Fall 1989 TV Cartoons: Patlabor on Television

In the criminal justice system, Labor-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In the city of Tokyo, the dedicated police who investigate these vicious felonies are part of an elite squad called the Special Vehicles Unit. These are their stories. *Dong Dong*

The Babylon Project casts a shadow over the events and characters of the Patlabor franchise. Like the members of Special Vehicles Division 2, Section 2 themselves, there is scarcely an entry into the series, WXIII aside, where the Project is not present and active in the morass of multiple canons and subplots. Like the labors of SV2 themselves, the Project is more often than a launching pad off which the true agents of plot launch.

After all, what is it that snatches the attention of your eyes in reality? The caster stands in the background; the shadow is what juts out to the forefront. The first two Patlabor films are much the same way: to consider them the whole of what Headgear’s magnum opus (their only real composition, really) neglects perhaps over half the story—Patlabor’s as well as that of Headgear.

An aside: Like many U.S.-based anime watchers, my very first exposure to the franchise was Patlabor 1, the first movie of three, by its Manga Entertainment release. I was confused—who the hell are all these characters? How did these thirty-foot tall robots become such mundane utilities in what looks like typical late-80s Japan?—but delighted. Despite some of the movie’s assumptions, it is no worse, in fact somewhat better, than many modern anime movies in presenting a semblance of accessibility. Mamoru Oshii is very much in Beautiful Dreamers form, presenting a self-contained, if pleasantly hallucinogenic, unit out of a preexisting series.

The television series came into being after the original OVA series and the first movie. Somewhat confusingly, it is the point of divergence between two different Patlabor anime canons. The first consists of the first OAV and three movies, the second of the TV series and second “P-Series” OAV set. It’s interesting to note that while the original OAV and the P-Series were in different timelines, both were animated by Studio Deen. The TV series was handled by Sunrise, and the first two movies by Japanese animation golden boy and Colony Drop favorite, Production I.G. WXIII was animated by, uh, Madhouse.

Of the two canons, the one started by the television series is the decidedly lighter in tone. Not to say the original OAVs were identical in tone to, say, Patlabor 2. It’s been said that the entire Patlabor franchise was intended to reflect Oshii’s and the rest of Headgear’s rejection of the Tomino school of mecha anime (limited-to-no plot armor for lead characters, violence with relatively realistic consequences, generally grim overtone, etc.) as well as the downtrodden, proto-cyberpunk vision of the future cast in Blade Runner.

(A vision that Oshii ironically embraced two years after Patlabor 2 with Ghost in the Shell, a movie much more grimmer and serious than the (masterful) Masamune Shirow comic series on which it is based. But I digress.)

Rough premise outline: In the near future, manned robots called “labors” have been invented. While these mecha do see some amount of military use, all of them are the intellectual property of a small clutch of very 1980s-Japan-esque zaibatsu and the vast majority of them are privately owned and maintained for construction and maintenance work.

In particular, Tokyo is host to a large labor population for the construction of the “Babylon Project.” This is a sprawling joint municipal-corporate project to reclaim all the land taken up by Tokyo Bay and deal with overcrowding. The labor concentration in an already overcrowded city means a spike in labor-assisted crime, for which the Tokyo Metropolitan Police creates the Special Vehicles units.

The corporate sponsor for the project is Shinohara Heavy Industries, which just so happens to also be the foremost labor-producing zaibatsu in the world. They also just so happen to be the company that provides Special Vehicles with all of its labors, including the first ever labor model specifically produced for police work, the AV-98 Ingram. The first two are issued for debatable reasons to one of the more inefficient elements in Special Vehicles, Unit 2 Section 2.

The Ingram’s standard loadout includes something never before seen on a non-military labor: a gun.

This is where I take issue with the claim that Patlabor is the “Hill Street Blues of anime.” While it does nail certain aspects, namely, the mundane aspects of low-level policing and the influence rank and command structure have on every level of police work, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Patlabor’s television timeline is host to absolutely zero on-screen deaths. I have my doubts even about off-screen fatalities. With the notable exception of one member of SV2, no one carries a sidearm. I don’t think the iconic pump-action shotguns stowed to the side of the pilot’s chair in the Ingrams’ cockpits shows up until halfway through the TV series, and even then nothing is ever said of it.

Patlabor TV’s strength lies in implied depth; something you don’t normally hear about in association with anime: subtlety. It may not be apparent from first impressions alone.

Take, for example, the very first episode. In the original OAV series, all of Section 2’s operational staff arrives at SV2’s trademark headquarters, a decommissioned hangar out of the barest outskirts of some newly reclaimed land, together with an equal amount of inexperience. In the TV series, the opening scene of the first episode places the entire team, with the exception of Noa Izumi, in a setting where the viewer can easily discern that they have been active Special Vehicles officers for awhile now. For the uninitiated, Noa is the red-haired pilot who in virtually all of Patlabor’s promotional material is made out to be the series’ main character (only partly true). Noa is introduced later in the episode as a fresh transfer from the traffic cop division.

Why is this discrepancy important? You might have missed it: Goto, the captain of SV2, Unit 2, gets the opportunity to be shown not just engineering the assignment of the Ingrams to Unit 2 rather than 1, but Noa as well. It’s very easy to miss—there are perhaps two or three tiny little gestures in tiny little scenes suggesting the captain had more influence in the events of Episode 1 than it at first seems. In the most economical of stylistic gestures, the viewer learns three plot points: Goto is more than an empty uniform, Noa is a labor pilot of some note and Unit 2’s existing record is less than pristine.

