Patlabor: Applying realism to the mecha genre

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There’s super robot shows, there’s real robot shows like Gundam, and then there’s REAL fucking robot shows like Patlabor

The above quote is taken from the Spotlight episode 1 of the Blade Licking Thieves podcast, discussing the multimedia franchise Mobile Police Patlabor. It is an effectively accurate description of what is a bit of an oddball for both its genre and its time. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, mecha anime consisted of so-called super robot shows; up-beat, cartoony series aimed towards young kids wherein colorful robots used their superpowers to kick the asses of evildoers on a weekly basis. In the 1980s, the genre entered a new era following the influence of Mobile Suit Gundam, consisting of real robot shows. What the first Gundam series introduced in 1979 was a grimmer and more grounded approach to mecha, aimed towards adults instead of children, featuring real firearms instead of super powers, and centering around the hardships of war instead of just defeating the bad guys. This is what came to pervade the genre throughout the following decade, with show after show centering around grand space opera narratives and weighty military conflicts. Fast forward to 1988 and the group Headgear releases the first installment of the Patlabor franchise, presenting, just like Gundam, a diversion from its own recent era. While Patlabor‘s influence is hardly comparable to that of Gundam – having gained only a smaller cult status as opposed to the latter’s canonization within anime history – it nonetheless brought another, albeit sidetracked, addition to the stylistic evolution of mecha. Namely, it took the “real” in real robots and drew it even further.

But unlike Gundam, Patlabor‘s realism is not of the harsh and grim type most commonly associated with the term. In fact, it’s not centered around a conventionally compelling narrative at all, but instead a genuine and undramatized depiction of an everyday working space. Much of this approach comes from its incorporation of slice of life, semi-embodying the typical nichijoukei fiction that would later come into full bloom during the 2000s. While it would be interesting to examine Patlabor as a pre-nichijoukei text and a transitional mark between one anime era and another, for now I want to look at how its realistic approach to mecha is executed and what it says about the franchise and its relationship to the genre.

Let’s begin with its basic setting. Of course, any narrative setting that involves big fighting robots is going to have some degree of logical improbability to it, but Patlabor manages fairly well to construct a somewhat plausible scenario. The narration sequence that starts off most episodes tells us that ”labors”, large humanoid construction robots, were developed as a result from rapid technological advancements, and quickly became of major use within all kinds of fields. This soon lead to the rise of “labor crimes”, making the police force introduce patrol labors, or patlabors, to deal with the issue. This is where we find our main ensemble cast, as they in the form of Special Vehicles Division 2 handle their daily police work. Patlabor is thus not a hard sci-fi; it isn’t set in the far but in the very near future. Neither does it center around any big military conflict, but around the regular police force and their everyday activities. The narrative mode is scaled down from macro to micro, with most conflicts revolving around such simplistic issues as rescuing people out of a burning building, saving a whale that has settled at the polluted Tokyo Bay, or one crew member dealing with a cavity during her daily work.

What this lack of futurism and decrease in scale most notably opens up is a greater focus on practical details. For starters, the episodes of the TV-series that don’t start off with the aforementioned narration sequence instead begin with an introduction of the patlabor and its basic properties; its weight and height, power supply, arms equipment of a baton and revolver, as well as the basis for its design as a symbol of justice and public safety. A significant amount of the series itself is also spent exploring the practical aspects of the patlabors. Alongside the actual police officers, most of the division’s employees consist of some dozen labor mechanics that regularly repair and maintain the robots. We also thoroughly get to follow the pilots during their practice routines of hand to hand combat and shooting. And then there is the physicality of the labors themselves. Being extremely slow and clumsy, they have a significant heaviness to them that is miles away from the usual attractiveness of mechs. As none of the typical high-tech-romanticism is present, they are instead portrayed with a realistic dryness.

Added to this is also the ways in which the police unit operates when out in the field. The patlabors aren’t immediately launched into the action, but transported via large trailers, and are always accompanied by one or more police cars for communications and other practicalities. As for the aforementioned combat skills, they are never put to use as the primary solution, but always as the final resort; just like real police work, the crew’s job is not centered around combat or action but around solving the problems at hand as effectively and with as little damage as possible. This is something that they find themselves being confronted with and need to learn throughout the series. In TV episode 4, the very aggressive and trigger happy Ota fires away at an enemy labor, quickly wasting all his limited amount of bullets without hitting the target once. When he then immediately yells after more ammunition, the more responsible crew member Kanuka responds that those were all they brought, and that he instead should learn to aim properly. Episode 37 is entirely centered around the crew dealing with an insurance inspector, who thoroughly examines the collateral damage from a recent field mission as well as following them along during their job. Never are the practical aspects and consequences of combat given as much detailed exploration as here, as both the crew and the audience become aware of how much damage just on single misstep with these giant machines can cause. As said, this series isn’t about exciting action, since such action isn’t affordable in this line of work. The crew has to handle their job with high discipline and each mission with care and responsibility.

