Forgotten anime: Patlabor

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May 5, 2017, 2:04 PM EDT (Updated)

Giant robots are as important to anime shows as FTL drives are to science fiction. Gundam, the ubiquitous giant robot franchise that’s still going strong after 40 years, always has a new show every season, and a glimpse of the toy shelves in any Japanese store will prove that kids still gravitate toward mecha toys. Since the market is glutted with mecha shows, some truly underrated gems have fallen through the cracks or haven’t earned the recognition they deserve. Let’s focus on a series from the ‘80s that has tons of action, a wonderfully diverse cast with a female main character, and a setting much more relatable than the far reaches of outer space. This is Patlabor.

What the heck is Patlabor?

Japan sure loves portmanteaus. Witness Pokemon (“pocket monsters”), Digimon (“digital monsters”) and Tamagotchi (from the Japanese word for “egg”: “Tamago” and “watch”). Patlabor is made up of the words “patrol” and “labor.” After a devastating earthquake levels Tokyo, the Japanese construction industry creates giant robots (dubbed “Labors”)  to speed up the rebuilding of the city. Patrol Labors are Labors used by the police, because if you have giant robots, you are gonna end up with people who use those giant robots for criminal activity. Just imagine the amount of havoc a Labor could unleash in the hands of a drunken pilot. So, in a show of force that puts SWAT to shame, the Tokyo police gets specialized Labors. 

Patlabor was originally released to home video as a limited series in 1988, followed by a TV series in 1989, and three movies. The show sharply addressed a number of issues Japan faced during the ‘80s economic boom: foreign labor, foreign investing, the influx of technology into everyday life, and the start of women joining the workforce in earnest. Patlabor is set in a very recognizable near-future, the year 1998, though now that’s just another year relegated to the rearview mirror. Despite the initial popularity of the show, Patlabor never garnered the longevity of Gundam (particularly here in the States), and by the mid-’90s, interest in the show had fallen by the wayside. While a live-action Patlabor sequel reached Japanese theaters last year, there still seems to be little focus on reviving the anime series itself. 

Strong female protagonist, and other awesome ladies too

The series features Noa Izumi, a tenacious cadet right out of the academy. She’s been obsessed with Labors for as long as she can remember and is hell-bent on piloting one of Tokyo Metro Police’s Patlabors. After one of the new prototype Patlabors is stolen, Noa grows upset that someone took “her” robot. So she chases down the criminal with single-minded determination. Her enthusiasm and dedication to the job capture the attention of Division 2’s Captain Goto, who invites Noa to join his ragtag team of misfits. Initially, her colleagues are put off by Noa’s overly cheery nature and her steadfast devotion to her Labor, which she names after her beloved dog, Alphonse. Eventually, she earns the respect of her peers because she really is one of the best Labor pilots out there and also a dedicated police officer. 

Noa is an anomaly. In the annals of giant robot anime history, there are very few female mecha pilots, and there are even fewer female mecha pilots who can be considered the main character of their shows. Female pilots are usually a part of a team, or they’re only considered a support vehicle for the main male character. Noa bucks expectations. She gushes over Alphonse with the rampant passion of a gearhead swooning over a muscle car. She’s obsessed with tuning her robot to perfection, and heaven help any mechanic who screws up the maintenance of her Alphonse. 

Thankfully, Noa isn’t the only amazing woman in the series. Soon after Noa arrives at Division 2, she’s joined by another female officer, Kanuka Clancy. Kanuka comes off as Noa’s exact opposite. Rather than falling head over heels with Labors, Kanuka is cool-headed and only considers the Patlabor as simply a useful tool in the modern police officer’s arsenal. Noa is extremely tomboyish and can often be found sharing a beer with the mechanics after work hours. Kanuka’s depicted as stylish and fashionable, which sends the male population of Division 2 into fits. The show initially sets up Noa and Kanuka as rivals, but then it sends out a curveball after the two women settle their score via a mock giant robot battle (naturally). And, shocker of shockers, they’re not fighting over a guy, but over a position as a permanent Patlabor pilot. There’s no room for love triangles in Division 2. The ladies are too busy protecting Tokyo to care about any of that. 

Yes, this anime easily passes the Bechdel test, but maybe only if Alphonse doesn’t count as a man.

