The latest entry in a prolific Japanese video, manga, television, and movie series involving “patlabor” (short for “patrol labor”) police robots, Takayama Fumihiko’s WXIII (short for “wasted 13,” the nickname for the movie’s outsized amphibious creature) is a competent if overlong blend of policier, sci-fi conspiracy thriller, daikaiju eiga (giant monster) stompfest, and tragic romance. It’s also anime (short for “cheaper than live-action”).
Fortunately for the uninitiated, WXIII takes a stand-alone approach to the cycle, putting the robots well into the background in favor of a moody, Kiyoshi Kurosawa-style urban mystery. Middle-aged detective Kusumi and his young partner, Hata, stumble upon a cabal of genetic research scientists and American military opportunists as they investigate a string of murders near Tokyo Bay. The group has inadvertently unleashed a biological weapon—that’s monster to you and me—on the city, and the cops’ lives are dramatically changed by their efforts to expose the ensuing cover-up. The enervated veteran Kusumi is temporarily energized by the case, while Hata falls for a young woman scientist who is more personally involved with the project than anyone dares imagine. The story climaxes as the slithering, eyeless beastie slugs it out with, as the press kit breathlessly intones, “the Patlabors of Special Vehicle Division, Section 2!”
WXIII lacks the verve and visual daring of the best anime—last year’s Spirited Away, to cite one example; Takayama’s film would have been just as effective (perhaps even more so) with live actors and CGI creature effects. That said, its languid pace, beautifully rendered post-industrial milieu, and unexpectedly poignant finale elevate it several notches above the casually violent Japanese series peopled by Margaret Keane-esque characters that litter the Cartoon Network’s weekend lineup.