Mobile Police Patlabor – the original series

The original Patlabor OVA raises an interesting prospect when it comes to recommendations: because I have no idea what’s presently showing on Japanese TV, what I present to you is a selection picked from my own collection amassed over the years. Given the metamorphosis of the industry, a lot of the stuff that I own is out of print, so even if I say it’s good it might be hard to find. Still, history is history, and my opinions are valid whenever they’re presented.

That said, can I recommend the original Patlabor when it works best when taken in the context of an entire canon: seven initial OVAs, three movies, a 47 episode TV series, a sixteen episode OVA follow up to that, and three weird paper craft specials?

Yeah, I can, I guess. The original Patlabor OVA series is a collection of experiments met with varying success, and it works best when taken in conjunction with everything that came after it. Had Patlabor ended with the initial six episodes, it is doubtful that it would have had any lasting impact beyond being a playground for Oshii Mamoru before Ghost in the Shell.

As it stands, 23 years after the event,  I’m kind of mystified by the success of Patlabor; but the industry was much different back then. This is a good supplement but not the best at standing by itself.

In 1999 the prevalence of work robots, called “labors”, has inevitably led to the rise of labor related crimes. To combat labor crime, the Special Vehicles unit is formed. Patlabor follows SV Division 2 as they try to keep the streets of Tokyo safe with their Patrol Labors – Patlabor.

 

From the start, Patlabor was all about the people who work for SV2 rather than the robots. It turns out that this is at least in part a matter of economics: people are cheaper and easier to animate than robots, which have to be more detailed in both design and action. This is why labors don’t show up until the end of the first episode, which is about the new SV2 members waiting, bored, for their arrival.

Much of what happens in Patlabor does not strictly matter: these are mere vignettes in the lives of a new section of the police squad that may or may not one day be of use. The number of action scenes across these seven episodes can be counted on the fingers of two hands, and the labor baton isn’t showcased until the final episode, which Oshii had nothing to do with.

The core cast are fun to watch, although they don’t get much time to develop beyond a comedy troupe in this series. It is only in episodes five and six, when they go on holiday, that we get to see what they’re like because we’re allowed to observe their home lives and how they affect their work. It’s in these episodes that Oshii’s skill becomes apparent; he can make the best of any material, elevating a script above mere words into something nearly transcendent. Despite the 1999 setting, Patlabor is really just 1988 plus labor robots and environmental disquiet in the background. It is best taken in this spirit, because it is a true product of its time.

 

The first three episodes on my DVDs are paired with a combined interview/director’s commentary with Oshii Mamoru, which is interesting to say the least. Oshii has always been an eccentric character (Innocence was inspired by the death of his cat), and what he says here establishes him as somewhat misanthropic as well. The majority of the second episode is devoted to his denunciation of Kanuka, capped off with him saying “it depresses me just to look at her”. This casts a pall over the character, watching everything that she does with the knowledge that the director expressly hates her and has never approved. What’s even stranger about it is recognising that Oshii is almost exactly right, and it’s not until episode six that Kanuka really gets anything meaningful to do.

Oshii’s reaction to the third episode is telling: he and Kawai are the only people in Japan who liked it. Hated by fans and production staff alike, Oshii comes to a spirited defence of “The 450 Million Year Old Trap”: it’s an homage to monster movies.

That Oshii was trying for something different with each episode is somewhat admirable, but that this led to an episode in which a behemoth freak of forced evolution trawls Tokyo Bay is more than a little distressing. People tend to have certain expectations of a series; if it has police robots in it, that’s fine: it’s a giant robot show. However, if the police robots are called upon three episodes in to investigate a creature of the deep, that’s a different genre altogether, and one that doesn’t gel with the imagined Patlabor universe like the other genre variations do: you can have police robots in a terror plot, you can have a “ghost story” at a training camp and you can definitely have the political uprising plot that closes out the series proper, but it’s difficult to suspend disbelief sufficiently to take on the sea monster plot.

All of this said, however, and knowing Oshii’s feelings on the matter, I can’t help but like “The 450 Million Year Old Trap”. It is true that I tuned out a little when it came time for all of the techno-babble at around the halfway point, but the episode has such a great feel and punchline that it’s easy enough to forgive it in light of all of the other Patlabor material that eventually became available.

If I, by some strange chance, were a Japanese person diligently buying these tapes upon their release in 1988, I would likely have flipped the table. “The 450 Million Year Old Trap” is an elaborate prank, and a brilliantly executed one – many directors would kill for that sort of atmosphere – but I can’t blame anyone for being confused by it. Of course, this episode would later go on to inspire a similar story in the third Patlabor film, WXIII, so it seems that everything in this world has its purpose.

 

The centrepiece of Patlabor is the two part finale, episodes five and six: “SV2’s Longest Day”. By this point, Oshii knew exactly what he was doing in making these things and the feel of these episodes is electric. It’s highly flawed, because the conflict is based on vague Japanese politics you really had to be there for, and the resolution is just one stop short of insane, but as a tactile experience it can’t really be beaten. Where the other five episodes are pleasant enough diversions, sometimes showing a certain mastery of craft, “SV2’s Longest Day” is both an essential piece of Patlabor lore and wonderfully pulled off. If it had been the last word on the series total I probably would have been angry – its conclusion really is abrupt and doesn’t strictly make even the remotest semblance of sense – but in the context of everything else in this franchise it’s really something special.

Episode seven was made to capitalise on the release of the first movie and feels more tacked on than anything else: the characters don’t get much of a work out (although chief Goto is delightful as ever) and the story itself fizzles. Oshii doesn’t seem to acknowledge its existence, as he thought the series was fine with its six episode run, and it’s really just marking time with sub-par material. Episode six is the true conclusion and should be treated as such – but it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge episode seven as part of the canon; not all canon has to be of consequence.

 

If you only intend to consume one piece of Patlabor, I would advise against making it this original OVA series. For the truest flavour, you should go for the TV series, which is about generating good will for the Special Vehicles division. I haven’t seen the movies for approximately ten years, but I’ll change that soon and get back to you. Regardless: Patlabor is a fine property indeed, one that warms my heart. This is a flawed iteration, but worthwhile anyway.

Also, to compensate for that hilarious lead image, I decided to put in one of some actual robots, too:

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