While Noa and Kanuka are the only ladies of Division 2, Division 1 is led by a female captain, Shinobu Nagumo. She has a disposition similar to Kanuka’s, a by-the-book officer who nonetheless cares about her squad and will do whatever it takes to protect them and to protect the city. She’s steadfast in the face of calamity and often attempts to lighten the mood of desperate situations with snarky remarks. Division 1 is considered the most elite of the two divisions. Even so, Shinobu has a ton of respect for her colleagues in Division 2, for having to put up with the more difficult missions. 

In the not-too-distant future, next Sunday AD

Despite the existence of giant robots, Patlabor’s Tokyo is still completely recognizable as a modern day city, and watching it now even feels a little quaint, considering its late ‘80s roots. Noa’s workout clothes are fashionable neon and pastel. Division 2 struggles to phone in their daily lunch order to the only restaurant that will deliver to their isolated headquarters. Bureaucracy and paperwork still rule the officers’ lives at the end of the day, and Kanuka’s new portable laptop computer draws attention whenever she uses it. 

Here, technology isn’t magic. The Labors can’t fly and require meticulous maintenance in order to keep running. An entire team of mechanics is required to maintain Division 2’s two lone Patlabors. The tech has its limitations, and naturally, it’s human error that causes the bulk of the problems. Noa treats Alphonse more like one of those indestructible Gundam-like robots as she dives head-first into “battle,” and she damages her robot without much thought to the consequences, which doesn’t endear her to the maintenance team. At one point, Captain Goto has to berate his overly-enthusiastic pilots for thinking they’re in a giant robot cartoon. “This isn’t some mecha anime whose main character is an autistic kid or some punk,” he grumbles. Patlabor is probably the most realistic depiction of giant robots in anime and is certainly one of the most charming examples of the genre. You can relate to Noa specifically because she wants to be the hero in a Gundam show. The older mecha tropes are demolished and replaced with new, female-focused mecha tropes. 

 It’s like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but with giant robots

Workplace comedies are, in the wake of The Office’s popularity, a dime a dozen in today’s TV landscape. FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine puts the focus on a police precinct filled with delightfully weird characters who, despite their differences and their quirks, are able to come together when it counts and protect the streets of New York. Patlabor, released over 25 years ago, focuses on a police unit filled with delightfully weird characters who, despite their differences and their quirks, are able to come together when it counts and protect the streets of Tokyo.

Noa is definitely not alone in her quirks. The stock characters are all here. The gigantic dude with brute strength who’s really the softie of the group. The gun nut who thinks things would be so much easier if the police had carte blanche control over the city. The one guy who thinks he’s better than this and doesn’t really want to be stuck in Division 2. The by-the-book one who is overly concerned with her future career and puts in extra work to impress the higher-ups. The captain who puts on a stoic air but really does care about his officers despite his hard attitude towards them. 

Often, the existence of giant robots takes a back seat to the relationships between the characters, and how they slowly but surely coalesce into a formidable team that’s ready to protect Tokyo from any and all dangers. The character development is wonderful, and the mecha fights are just the very impressive icing on the cake. 

The shape of things to come

It’s not so surprising that Patlabor deftly addresses concerns about technology and its prolonged use in everyday life once you realize that one of its creators also worked on of the most enduring anime in existence. Mamoru Oshii, who developed Patlabor along with the rest of the members of the Headgear brain trust, directed the classic cyberpunk anime film Ghost in the Shell in 1995. 

The two might not feel like they have much in common. For instance, Noa’s fangirling over robots is played for laughs, while Ghost in the Shell is not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. But the same concerns about technology that inspired some episodes of Patlabor also make an appearance in Ghost in the Shell. Technology is invading too much in our lives, and the tools that we once created to take control of our environment are now being utilized outside their original purpose, with dangerous results. In Patlabor, terrorists use giant robots to attack the city and spread their agenda. In Ghost in the Shell, terrorists’ prefer to use widely-available computer networks to hack their way into people’s lives. The end result is exactly the same: fear and chaos. Both titles have the police fight fire with fire, giving them the same tools as the terrorists in order to save the city. Both feature female protagonists who are often at odds with their superiors but are given leeway to do as they please because they get results. And both feature tightly-knit law-enforcement teams who will do anything to protect their fellow team members. It’s really not that far of a stretch from Patlabor’s Division 2 to Ghost in the Shell’s Section 9.

While Patlabor never reached the heights of anime popularity at a Gundam-style level, the series is still well worth checking out, thanks to its spirited protagonist and the other officers of Division 2. There’s something refreshingly charming about a young woman who knows what she wants and goes after her dreams with gusto. Thank you, Noa Izumi, for showing us that women can be anything: a police officer, or a mecha pilot, or even both!

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