Now that we’ve gotten an understanding of what constitutes the series’ realism, it is also worth looking at how it distinguishes itself from the opposite. Because Patlabor is very much aware of its own diversion. In as early as the fourth episode of the Early Days OVA, unit captain Gotou lectures the crew after an irresponsible field incident: “What do you think you’re piloting? Great Mazinger? Dangaioh? For Pete’s sake, this isn’t some mecha anime whose main character is an autistic kid or some punk.” This line implies two essential things. Firstly, it tells us that the concept of mecha as a genre of fiction is something that exists within Patlabor‘s universe. Secondly, it informs the main cast as much as the audience that this won’t be one of those typical pieces of fiction. Very early on, the franchise establishes a dividing line between its “real” self and its “fictional” counterparts. This gets further explored on several episodes, both in subtle and explicit ways.

One such way occurs in TV episode 28, when crew members Noa and Azuma visit an arcade hall and try out a patlabor simulator. Not only do they reflect upon the game’s simplified controls, but also the unrealistic gameplay, which sees the player running through the city while relentlessly shooting down hordes of armed enemy labors. Here, we thus see what an action-centered version of the show would look like and how absurd it would be. After both having failed miserably, Noa and Azuma conclude that it’s “nothing like the real thing”. Another, much more explicit exploration is done through the recurring instances of dreams. The first such instance happens already at the beginning of Early Days episode 2, where Noa has been selected as the pilot for a new patlabor model that has the ability to fly. On their way to work the following morning, Azuma points out the ridiculousness of her dream: “It’ll be another ten years before Labors will fly. Unbelievable. And that ‘power booster’ thing… You sure have classic dreams.” This is then taken to a significantly more elaborate level in TV episode 44. As chief mechanic’s assistant Shigeo travels to New York to visit Kanuka, he gets to experience an exaggerated sci-fi version of the show that parodies the real robot-type mecha of the 1980s. The episode later gets a followup in The New Files episode 15, which expands the joke even further by including space battles, super robots, and even tokusatsu, all of which are wrapped around an epic narrative that gradually escalates into comical proportions. What’s so interesting about this pair of episodes in particular is that all the tropes and conventions that are found in traditional mecha are played out for comedic effect. As they’re being contrasted to the reality of the series, they’re portrayed through a lens that sees them as nothing but ridiculous fantasies.

Added to this is also how the labors are perceived by other people. At several points, we see examples of children’s admirations for the big machines, such as when kids are shown gushing over them during the Tokyo International Labor Show in TV episode 31, or when crew member Mikiyasu overhears a neighboring young boy playing patlabor officer together with his grandfather in The New Files episode 16. The inclusion of these instances may not indicate a connection to fictional mecha per se – after all, passionate interests in actual vehicles and policemen is a commonality among children in reality as well, and similar occurrences have even appeared in other earlier mecha shows such as Macross. But the fact that they are included in specifically Patlabor I think nonetheless emphasizes an essential point; that there exist views on labors within its universe that are highly dramatized and romanticized, much unlike how they actually operate. The line between “reality” and “fiction” thus also exists in a perceptional sense. Worth bringing up in this regard is also TV episode 22, which centers around two yakuza bosses and their competing labor collections. Labors are here treated as playful toys and met with childlike passion, making the whole scenario interpretable as an analogy for the toy market that largely permeates the mecha industry.

Despite all this emphasis on realism and distinction between the real and the fictional, the show does eventually incorporate a more classic sci-fi-mecha sensibility. It specifically occurs during the overarching plot that centers around the illegal black trade of a combat labor prototype called J-9 Griffon. As opposed to any other labor in the series, Griffon has a much more cartoony design with its curved lines, sharp edges, black color and red “eye”, not to mention its large horns, wings and shoulder pads. If anything, it looks like a villain out of an old super robot show rather than something reasonable within Patlabor‘s reality. Even so, the series is quick to point out the absurdity of its existence. During episode 31, right after the crew has found out about Griffon’s ability to fly, chief mechanic Seitarou says the following: ”Astonishing. Labors were created for construction work. A flying labor is completely pointless.” On top of this, it is also worth noting that the Griffon is piloted by a young boy named Bud. Before meeting him in battle, Noa and Azuma get acquainted with him during the arcade hall scene, where he beats the patlabor simulator with ease. In a similar vein, he pilots his labor and enters combat as if it was a mere fun game. As any other kid in the show, his view on labors and their activities is a highly fictionalized one, making him an extremely fitting pilot for Griffon.

From all these factors, we can conclude that Patlabor achieves its realism not least by actively distancing itself from the fantastical sci-fi of its peers and contemporaries. But on top of that, it also subtly suggests a connection to our own reality. By centering around the regular police force against the backdrop of a near future Japan that lacks any sense of futurism, the series might as well not be a sci-fi at all had it not been for the central component of the labors. Indeed, after the end credits of each episode, we get a closing title card that in a tongue-in-cheek manner states: “This story is fiction, but in 10 years, who knows?”

And that brings us to Patlabor 2.