Much of the characterization throughout the series plays out in this fashion—blink and you might miss it. Occasionally, a character might be allotted a single episode centered around them. It’s via context clues in these side episodes that the view can discern much detail that, at first glance across the series, seems to be lacking from what appear to be one-trick pony characters. Ohta comes from a comfy-looking traditionalist family, Shinshi is ex-corporate, Asuma probably had more influence in Shinohara than he lets on, Kumagami and Goto are better connected in the police realm than they let on, etc. It could be said that this method is a bit trivial. Events from character episodes rarely, if ever, carry over as thoughts mulled and chewed over by the characters in subsequent episodes. Why does any of it matter?

I think, however, that this reaction is bred from a glut of both Burning Shonen Passion series’, as well as the mecha shows I call Neon Genesis Evangelion’s “echo boom.” Both feature casts of characters whose inner moral struggles to sit in a padded pilot’s seat and grip two joysticks, or face their sworn foe take a half dozen or more episodes of terse inner conflict (indicated by the tinge of reverb effects underpinning each soliloquy). Patlabor’s characters are not so. They have feelings and personal convictions, but, remarkably, when crunch time comes they shut up and do their jobs, however inefficiently that may be. People fly off the handle, hilariously so, quite often, but no one ever refuses to do their job because they don’t have a boyfriend or whatever.

In a scene technically not from the TV series but the P-Series OAVs, a continuation of the TV continuity anyways, SV2 mobilizes into the metropolitan area of Tokyo to engage a rogue prototype military labor called the Griffon, one of the series’ few recurring foes. It’s been made plainly obvious that Ohta is no match against the new labor and its ace pilot. Noa, probably the best labor pilot in all of Japan at this point in the story, is the only one who stands a chance, and Goto states this outright to her. Now, previous episodes had shown her having nightmares about the Griffon deconstructing by force her beloved Ingram, Alphonse. But instead of lapsing into existential dread, Noa’s only trace of indecision is a second-long look of worry before nodding and saying she’s ready.

And guess what? Five minutes later she rolls out and fights the Griffon, no questions asked. It’s obvious that Headgear didn’t make much of it at all, but the entire scene is totally amazing to someone who has spent the past ten years or so surrounded by the animated children of the original Gundam and Evangelion. Goto does not need to slap up Noa or Asuma to get them to do their jobs. It fits in with what another Colony Drop contributor once said about Patlabor: that much of its enduring appeal comes from a “subtle, unspoken grace” with which it conducts itself.

I promised myself that I would touch upon the themes of the TV series as well: Yes, the TV series really is a comedy first and foremost, with a sitcom-esque presentation and plot format, but like the characterization, much of the real themes of the show pass by with such subtlety and rambling repetition that a viewer used to modern anime tropes might just miss a lot of it.

One of the enduring themes throughout not just the TV series, but really the entire franchise, is that of obsolescence. It’s personified most intensely in Chief Engineer Sakaki, the demanding head of SV2’s sprawling maintenance team. He is the oldest person on SV2’s staff and appears to have been around at least as long as Shinobu and Goto, the captains of both SV2 teams. The junior engineers treat him with nothing less than total respect and/or awed terror. Late in the series, however, he admits that his proficiency as a nuts and bolts gear head becomes more superfluous with each new generation of labors the zaibatsu turn out. In perhaps a parallel to the technology industry of the late 80s and early 90s, each new model set is geared more and more towards software horsepower rather than hardware.

In one of the best early episodes, Team 1, until then stuck with the outdated Python model, is issued a new police labor from Toyohara, a competitor of Shinohara Heavy Industries. Ironically, it’s designed to be a rival to the Ingram, which has quickly become the gold standard for police labors. At first, it’s everything it was made out to be. The catch is that SV2’s maintenance team is to be left out in the cold. The only people allowed to touch the inner workings of the labor at all are Toyohara’s own engineers, on grounds of protecting trade secrets.

This is another subtheme— rather specific to Patlabor because of its setting—within the obsolescence thing: the fact that Special Vehicles’ entire existence as an ostensibly neutral law enforcement entity is dependent on proprietary products manufactured by corporate entities. It only gets better when Sakaki and Shinobu, Team 1’s captain, do their detective work and dig up the Toyohara team’s other motives.

This has sprawled on far too long. Part two will feature a bit more theme dissection—real and imagined—before getting to the actual review-style portion, cheers.

> Continue on to Part 2


  1. One of the problems I have with most reviews of Patlabor is that they focus too much on the comedy aspect. Admittedly, it is a comedy, but there’s a lot more to it than that as I think you did a good job explaining.

    Less a giant robot anime, more an anime set in a world of giant robots.

  2. Great article. This article sums up everything I love about Patlabor TV perfectly. I can’t wait for part 2; just glad to see my feelings about this show shared by others.

  3. I’ve never seen these articles before, I dont know why, when I clicked “next page” it never went this far before.

    Interestingly this article is different from many of the current CD articles in that is (a) lengthy (b) in praise of something. It’s also reminds me that I need to get round to watching all of the Patlabor TV show.

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