Pilgrimage to Mecha 01: Patlabor (OVA)

patlabor_01

Join us for our Pilgrimage to Mecha – a new feature where I go back in time and catch up on some of the classics and hidden gems of the mecha genre. Whether it was before my time or I simply missed out on them, it’s time for me to watch them and let you know why you should too!

For our first edition: Patlabor

Mobile Police Patlabor

1988-1989
OVA (7 Episodes)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii (episodes 1-6), Naoyuki Yoshinaga (episode 7)

Premise

In the future, robotics technology has advanced to the point where they figure into every aspect of society. The titular “Labors” are used for heavy construction and other tasks beyond the means of mere humans. However the rise of Labors has also led to Labor-related crime. The Tokyo police utilize their own fleet of labors, known as Patlabors, to deal with these incidents in the form of Special Vehicles Division 2. Noa Izumi, a bright young girl with a love of labors has just joined them. These are the stories of her and Division 2’s exploits.

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Thoughts

Familiar with Mamoru Oshii’s more famous directed works, such as Ghost in the Shell, I was curious to see what he would do with the ostensibly light-hearted Patlabor. I knew the show was light-hearted, but I didn’t expect it to be so light on the mecha action and even police-procedural parts. The OVA is very much a character driven story, as you meet the various members of Division 2, from the excitable Noa to the trigger happy Ota to the troll extraordinaire Captain Goto, it quickly becomes obvious how much Patlabor is a child of the 80s era of anime. It’s fun, there’s some great mecha goodness when the animation allows it, and full of hijinks that marked the shows of the time. At its heart, Patlabor is basically a Slice of Life show that happens to have giant robots in it. Also that OP. Wow, talk about 80s. For a second there I thought I was watching Gunbuster.

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One thing I really enjoyed was seeing labors in a more widespread usage. Too often mecha anime have giant robots that exist for the sole purpose of killing other giant robots. Here, those kinds of robots are the minority. It’s refreshing and does an amazing job of making the world feel a little more real.

Overall, the episodic nature made it a good introduction to the Patlabor universe and I’m definitely going to try and watch the movies and the TV series when I have the time. That said, the episodic nature also made the 2-part finale all the more jarring in its attempt at drama. For better or worse, it was definitely something directed by Oshii, filled with men standing around while talking, political conspiracy, and robots doing robot things. Also, the last episode, which isn’t directed by Oshii, feels completely different. Considering the OVA itself is an adaptation of the manga, I suppose this can be forgiven, but it’s still quite jarring as well. In the grand scheme of things though, it’s fun and anyone looking to get into the franchise should start here.

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Why You Should Watch

As I mentioned before, Patlabor is clearly a product of the 80s. There’s the pop music, the facial expressions, the designs. However, it’s apparent in less obvious ways too. At its root, Patlabor is a pretty down-to-earth setting despite its sometimes over-the-top nature. There are no aliens to fight, no world-encompassing wars to win, no angsty teenagers with a chip on their shoulder. It’s about some regular people just trying to get by in a world quite similar to our own. These are not hardened men or elite SWAT guys (as much as Ota would like to be). Noa is delightfully cheery, especially when she’s fawning over her beloved Ingram, “Alphonse.” That kind of peppiness pervades Patlabor and almost feels foreign in the landscape of the modern genre. It’s the kind of story I don’t think could exist these days, at least not for the foreseeable future. It’s cheesy, the characters act with reckless abandon unbefitting of any self-respecting police force, and as you watch it, you realize it really doesn’t matter.

The designs themselves are also an example of some of the great concepts and ideas that were being created back then. The AV-98 Ingram is an immediately recognizable and iconic mech in its own right. Look at nearly any mech artist’s portfolio and you’ll see references to its design, from the wedge shaped head and bunny-ear style antenna to the forward jutting chest canopy. The mechanically practical feel to it really makes it seem like something that could be built, a design ethos that pervaded much of the 80s and early 90s of mecha. It’s a sleek piece of work, but undeniably one made by human technology. There’s a reason its design has endured through the ages. You see the silhouette of that head, and you’ll never mistake it for anything else.

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I think Patlabor is something to watch for anyone who’s grown tired of how “epic” the genre has become. It’s a story about some regular guys doing some occasionally irregular things. Mecha anime doesn’t have to always be so gargantuan in its scale, and sometimes the smaller scale makes it easier to connect with. It has the kind of campy irreverence of the time while still presenting something wholly easy to digest. Patlabor is a light enjoyable piece of work and a great place to start if you’re looking into the kind of things that gave 80s mecha anime its distinctive feel.

2 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to Mecha 01: Patlabor (OVA)

  1. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the OVA, but what you write here seems largely in tune with how I feel about the 1989-1990 TV series, which I found myself quite enjoying despite not being a mecha fan as such. Like you said though, the really nice thing about Patlabor is that the show isn’t about fighting or saving the world or anything like that at all – it’s basically all light-hearted slice-of-life material that only just happens to feature human-piloted robots. It sure does make for a refreshing change.

  2. Patlabor always has that down to earth feeling which I really love about. The movies are definitely more Oshii-like though, especially the 2nd one which is basically Oshii’s signature cynical political ramblings which are, of course, still pretty interesting to listen to.

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