If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the period of time where the Sci-Fi Channel ran Japanese cartoons, usually from the Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment catalogs, every Saturday morning. From cornerstones of fandom canon like the lovably spirited Project A-ko, Yoshiaki Kawajiri “classics” like Demon City Shinjuku and the classic coming-of-age documentary Galaxy Express 999: The Movie, Sci-Fi Channel brought it all to 12 year olds who thought cartoons filled with violence and swearing were totally wicked. I owe this station for my introduction to Dominion: Tank Police on a lovely Sunday afternoon in the fifth grade, sitting in a friend’s bedroom as he fast-forwards through the android cat-girl sisters’ striptease section in case his parents came into the room.
Yes, it’s time we talk about that other 1988 OAV series featuring the exploits of an offbeat vehicular police squad, in particular a young red-haired woman who gives pet names to her improbable instrument of criminal apprehension. Tank Police is based on a short comic series by Masamune Shirow, so you know the drill: lots of time spent detailing the vehicles and minutiae of the officers’ uniforms in character profiles and rambling essays in the back of the book, some musing about the nature of existence and robots’ rights, and frequent bouts of slapstick.
Suprisingly enough, at least two episodes of the series were scripted and directed by a young (well, younger) Koichi Mashimo, better known to modern Japanimation fans as the director of every single .hack series, Noir, all its girls-with-guns derivations and various other awful collaborations with two-bit studio Bee Train. Apparently being incredibly mediocre is a relatively new trick for him.
Maybe Tank Police was a more ludicrous concept in the 1980s. Here’s the pitch: in a world where a bunch of nasty wars have left the world covered with a poisonous bacterial cloud and psychotic androids execute impressively destructive (but usually nonfatal) heists, the Japanese metropolis of Newport City decides the War On Crime needs to start looking the part. Enter the Tank Police, a bunch of unhinged rogue cops who practice enhanced interrogation techniques such as grenade golf, and are at least as dangerous as the criminals they’re out to catch, much to the chagrin of the city’s shrill, liberal female mayor. Performing a difficult and thankless job to protect a public that resents them, battling a foe that hides among the populace and undermined by the left-wing media, the Tank Police are heroes perhaps more relevant now than ever.
While every version of Tank Police, print or animated, lifts whatever characters, machines and plot elements it likes while discarding the rest, this original OAV series acts as a pseudo-prequel to the original Dominion comic, a single volume released in 1985. The series begins with Leona Ozaki, an energetic red-haired girl who has a thing for machines, transferring into the department from the motorcycle corps. It even invents an origin story for the series’ trademark skinny-and-tall mini-tank, “Bonaparte,” constructing it overnight from wreckage and spare parts. The mechanical design of Bonaparte is the most obviously influential aspect of the entire Dominion franchise — ever play Metal Slug? Look at the player’s tank next time, you’ll see what I mean.
The Tank Police’s second greatest threat, after public opinion, is the criminal Buaku and his twin android henchwomen, the Puma Sisters. They’re also probably the most consistent element across the various animated and print versions of Dominion. As the series begins, the gang are doing some “independent contracting” for one of the local syndicates, who provide them with a variety of highly inventive tools for combating the Tank Police as Buaku’s gang attempts to steal some very special urine samples. The juvenile-but-hilarious “tank deterrents” crudely excised from episode two by the Sci-Fi Channel are the highlights, naturally.
But Buaku actually gets some back story in the OAV’s more serious and slower-paced third and fourth episodes when he steals a painting of himself that’s more than meets the eye and does a lot of existential musing about the measure of a man-like robot (I told you it was based on a Shirow work). The fourth episode ends on something of an awkward cliffhanger — it sort-of leads into the original Dominion’s plot, but Shirow really dropped the ball on that one anyway, so let’s just forget about it.
Dominion’s a pretty good lookin’ show. It’s a Shirow work, so naturally the character and mechanical designs are awesome. It also seems to have been a fairly high-budget production, unlike a lot of OAVs from the era, with consistently smooth animation (although it takes a bit of a hit in the third and fourth episodes).
The English dub holds a very special place in my heart. It’s an old Manga UK dub, so in all honesty it’s not particularly good, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Interestingly, unlike a lot of Manga UK’s dubs, it doesn’t have absurd levels of gratuitous swearing added to increase the video’s rating in the UK market. The dub also changes large portions of the soundtrack, swapping in a bunch of late-80s bad keyboard synth numbers that are endearingly awful. Honestly, I like the dub’s music more than the Japanese version’s. The original soundtrack is more outright and intentionally goofy, while the English version maintains a very slight aura of seriousness. Even if you watch the rest of the show in Japanese, you must watch the opening sequence in English at least once and feel the power that they’ve got.
Shirow later followed his original comic with another single volume “reboot” of the series in the early 90s titled Dominion: Conflict 1 - No More Noise, which throws out a whole lot of the supporting cast (and Buaku, who was written out by the end of the first comic anyway) and plays out way more like Patlabor. Both of the comics were released by Dark Horse Comics way back during the monthly-single-issues era of Japanese comics in America, and were re-released in unflipped-but-still-pricy editions last year. Conflict 1 is actually pretty cool and worthwhile. By the time it came out, Shirow had a good grasp on how to tell a story that makes sense without reading the glossaries and essays in the back of the book. There are at least two other animated adaptations of Tank Police, both of which seem closer to Conflict 1, but I haven’t watched them myself.
I know I’m not the only one who immediately associates Dominion: Tank Police with its goofier elements, but it’s worth remembering for more than that. If you haven’t seen it in a decade or two, you should try digging up a copy. It’s a very solid show all around, representative of some of the better elements of the late-80s OAV boom.
It's almost a shame the series is only four episodes long, although it's perhaps a bigger shame that Shirow never expanded much on the source material because he was already quite comfortable making his money off of interchangeable artbooks of skinny vinyl women, presumably so he could buy more electronic devices to use as his own masturbatory aids. There has never been a doubt in my mind that Shirow is literally sexually excited by technology. I'm not kidding. I get the feeling that the man beats off to robotics trade shows. His technofetishist tendencies really undermine his work for me; he gets so damn caught up in waxing poetic about the awesomeness of cybernetic posthumanism, automatic weapons, and in-universe technobabble that he almost invariably forgets that he's supposed to be telling a reasonably intelligible story.
I believe that aside from the generally abysmal takes on Appleseed (not even Shirow's strongest work to begin with), most of the people who adapt Shirow do him far too much credit by making his stuff both smarter AND more watchable (GitS springs readily to mind). Even lightweight stuff like Dominion isn't an exception to this rule.
I had read the manga, but the anime was a little better. It was also very, very funny. And who could forget Anipuma and Yunipuma?
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