What do you get when you cross a police procedural drama with giant robots smashing up other giant robots? In theory, you should get an awkward combination that doesn’t quite work. In the realm of anime though, anything goes - it’s a medium that is practically devoted to oddball ideas. This is no truer than when looking through the Japanese animation classics of the 1980s - the era in which Japan’s anime boom went into full-swing, whose invention continues to attract viewership thanks to its timeless visual artistry and knack for great story. Patlabor: The TV Series is a product of that decade, and can also sport those additional two distinctions with pride. Its uncanny combination of straight-up police show with epic mech action won many fans in its native country, and with Maiden Japan reviving the series through a North American Blu-ray release, there’s plenty of opportunity for its status to rise among Stateside anime fans too. Here’s to hoping that it will - when crime-fighting action comes as pleasing as this, it certainly deserves to.
Japan’s mecha fans have been enjoying the Patlabor franchise since 1988 when it initially saw life as a joint manga and OVA venture, penned by a group of artists and writers operating under the moniker Headgear. While the group’s name may be ominously vague, a number of its members will require little introduction to older anime viewers - major contributors to the project included Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh, Urusei Yatsura), Kazunori Ito (also Ghost in the Shell, .hack) and Akemi Takada (Maison Ikkoku, Kimagure Orange Road). Headgear’s staff roll reads like a “who’s who” of 80s and 90s anime production, so it’s little surprise that Patlabor also prospered under such stewardship, spawning three additional feature-length movies and a 47-episode TV series from the seeds of its early success.
Despite its numerous cross-format indulgences though, all of Patlabor’s manifestations focus on the same setting. In a cutting edge Tokyo ten years from now, advancements in technology have allowed humanity to utilize functional bipedal robots for day-to-day construction and manufacturing. These automatons, called Labors, have become a boon for businesses everywhere - but are free for anyone to buy, meaning they have just as much potential for wrecking society as well as improving it. The genesis of the Labor has thus unsurprisingly led to a rash of crime involving such vehicles. In an attempt to counter the surge of criminals and unruly pilots going off on robotic rampages across Tokyo, the city’s police have set up a number of specialized prevention teams. The Special Vehicles Second Division - SV2 for short - is one such unit. With their own 25-foot tall robot assault mechs (classed as Patrol Labors, or Patlabors, hence the anime’s title), the SV2 team is employed with the task of suppressing Labor crime any way they can - even if they are the most randomly assorted, ill-suited group of officers that Tokyo’s law enforcement has ever recruited.
Patlabor: The TV Series is therefore a chronicle of the highs, lows and uncompromising situations that these officers find themselves in on a daily basis. It’s a series that begins with the inception of a new officer to the team - Noa Izumi, fresh out of police academy, whose passion for defeating crime is beaten only by her overwhelming love for Labors. In particular, she has an affinity for the brand spanking new AV-98 Ingrams that the SV2 team utilize, so naturally it doesn’t take long for her to fall in love with her new role. It also doesn’t take her long to get used to her duties either - even going as far as ditching her first-day aptitude test to help the team thwart a brazen robbery of the very Ingrams that SV2 have just had delivered. How’s that for hitting the ground running?
But while her own eccentricities are numerous and occasionally head-scratching (she even adorns her dedicated Ingram unit with the cutesy name ‘Alphonse’), she is by no means the single wild card of the group. She’s going into a house of real misfits whose dysfunction seems to trickle down from the top. Her superior, Captain Kiichi Goto, seems so apathetic towards his role that it seems all the stranger that no-one questions his leadership. It’s a laidback streak shared by the forthrightly honest Asuma, Noa’s field commanding officer, whose biting cynicism often puts him in the sights of Ohta, a hot-headed gun nut ragingly fervoured with his responsibility of serving the law. Clashing with people seems to be Ohta’s specialty - he even manages to butt heads with the more mild-mannered members of the division, including the hen-pecked Shinshi, as well as Hiromi, the vegetable-growing gentle giant of the group. And when the division receives a transfer cop in the guise of NYPD’s cool-headed, no-nonsense Kanuka Clancy, kindling sparks are only going to ignite into full-on fireworks. There’s even the rivalry of the considerably more competent Division 1 to worry about too. Can this band of mis-arranged offbeats pull together and serve Labor law and order like they’re supposed to?
