Reviews of Mobile Police Patlabor (1988) and related work
- Sequel: Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989)
- Remake: Mobile Police Patlabor on Television (1989)
- Sequel: Mobile Police Patlabor: The New Files (1990)
- Sequel: Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie 2 (1993)
- Spin-off: WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (2002)
- Spin-off: MiniPato: Mobile Police Patlabor Minimum (2003)
- Document: The Consolidated Design of the Creating Process for Mini Pato (2003)
Mobile Police Patlabor (1988)
Rising seas have provoked major expansion and remodeling of coastal cities, which has led to the creation of mecha, and from there to mechanized crime and terrorism. The franchise describes the public service of Special Vehicles Unit 2 (SVU2 or Tokusha Nika), a part of the Tokyo police force. Pilots are outnumbered by mechanics in the unit’s solitary hangar. In this first series, they face disgruntled workers, a nuclear military coup, and a huge humanoid sea creature, among other troubles.
Short OVA series. A bit rough. Mecha police drama and intelligent near-future SF. Moments of comedy and high-quality action are married to Oshii’s trademark calm and mysterious character- and theme- developing sequences. He directed six of the episodes, Yoshinaga handling one. No saving-the-world crap here: Patlabor is partly a polemic against earlier, less serious “real robot” shows like the trailblazing Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) .
There is quite a bit of experimentation with slow, dark, snowing mystery and ominous skylines. Some mecha in this universe look useful. The central ones, however, are just as poorly designed as the Gundam and its imitators. The heads don’t seem to do anything practical (there are better places to put cameras, as demonstrated in the second movie and on lots of non-humanoid models), they carry scaled-up revolvers and so on, which damages credibility. Fortunately, the narrative focuses on characters, and most of them are very enjoyable. Based on a comic.
References here: The X-Files (1993).
‣ Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989)
Oshii Mamoru (director).
A lot of mecha have been going berserk lately, and the man who may be responsible commits suicide in the first minute. The mecha are necessary for the effective expansion of Tokyo using artificial islands. Their base of operations (the Ark) is crucial to the project (Babylon, seen misspelled in Engrish) and central to the gradually uncovered plans of the great designer.
Animated feature. This is the movie where an Ingram pilot actually leaves its mecha to reload its enormous revolver by hand, which I hope is a joke. There is some slapstick and many good environments in the company of bad music. The detectives’ treks through E’s old haunts foreshadow later Oshii goodness. The Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE) supplies heavy-handed exotic mystery. The first English-language translator of this film, William Flanagan, stated on ANNCast in 2011 that as he struggled to produce 5 minutes of English per day, he gradually realized the script was a masterpiece.
References here: “Silent Möbius” (1991), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), “On the Film Dark Blue World: A Dialogue with Producer Toshio Suzuki” (2002), Mind Game (2004), Shin Godzilla (2016), Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway (2021).
‣ Mobile Police Patlabor on Television (1989)
One year. Most episodes are stand-alone, but there is an overarching serial plot about the further development of Labor technology spearheaded by a shady international “security” corporation. The end of the series strongly foreshadows the obsolescence of the Ingram itself.
TV series. The main body of Patlabor animation. It starts with an alternate story of the formation of SVU2 and should therefore be considered a retconned remake, but no other works in the franchise tie into these differing parts of the canon. Not directed by Oshii, but several episodes have something of his brooding style, and music by Kawai.
‣ Mobile Police Patlabor: The New Files (1990)
Oshii Mamoru (writer).
Seen in 2014.
Four of the early episodes constitute a satisfying feature-length conclusion to the Griffin story arc. The rest are scattered additions to the general storyline.
OVA series; a sequel and interquel to the TV series, with a higher budget per episode. Consider episode 8: Sakaki, the strict old chief mechanic, starts off arguing with Shige (Chiba Shigeru!) about whether to send a badly damaged mech off to the manufacturer instead of patching it up in house. This is an absorbingly realistic debate to have, absent from all(?) other mecha anime. Shige points out that the junior mechanics are overworked and tired. Sakaki eventually concludes that this is the result of lapsed morality.
For the following week, dubbed the Seven Days of Fire after Miyazaki’s Nausicaä (1982)—cf. Urusei Yatsura (1981)—Shige and his Nazi disciplinary committee battle other factions among the junior mechanics, over Kawai’s music. There is no other plot. The struggle seems to be a parody of 1960s student revolt infighting.
