“Target lock on!” The Special Vehicle Division, Patlabor, is back! For real!…
Patlabor: first some history…
Mamoru Oshii’s original Patlabor movies, Patlabor: The Movie (1989) and Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993), were two of my first ‘gateway’ anime titles. Combining the best of Hollywood’s action thrillers with genuine heart and apocalyptically brooding storylines, they remain, decades later, favourite movies of mine, anime or otherwise. And there’s the giant robots – the ‘Patlabors’ – themselves of course.
Having enjoyed the movies for a number of years you can only imagine my delight on finding out that the movie was, in fact, a kind of final episode for a short OAV mini-series (1988-89, 7 episodes). And then my subsequent disappointment that I’d probably never be able to see it…. This was back in the day of VHS, where your anime kick was limited to a handful of Manga Video titles at your local HMV, if you were lucky enough to even had a local HMV. Many years later DVD takes over and, thanks to the internet plus eBay, I get to see and finally enjoy the original OAV. Finally.
Then I watch and fall in love with the characters from the Special Vehicle Division: Section 2 a fresh during the longer, re-booted, Patlabor on TV series (1989 -90, 47 episodes). A series that started production after the commercial success of the first movie and (slightly confusingly) ignores the events that happen in the timeline of the original OAV and movies.
There’s more. Like any popular anime franchise there’s always more: a follow up, 16 episode OAV (1990-92) to the 47 episode series, a third movie, Patlabor WXIII (2002), which follows the movie timeline, plus a three part parody tie-in for the third movie, Minipato (2002). The third movie I enjoyed, the 16 episode OAV and Minipato have eluded me thus far. And I’ve not even touched the manga….
So there’s a lot of Patlabor and I’ve a lot of love for it. And now there’s a whole new ‘live action’ series, with a new movie to round it off.
A live action version of Patlabor? Cool. Patlabor has always rooted itself in a believable, near future world. Its characters, although prone to the occasional bout of exaggeration, are not OTT anime stereotypes most of the time, they feel like real people. I hesitate to use the word ‘gritty’ in relation to such a charming and playful franchise, but it’s the best I’ve got; all Patlabor’s characters are fallible and realistically flawed in some way. Main protagonist, and heavy vehicle nerd, Noa Izumi, is also a rare figure; she’s young, independent and strong willed, yet also level-headed. She exudes just the right amount of self-doubt to be able to root for her, and, unlike many strong-willed girls in anime, Noa is never sexualised. She manages to be a character first and female second.
Patlabor’s mecha, its technology, is also much more down to earth. The patlabors are very hard to control, need constant servicing, break down often, and are transported on cumbersome lorries, which get stuck in traffic. When was the last time you saw a giant robot get stuck in traffic? In another nice touch the patlabors are often the cause of more destruction than the giant construction ‘labors’ they’re supposed to be policing; the Special Vehicle Division and their ‘patrol labors’ were originally established to combat labor crime.
In Patlabor’s compelling, near-future universe big robotic vehicles are utilitarian, rather than just militaristic, and so, as one might expect, used for construction and other industrial practices, rather than to save Japan from alien invasions etc… Think larger versions of the exo-skeletons in Aliens. The military have ‘labors’ too but there’s a big difference between the military’s mecha and the more common place mecha; the difference between a tank and a JCB digger.
The Special Vehicle Division team also have a lot of down time. So what do the team do when not on missions? They go on lunch runs to the local grocery shop or takeaway, they grow tomatoes, they fish, they miss their families and they get bored.
The Next Generation
This third iteration, this next generation, both encompasses and ignores all previous timelines. It’s set after the original series and the movies and at the same time, now, rather than near-future. Labors are pretty much non-existent these days and the Special Vehicle Division is down to one section (previously it was two) and two remaining patlabors, and is now funded mostly on its standing as a status symbol for the police, rather than for the job it was set up to do. Today’s team also have very little, less even, to do during their shifts; they train (a bit), they read, they play videogames. They are also fully aware of how fragile their team is, how much their jobs rest on their perceived reputation. And how powerless they are to hold onto it.
The recent debates in Japan’s parliament, revolving around greater powers for armed forces to be involved in overseas conflicts, are echoed here. The US forced Japan’s army to gave up its right to engage armed forces outside of Japan after WWII. Many people see their government’s attempt to gain more rights for their defence force as an unsettling move towards more militaristic politics. The Patlabor universe (most overtly Patlabor 2: The Movie, 1993) has drawn inspiration from this unique situation on many occasions before and you can find many more examples of conflicts, minor and major, between military and state peppering most of Mamoru Oshii’s other work too.
