patlabor movie is full of problems. Notwithstanding the fact that American voice casting is frequently less precise than its Japanese counterpart (which is just something anime fans have learned to live with), the voice chosen for Captain Gotoh is far too certain and aggressive to such a laid-back character. Gotoh's personality in the original Japanese is such that he comes across as lazy, boorish, and often clueless—but this is only a pose. He is really brilliantly manipulative (a fact which rarely dawns on people, even his own crew, until it is too late). The English dub makes him sound too forceful and awake.
But that is only the beginning. Major errors in translation (glaringly visible when watching the subtitles, but many others would be evident in any case) and continuity occur in the English dub. For example, when officers Noa Izumi and Asuma Shinohara go to meet up with Captain Shinobu Nagumo and discuss the new computer systems at the beginning of the film, Shinobu (a character Noa and Asuma have known for years) introduces herself to them as if they are meeting for the very first time. Later, Ohta makes remarks in Japanese about "destroying evil," pointing up his hair-trigger temper, but the English dub has him ranting about following orders instead.
More examples? How about the police helicopter pilot seriously describing Section 2's attempt to stop a berserk Labor? In the English dub, his professionalism is replaced with wrestling play-by-play. While Gotoh makes it clear in the original Japanese that Hoba's evil plan threatens to destroy Tokyo and a large part of the rest of Japan, the translators decided to up the ante and give a technobabble explanation that allows Hoba's plan to threaten the entire world! And maybe it was my imagination, but I could even swear that Noa names fellow officer Hiromi Yamazaki something like "Nodakoff" in one scene (and I replayed it four times to try and figure out what she was saying, since it did not match the Japanese track or the subtitles at all).
In a sense, Hoba's quote in "The Charge" above (taken from the story of Babel and which appears in English in the original film, so the translators cannot mess it up), is ironic: this English dub manages to confound all sensibility at times. Perhaps this would not be so bad, if the Japanese language track had been mastered with the same care as this English one. But while the English track is available in an expansive 5.1 mix, the Japanese track is dumped on here in mere 2.0 (although oddly, with a more aggressive mix on the sound effects, particularly the howling typhoon at the climax).
And in spite of the fact that this movie follows 70 episodes (combined television and direct-to-video—all of which are on VHS but none on DVD) of a complex and character-driven series, Manga Video provides no helpful extras at all to help viewers new to the series. The only extras are theatrical trailers for the two Patlabor movies, both badly edited with a lackluster and fact-challenged English voice-over (during the trailer for the first movie, the announcer intones that the characters only have one hour to save Tokyo—where was that deadline in the movie?), and a generic Manga Video ad. That is it.
I love Mobile Police Patlabor, but I cannot in good conscience recommend Manga Video's release of this DVD. The English dub is much too flawed to be acceptable, and the lack of attention paid to the more accurate Japanese audio track shows a dismissive attitude toward their product that needs to be addressed. Until Manga Video fixes these problems (and they or somebody else releases the video and television series on DVD), newcomers to the marvelous Mobile Police Patlabor series are likely to find this film disappointing. And that does not do justice to a fine series that deserves more attention.
May Hoba's righteous wrath strike down Manga Video. Hopefully, Patlabor will gets its due soon.
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