For awhile I saw Patlabor as the fullest realization of the Real Robot sub-genre. As of late that title has been usurped by Ryosuke Takahashi’s Flag series, though there’s still much to be said for Headgear’s series in this regard.
So it’s odd that the principal mecha of the series, the AV-98 Ingram, should feature such traditional design. Colony Drop comrade and mecha laureate Sean says the Ingram’s design is far too conservative and reliant on older giant robot styling, out of sync with the rest of the TV show’s designs. Certainly the Ingram looks far too flashy and very much the sore thumb placed next to (which it very often is) the many industrial and consumer-level labors that make appearances in the show. In fairness, it’s not simply a case of the publishers wanting a “hero robot” that could move units in the toys-and-model-kits market: clearly stated in the show is the fact that the AV-98 is a prestige model designed with the best of Shinohara’s hardware and design talent.
Unappealing design is far more acceptable with a thread of in-show logic behind it. Pristine ivory-white Alphonses were not designed to be produced in mass quantities for the Tokyo Metro Police or anyone else. Hence Shinobu’s Team 1 is stuck with the antiquated Pythons for most of the show. Conversely, did the Big Zam really have to be so goddamn hideous?
There’s another major “detail” that comes off flawed. The Griffon, an experimental war labor developed by multinational Schaft Enterprises, is the most hideous labor of the entire franchise. The thing would have fit in better in any Machine Robo show. Naturally, the Griffon storyline is touted as the main story of what is an overwhelmingly episodic series (The Griffon episodes are a fraction of the 47 episodes, with large gaps in between them). The arc covers some of Patlabor’s more high-minded themes, most notably the implications of having machines so capable of rampant and systematic destruction wholly developed in the private sector, but honestly there’s little covered here that the first movie didn’t cover better, and with a higher budget.
Animation for the series was handled by Sunrise. If you’ve ever seen a late-80s mecha television series done by Sunrise, then you have a decent basis for guessing at this series’ animation style. Nothing outstanding either way—though special mention must be made of how consistent Sunrise keeps all the moving parts for all 47 episodes.
There’s less praise to be garnered for the series’ character designs. This is pure speculation, but my suspicion is that Headgear could not decide the ratio of what to adapt from Akemi Takada’s designs compared to Masami Yuki’s designs. For reference, Takada handled character designs for Urusei Yatsura and Kimagure Orange Road. Outside of the Patlabor manga, Yuki is primarily known for the manga and subsequent OAV Assemble Insert, and Birdy the Mighty (the original manga, not the OAV or the terrible TV series aired this year). Unfortunately, the series runs the gamut between the two artists’ styles at the cost of some visual consistency from episode to episode: early series Goto is a dead ringer for barrel-chested Clark Kent. Eventually Yuki’s designs win out around halfway through.
For the perfect summary of Yuki’s style just watch Assemble Insert. The man has an extreme proclivity towards shirts and jackets, aviator sunglasses, left-parted close-cropped haircuts and ink dot eyes. That said, I find his character designs far superior to Takada’s. Character designs by Takada (readily visible in the first OP of the series) have one foot firmly set in the mid 1980s—is Maison Ikkoku not the epitome of this style? In contrast Yuki seems to point to the “future,” that is, the 90s, with his emphasis on sharp angles, vivid colors and, uh, neckties.
In a way Patlabor on TV represents the end of the 1980s for anime, and not just because it straddles two decades. Stylistically it’s almost a deconstruction of Real Robot with its Seinfeld-esque plotting and characterization, a drastic contrast to dead-serious Real Robot shows of the 80s like Armored Troopers VOTOMS or other mecha shows in Ryosuke Takahashi’s repertoire. Hell, the fact that Patlabor featured not one, but multiple strong female leads, who assume positions of power not through genetic manipulation or sentai magic but their own merit, counts as a massive leap forward for Japanese animation (or maybe a fluke considering gender roles in most 90s anime). It’s funny or maybe tragic that it took the creator of things like Angel’s Egg and The Red Spectacles for Japan to create such understated social commentary in a cartoon.