Introduction: For the second year in a row, I’m combining my Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa entry with my Gattai Girls review series—posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
The year is 1988, and the long-standing image of giant robots in anime fluctuates between either fantastic heroes and gritty, expansive science fiction. In this environment, one multimedia franchise decides to ask a simple yet potential-laden question: how does a society police its citizens in a world where mecha are commonplace?
In the near future of Patlabor, humanoid robots are commonly used in various industries, the police have also decided to incorporate mecha known as Patrol Labors into their forces. Patlabor follows Special Vehicles Unit 2, a ragtag bunch of eccentrics who solve Labor-related crimes. While there are multiple iterations of Patlabor, including anime, TV series, OVAs, and films (all of which apparently have branching continuities), this review will be focused on the first OVA series, titled simply Mobile Police Patlabor, but also known as Patlabor: The Early Days.
At first, Patlabor presents itself as a fairly low-stakes works, with its eclectic cast of officers and mechanics trying to deal as much with each other as the crimes they’re supposed to prevent. However, it gradually reveals concerns that are deeper and broader than first expected—provided you peel back the curtain a little bit. Over the course of the seven episodes of the first OVA series, those “Labor crimes” (not sure if pun intended) often speak to underlying social issues in Japan such as the struggle between pacifism and militarism that has affected the nation since World War II.
Such themes are the wheelhouse of the OVA’s director, Oshii Mamoru, and he gets even more philosophical about the intersection between technology and society in his Patlabor films. Here in the first OVA, though, Oshii doesn’t go nearly as hard on his pet topics, and the result is a comparatively much more straightforward story. The OVA is much more willing to be a police drama with some underlying political messages, and thus more approachable for those who might feel the films to be too overbearing.
But it’s also impossible to shake the idea that Patlabor cares relatively little about what it presents on the surface, especially when it comes to the treatment of the ostensible protagonist, Izumi Noa. If one were to guess what Patlabor is about from just the opening alone, one would assume that Noa is the star of the show, as she relaxes with, takes care of, and fights in her beloved Patlabor, Alphonse. In fact, she’s the only character who appears in it at all! Yet, somehow, the clear poster child for Patlabor as a whole only ever has a semi-major part at best in any of the episodes.
It’s not as if Noa is portrayed as useless or incompetent or in need of big, strong man to rescue her, but her general character—tomboyish robot lover with a knack for piloting—seems to have the least connection to the series’s underlying focus on the intersection between politics and technology. In contrast, Shinohara Azuma is the son of the president of a Labor-manufacturing company, while Goto is the deceptively intelligent and wily chief whose past has him confront the militaristic elements of Japan. Even the other prominent female characters, Kanuka Clancy and Nagumo Shinobu, seem to get more screen time than Noa because they’re tied much more deeply with the police system. Ironically, the woman who was to be the heroine by virtue of her neutral and apolitical passion for mecha ends up feeling more like a side character.
Overall, Mobile Police Patlabor seems to embody much of the OVA spirit that permeated anime in the 80s and 90s by providing an opportunity for projects to go in unique and interesting directions. The result is a fascinating series, but also one that seems in conflict with itself at times.