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The second Patlabor movie, released one year after The New Files in 1993, is a major tonal shift for the franchise. Whereas all prior installments had been dominantly characterized by an innocent feel-good quality, this feature length film instead embodies much more of a weighty seriousness. None of the previous goofiness and laid back attitude is present, instead being replaced by a subtly low-key and narratively dense storytelling mode. The character designs are significantly toned down, with smaller proportions and subtler contours that create a more human look. Various cinematic elements such as extreme uses of lighting, exaggerated fisheye shots and a tense score by Kenji Kawai create a dramatic poignancy and eerie atmosphere that permeates the film throughout. Adding to this its grainy film look and dim color palette, and one can undoubtedly conclude that its realistic approach is far different from its predecessors. On one hand, the approach amplifies the realism, but on another adds a great deal of dramatization and expressiveness to it.

This also goes for the narrative at hand, which completely abandons the simplistic slice of life framework to instead center around an intricate political drama on a national scale. The bombing of Yokohama Bay Bridge becomes the first of a series of terrorist attacks on Tokyo by a former GSDF officer named Yukihito Tsuge, all of which lead to an increasing risk for a military conflict to break out in Japan. Moving away from the crew of Division 2, the film places Gotou and his close friend and Division 1’s leader Nagumo as main characters, as they get centrally involved in the big issue that the country is facing. It is on one hand a cat and mouse game against Tsuge, and on another a contemplative reflection over Japan’s experience with and relationship to war. Director Mamoru Oshii has himself stated that the film was a means to sum up Japan’s postwar period before moving on to the next decade. One can see how it more specifically is a commentary on the country’s complicated national identity and position following World War II, involving everything from its peacekeeping relations with the UN and US, to Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, to its situation during the Cold War. My aim here is not to cover these topics – that has already been thoroughly done elsewhere (see Fisch and Anderson) – but to merely highlight the fact that the topics are there.

Because what Oshii has done here is utilize the franchise’s realistic nature in order to say something about real contemporary Japan. The same themes would not have come through nearly as effectively had they been told through a hard sci-fi narrative set in the distant future – but since Patlabor has and always has had a grounded proximity to reality, the film is automatically set in a highly familiar, yes almost even identical environment to actual Japan. It can thus also be seen as the culmination of the franchise’s realism, as it’s for the first time placed in concrete and direct connection to our own reality. Whereas the OVAs and TV-series made a distinction between “fictional mecha” and the reality of the franchise’s own universe, with Patlabor 2 the line is instead blurred between said reality and that outside of the movie screen. This is further emphasized by the film’s final piece of dialogue, which presents a variation of the series’ closing title card. As Tsuge has been captured, he is asked why he after all this hasn’t killed himself, to which he answers:

– Perhaps there’s a part of me that wanted to see more.

– See more of what?

– This city’s future…

And so, the ball is poignantly passed over from the film to the audience, specifically the Japanese audience. What will happen in the future – where will Japan go from here, as it enters the new decade and leaves behind its postwar era? This was a difficult question that not even a near future sci-fi like Patlabor could answer, so instead it concluded the recent chapter and let the cultural context that it was speaking to (and about) provide the next. As the end credits for Patlabor 2 roll, its narrative extends and continues outside of the screen, thus concretely connecting the fictional reality of the franchise with the real reality of its audience through the metatextuality of its theme.

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On the whole, Patlabor is an interesting title within the realm of classic mecha to say the least. It presents a unique approach to the genre through its central focus on a nearly naturalistic realism, which permeates everything from its basic setting to all of its narrative details. On top of this, it also consciously underlines its own uniqueness by marking a differentiating line between the “real” of its narrative and the “fictional” therein, either through subtle visual and verbal indicators or through blatant parodies. Throughout its various installments of TV-series, OVAs, movies and manga, Mobile Police Patlabor is many things – but perhaps above all, it is a simplistic mecha series with a grounded, sincere genuineness.


References

Anderson, Mark, “Oshii Mamoru’s Patlabor 2: Terror, Theatricality, and Exceptions That Prove the Rule”, Mechademia, vol. 4, University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 75-109, <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/368620/pdf>.

Fisch, Michael, “Nation, War, and Japan’s Future in the Science Fiction ‘Anime’ Film ‘Patlabor 2′”, Science Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2000, p. 49-68, <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/80/fish80art.htm>.

ProfessorOtakuD2, A Visual History of Mecha, 2015-, <https://youtu.be/iACaby7eBVg?list=PLlBaccpHcbmbwsx1IDZMs3sLWkaq3skKS>.

“Spotlight #1: Patlabor with Sean O’Mara (Colony Drop, Zimmerit)”, Blade Licking Thieves, 2017, <https://bladelickingthieves.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/spotlight-1-patlabor-with-sean-omara>.

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3 thoughts on “Patlabor: Applying realism to the mecha genre

    • You’re welcome! It is very different from your typical Gundams and Macrosses (but that’s what makes it interesting). The franchise is kind of a mixed bag overall – but its most major diversions from slice of life are definitely the movies, so maybe start there if you’re not that big into the genre.

      Liked by 1 person

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