Obviously the answer to that question will be - of course they do. And that’s not a spoiler - it’s standard police show practice! But it’s the nature of how Patlabor does it that makes it such a success. This is a show that manages to juggle the awkward composition of taut police investigation and giant robot unsensibilities with masterful grace. And it does this in probably the only way that such a show can - by never letting either of these two elements dominate the other, and instead keeping the focus on character interaction and drama. Patlabor’s atmosphere is surprisingly contemplative and calm, attributing a surprisingly down-to-earth approach to its sci-fi setting. In amongst all the high-octane mecha clashes and tentative crime-busting intrigue sits more pressing everyday problems, like how team members’ families are holding up, musings over possible career changes, and making sure that lunch orders are properly dispatched for the unit. These little humdrum moments are used for all sorts of reasons (comedy included), but they also manage to make Patlabor’s world all the more realistic. If not for the giant mechs walking around, you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t actually a ‘slice-of-life’ drama - the vibe and flow of the show feels oddly reminiscent at times.
Ultimately it’s a refreshing alternative to the typically bullet-speed, logic-out-the-window pacing that so many other cop shows adopt. But it’s also a factor that can, at times, work against the show’s favour. Such is Patlabor’s penchant for showing the ordinary amongst the incredible, that it often goes off on bizarre tangents you wouldn’t expect. Short story arcs telling of SV2’s thrilling battles against terrorist organizations can suddenly stumble into mundane skits involving the team entertaining the likes of pop idols and news reporters on PR visits. Even the series’ central plot - a captivating slow burn involving a secret corporation pitting their own experimental war Labors against the police - fizzles out before the show’s end to be replaced by more plodding, character-focused angles. Some will consider these kind of episodes a welcome means of fleshing out Patlabor’s world and giving its broad cast an ample helping of depth. Others however, will pass these off as filler, and may grow to find the series tame and dull in parts. But that’s just an expected downside of trying to make your show character-driven - those expecting a mecha show with a greater focus on lasers and explosions will find plenty of that existing elsewhere.
Instead, on a stage where its cast have been given freedom to shine, Patlabor’s excellent writing enables them to do so with fantastically dry humour and genuine poignancy. Noa is a great main character, a tomboy with such spunk and enthusiasm for her job that it’s hard not to root for her with every achievement (and pratfall) she makes in her fledgling career. Her developing friendship with Asuma is also a wonderful side-plot, as is the transition of Kanuka - one of anime’s classic female badasses - from grudging temp officer to a genuine appreciator of her team’s flawed brilliance. Ohta’s short fuse transforms from running joke into a critical component of why the show’s action scenes are so absorbing, and there’s even time for subtle tete-a-tetes between the superiors of the Special Vehicles branch too. Captain Goto’s working relationship with SV1’s pragmatic female commander, Shinobu Nagumo, is charged not only with underlying divisional competition, but also mild romantic tension as well (even if it is only on Goto’s side). Whatever kind of characters or plot themes you look for in your anime, Patlabor will provide them for you. It’s very likely you’ll come away from the show with a bunch of favourite characters, rather than just the one.
Part cop comedy, part sci-fi drama and part mecha mash-up, Patlabor is an essential classic for fans of any of the three. It’s animation has certainly aged somewhat but it still looks great - in part because of the iconic designs of both its vehicles and characters, and also the stellar quality of the Blu-rays themselves. One item that cannot win such praise is its dub - a mixed bag of solid acting from some of its contributors and complete amateurishness from others. This is going to be a show that you’ll need to switch to subtitles for. If you don’t mind making that extra reading effort though, you’ll be rewarded with a classic anime show that might drag in parts, but certainly delivers on the strength of its characters and atmosphere.
Also, you should probably check out the show’s first intro sequence - a mildly artsy, 80s J-poppy vignette that perfectly summarizes the tone of the show. It’s pretty awesome in its own right.
Patlabor: The TV Series is available in Bluray format, courtesy of distribution by Maiden Japan, and is readily purchasable from major online retailers.
Media utilized in article is property of: Bandai Visual / Headgear / Maiden Japan