PATLABOR: A Beginner's Guide (

By:Andrew Osmond
Date: Tuesday, November 21, 2000

From the start, Patlabor was a multimedia phenomenon. It began life in 1988, as both a manga strip published in the weekly Shonen Sunday and a six-part video series. The setting is the very near 'future.' The first adventures take place in the late 1990s, while the movie Patlabor 2, chronologically the last story, is set mostly in 2002. Global warming has led to rising sea levels, and a massive land-reclamation venture is launched in Tokyo Bay. This involves humans piloting robot construction machines, called 'labors,' which can be easily used for nefarious purposes; hence, the 'Patlabors' (Patrol Labors), police teams to stamp out labor crime. (There are also labors being used by the military, as emphasized in the second film.)

The Patlabor saga now encompasses the manga (the first two volumes translated by Viz Communications), two video series, a 48-part TV version, and the two movies. The films were released in America by Manga Entertainment, the other anime by US Manga Corps. In all its forms, Patlabor revolves round SV2, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicles Section 2. Unfortunately for newcomers, the films assume familiarity with the characters in the same way that a live-action spin-off like Star Trek: Insurrection does. The point to remember is that Patlabor is a people show, not a robot show. All the characters have personal demons, feuds, quirks and frustrations, and the threats to SV2 come from bureaucrats and personal problems as much as evil criminals.

True, the enemies are on a grander scale in the films, though neither is exactly straightforward. But even here the Patlabor characters remain essentially professionals doing a job. This, to take the earlier comparison, is what separates them from the Trek heroes. The Patlabor team react to big dramas rather than instigating them, a 'little people' approach also true of Ghost in the Shell (see below). On a human scale, the second film has lots of 'consolidating' character details befitting the end of a saga: for example, the fact that gun nut Ota becomes a police instructor.

Patlabor was created by five SF fans and artists, who established the production company Headgear. The manga was written by Masami Yuki, with Kazunori Ito responsible for much of the anime plotting. Ito also scripted the two movies. However, one could make a strong auteur argument that the films really belong to director Mamoru Oshii. Oshii went on to direct Ghost in the Shell and write the recent Jin-Roh; both Patlabor films, especially the second, foreshadow this work. While the other versions of Patlabor are often light-hearted, the films are far more serious, more naturalistic, with appropriately subdued color schemes. Speaking of the second film in particular, Oshii said, 'I wanted to talk about a big theme, so I made Patlabor 2 in a more serious style. I believe it necessary to change and vary the reality of the background and characters, according to your theme.'

Students of both past and modern Japan will find much food for thought in Patlabor 2, among the most politically provocative anime ever made. The film refers to real-life events, such as the controversial 1992 decision to allow Japan's Self Defense Force to participate in UN Asian peace operationsa decision leading to tragedy and humiliation in Cambodia, arguably because the SDF's actions were so circumscribed (hence the topicality of the opening sequence). The images of a military-occupied, politically volatile Tokyo echo a famous mass insurrection in 1936, when a thousand soldiers took over the capital. Similar imagery crops up in anime like Akira and Flying Ghost Ship. Beyond the specifics, Oshii fans will find themselves on familiar ground with the director's unabashed use of cerebral monologuesespecially the speech given by SDF spook Arakawaand poetic montages. And vice versa.