Patlabor: The Next Generation is no different. In fact the series culminates in a situation that directly references the events that kick off the second Patlabor movie; a clandestine operation by the army goes tits up and its small team abandoned. The stage is set the fourth movie, Tokyo War, a title perhaps taken from a short Patlabor manga run penned by Oshii in 1994, and another entry in the Patlabor universe I’ve yet to see.
Patlabor: The Next Generation is a series that’s well aware of its own history, of the previous versions of itself. At times it’s like watching a parody of itself. New characters and their names play on their earlier iterations, even though their traits remain mostly the same; Patlabor’s short haired protagonist, Noa Izumi becomes Akira Izumino in The Next Generation, her best friend and confidante, Asuma Shinohara, becomes Yuma Shiobara, eccentric captain, Kiichi Goto becomes Keiji Gotoda. American transfer, Kanuka Clancy is now a chain smoking Russian and the division’s heavy set driver (too big to drive the patlabors!), Hiromi Yamazaki, now looks after chickens rather than growing tomatoes. And – well, you get the idea.
Patlabor: The Next Generation is also live action. Not anime. An intriguing premise, no? Especially given the more realistic approach the world of Patlabor has. Live action conversions that I’ve seen are rarely as strong as their anime originals, there’s just something about anime that won’t translate, conventions that work in animated form but feel wrong when performed for real. Films and animation play by their own set of rules, even if they borrow heavily from each other.
So how does the live action series work and is it actually any good? Visually I assumed CGI for the mecha, for which I was half right. Large props were constructed for stationary patlabors and CGI utilised for when they move. Not that they move much these days… Cast? Well the cast look the part but their performances can grate when they slip into the more anime end of the acting spectrum.
The original OAVs and films were produced by the much respected collective, Headgear. Among them were, the now iconic director, Mamoru Oshii, writer Kazunori Ito and composer Kenji Kawai. Mamoru Oshii remains the main director for The Next Generation, and Kenji Kawai (who has scored all of Oshii’s movies) provides a solid Kenji Kawai score; heavy melancholic strings mixed with classic techno beats.
Mostly Patlabor: The Next Generation is fun for those familiar with any of the original versions. The shows delivery ties in with how I, personally, see this next generation; as both nostalgic cash-in and celebration of a popular and accessible franchise. Can you enjoy without any previous knowledge of Patlabor? Of course. Will you get as much from it, possibly not.
The marginalised nature of the Special Vehicles Division is upheld nicely. The crew are still a bunch of outcasts that probably wouldn’t fit into any regular department or job and their constant boredom and quest to fill time while awaiting calls that never come in remains as fresh as ever, as does the good natured vibe that Patlabor continues to excel at.
The world of Patlabor has always had a dry streak of humour to counter balance it’s darker / hard sci-fi plotlines too, the second movie maybe the exception. However grafting anime’s exaggerated, often slapstick, sense of humour onto a (this) live action set is problematic. The cast, who when not in anime mode are very watchable, fail to make it work consistently. Something’s just ‘off’, at worse, almost amateur about the performances.
You’ll find the show littered with suggestions that things are just not what they used to be. The divisions’ two old ‘Ingram 98s’ (the patlabors) are old, worn out and close to total breakdown. One is tragically written off early in the series leaving just Izumino’s; a lonely figure, no longer the symbol of strength and dignity it once was. One storyline features the mayor of a once thriving, now struggling, coastal resort exploiting both patlabors and a giant jelly fish to draw in tourism. The constant worry that the division could be disbanded at any moment, if they can’t justify their funding, is more than just a Japanese concern, something anyone working in public service will find all too familiar.
Unfortunately the series can’t ride on this alone. So despite some strong storylines, that include the giant jellyfish, a farcical hunt for hidden treasure under the base, a rogue sniper, and (my favourite) a hold-up at the division’s local store; where each member goes to check on why their last colleague hasn’t returned with a lunch order only to get taken hostage too, Patlabor: The Next Generation, succumbs to a point it makes so well; that things just aren’t as good as they used to be.
It was fun catching up with crew of the Special Vehicles Division, my time spent there over the years has always been joyful. I’ve always considered the small screen Patlabor the Hill Street Blues of anime, where big story arcs are supported by smaller everyday concerns. But like the lone Ingram ‘98 the series may have finally run out of lubricant. I’m still looking forward to catching the Tokyo War movie though. How could I not?