Between forty and fifty years ago, a movement that would come to be known as superrealism began within the visual arts. Pioneered by artists such as Chuck Close and Audrey Flack, superrealists (sometimes referred to as photorealists) sought to infuse a then-unparalleled level of detail into their work, seeking to replicate a photograph as nearly as possible with paint or sculpture. The early twenty-first century saw the next step in the movement: hyperrealism. While the superrealists viewed the imitation of reality as their goal, hyperrealists wanted to go beyond reality and imbue their art with a message, a point of view (which had the effect of depicting reality as reflecting that point of view).
I believe that animation from the mecha battles in Patlabor the Movie falls into this category of hyperrealism.
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading: Wolf Parade “Modern World”
To echo a fairly common opinion, one of my favorite things about the first Patlabor film, and much of Patlabor in general, is the execution of the mecha battles. I don’t mean in terms of fight choreography: this mostly degenerates into a sort of 80s WWE-style slugfest. While such fare works for me just fine, it’s not what I’m referring to. No, what I really dig about the battle animation in Patlabor is just how damaged the robots get and the degree of detail in which this damage is displayed. Each fraying wire, cracking beam and popping bolt is animated in painstaking detail. The amount of frames devoted to the mechanical dismemberment as well as the precision with which the mechanical parts are drawn make the violence come off as quite visceral. Here, my mind is drawn to hyperrealism.
As stated above, hyperrealism is distinguished from superrealism in its (a) going beyond the real in its detail and (b) depicting reality with narrative elements. I see both (a) and (b) in Patlabor the Movie.
Hyperrealism strives to be “realer” than real, with a focus sharper and details more vivid than what can be seen in an actual photograph. This is exactly what I think of when viewing the beautifully elaborate destruction depicted in Patlabor. It’s too real. The ease with which metal tears away from its frame, the way the exposed wire flows through the air, the sheer number of pieces of scrap that fly off of the outer armor…though these images are firmly rooted in reality (and not played as over-the-top), there’s something about the scenes that feels simulated. We are tricked into thinking that the images look real. Producing this particular state of simulated reality, one which “feels” real, allows the hyperrealist a platform to present her message as something that is a feature of reality.
What sort of narrative does Mamoru Oshii intend to put forth with Patlabor‘s battle animation? I’ve got some guesses, but hell if I know for sure. However, one cannot deny that Oshii is the sort of director who would/does do this kind of thing. He claims that every shot used in his films is laden with meaning. Given that, I don’t think the idea of Oshii using hyperrealist methods can be dismissed out of hand. So: let’s speculate!
I think the most likely candidate for the message which Oshii is trying to communicate is: the fragility of technology. This reinforces the thrust of the film’s main narrative; it’s just another, indirect way of communicating the same idea. Labors represent technology which we take for granted. We build our futures on this technology, slowly trusting it with more and more autonomy over our functions. Yet, how easily these towering robots can be reduced to scrap; how all-encompassing is the threat from a single virus installed in the Labor OS. What appears to be invincible can be quickly destroyed or, worse, turned against its creators. I don’t think Oshii is advocating an anti-technology stance; however, I do believe that he wants to caution us against an advance of technology so rapid that its curators cannot learn enough about the technology to prevent the exploitation of it by those who would do harm. Not only is technology neutral rather than some inherent good of progress, but it also breaks quite easily.
What other ideas could Oshii be trying to communicate through hyperrealistic animation, if he’s using this method at all?