Obscure Anime: Patlabor

Best described as ‘Hill Street Blues with Giant Robots’, ‘Patlabor’ was a franchise that enjoyed its heyday in the late 1980s and mid 1990s. It was brought into being by Headgear, an assembly of Japanese creatives including visionary director Mamoru Oshii, who would later go onto acclaim and a much wider audience with his breakthrough 1995 masterpiece ‘Ghost In The Shell’.

The series, designed as a mixed-media project from the get-go, was set in a Japan of the then near-future (the narrative chronology starts in 1998), where mechs are as much a part of daily life as bulldozers or ambulances. Specialised work robots piloted by humans are known as ‘Labors’ and the thin blue line between robotic order and chaos is represented by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicles Unit Division 2, a team of misfits tasked with deterring, investigating and battling Labour-related crime in its many forms. Their specalised Patrol-Labors give the series its title.

SVU2 had all the character archetypes found in many Western police dramas: the naïve rookie (who also serves as the series main protagonist), her cynical partner, the hot-tempered gun freak, the family man struggling to balance work with marriage, the gentle giant with a quaint hobby and the unorthodox, father-figure police captain who refuses to do what the higher-ups tell him.

In Japan, Patlabor was a multi-faceted beast that manifested itself through manga, anime, video games and action figures. Its TV incarnation enjoyed several seasons (not always adhering to the strictest continuity, as is often the case in anime) but there were also three full-length feature films. Out of all that media, it was only the Patlabor movies which found their way to the West through the Manga Video imprint, starting with 1989’s ‘Patlabor: The Movie‘.

What made Patlabor so unique was that it bounced between genres at its leisure. It mixed comedy with police procedurals, action with philosophy and character study with religious analogies. Patlabor 2, released in 1993, was a huge creative evolution. Whereas its predecessor was a tight, engaging cyber-thriller, its sequel was a treatise on the morality of war, terrorism and authority.

It was in part a reaction to the first Gulf War, with its director saying in an interview at the time that he felt as if “invisible tanks were patrolling the streets of Tokyo”; A sentiment he expressed during a beautiful montage in the film where Japan’s capital is under military occupation in winter. Ordinary citizens do their best to go about their daily lives while soldiers gaze at the falling snow, all to the strains of Kenji Kawai’s haunting, ambient score;

The series was unafraid to tamper with formula. Characters which dominated one episode were hardly seen in another. Almost all of SVU2 is absent for 2001’s Patlabor 3 movie saved for a climactic showdown near the film’s end. The series had iconic characters and mechs but its creators also used it as a blank canvas to express their myriad ideas. A special mention must also go to the gorgeous mecha designs courtesy of Yutaka Izubuchi, the police Labors imposing yet benevolent and presented in police-sharp black, white and red.

The franchise had been dormant for many years, with only a Japan-only, post-modern, mini-series MiniPato surfacing in 2002. It is set to make a spectacular comeback courtesy of a live-action movie, directed by Oshii himself, due for release in Japan later this year. A brief trailer released earlier this month shows the look and feel of the series has been kept intact.

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