The Patlabor version is just as much about porn and food as it is about politics: Shige references De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) in a raid on an illicit fish smokery inside the SVU2 building. The mechanics are drawn as individuals but remain unnamed, a collective. Hiromi, the giant fisherman’s son, worries hilariously about a crackdown on his chicken coop and tomato patch. In the end, Sakaki takes a day off, fixes some random kid’s bicycle chain, and restores order.
This specific episode has almost nothing to do with police work or science fiction or giant robots, but it breathes a wonderful kind of life into the franchise. Aside from the Griffin arc, there are a lot of unconventional episodes in this vein, including a very silly super robot show dream (episode 15) and a meditation on the march of technology, careers and life in general (episode 16). Many individual episodes are directed by Itou or Oshii in their respective idiosyncratic styles. A worthy addition.
References here: Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (2006).
‣ Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie 2 (1993)
Oshii Mamoru (director).
A military officer got his UN squadron of Labors broken in a war three years ago. It is now 2002, and he intends to show the profiteering country of Japan what the chaotic “outside” world is like.
Animated feature. A truly beautiful film with many local improvements to mecha design, great music and good humour, particularly in a shopping scene; this is not the earlier slapstick. Oshii’s personal style has the field. The biggest problem is the tendency to mention plot points opaquely instead of showing them. For instance, it would have been nice to see panic rather than to have it inferred by the words of calm people in long, static shots.
The theme of the film is important. It is the best available treatment of a limited war—just a taste—being brought to post-War Japan as if to test the nation’s character. This political motif is somewhat common in mecha anime like “Metal Skin Panic MADOX- 01” (1987), but Oshii took the time to do it right. Supposedly, JSDF troops loved it.
‣ WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 (2002)
A fairly serious treatment of the “giant creature case” motif seen several times before in the franchise, connecting back to the long history of kaijū. This iteration takes place before “The Movie 2” and focuses on a pair of previously marginal detectives, instead of the usual Special Vehicles team (which does make a few appearances).
Possible interquel. Animated feature. No involvement by Oshii, but a fair imitation, thanks in part to the Kawai soundtrack. WXIII apparently means “Wrecked 13”.
I question the utility of foreign biological matter from a meteorite. There are no bigger mistakes, but it’s certainly unoriginal, and despite the courage to take the focus off SVU2 for this one, the Ingrams still get pulled in for the showdown. The story would have stood up pretty well as a modern-day biotech thriller without any humanoid vehicle silliness, instead of the outdated alternate history the franchise turns itself into through the unnecessary connections. I like how the final scenes mirror the opening of the first movie, as if to say the franchise is cycling back onto itself to avoid having its “near-future” diegetic chronology fall behind present-day reality.
The movie briefly features a Futaba-style discussion board to illustrate a cover-up (Nanashisan says “Hontou...?”), which could be a minor media-historical landmark.
References here: Gantz: O (2016).
‣ MiniPato: Mobile Police Patlabor Minimum (2003)
Oshii Mamoru (writer).
Gotou discusses the weapons of Patlabor, in particular the 37 mm “revolver cannon”. Shige makes a case for why the franchise should have focused on the mechanics, and describes the history of the mecha subgenre with an Evangelion-Ingram hybrid, among other variations. Shinobu doubts there will ever be another series, and therefore takes the opportunity to recount the tale of how SVU2 started selling something highly addictive on the Internet, a tale alluding to boatloads of moments in the bygone franchise.
OVA series addendum, in three parts, animated in inventive cardboard cut-out style. Written by Oshii but directed by Kamiyama Kenji. The first episode is very experimental (and there is no way that revolver is remotely practical), the other two much more slick and entertaining.
‣‣ The Consolidated Design of the Creating Process for Mini Pato (2003)
Making-of featurette, with interviews of Kawai, Oshii and many others involved in the project, discussing the mode of animation, the acting and music etc. Two fun facts: The strange dog featured in Minipato is here named “Oshiinu”, inu meaning “dog”, as it resembles and represents Oshii himself. Secondly, Oshii references Hyokkori Hyotan Jima as an inspiration, a children’s show that is also featured prominently in Only Yesterday (1991).