Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Patlabor - OAV (1988)

After the wild success of the comedy sci-fi romps of Urusei Yatsura director Mamoru Oshii tackled an OAV projected called Angel’s Egg. Viewers found it too esoteric and odd. The series was considered a failure. It took a few years, but Oshii was eventually brought on to helm another science fiction series with a healthy dose of comedy. But in this case it was set in the near future and involved giant robots. Would a director known for his wacky comedies be able to handle something that had serious and satirical edge?

In the near future giant robotic suits are used for construction and dangerous situations where mechanical muscle is needed. These suits are called Labors. Of course some enterprising folks figure out how to used Labors for criminal activities. This leads to the creation of a special unit of the police force: the Patrol Labors or Patlabors.

Our story begins as we meet the new second unit Patlabor unit in Tokyo. There is the huge Labor fan Noa (Miina Tominaga) who names her Patlabor Alphonse, because that is just what you do in situations like this. Her driver is Asuma (Yoshiko Sakakibara) a young man who was forced into joining by his rich father. Piloting the other unit is the gun crazy Ohta (Michihiro Ikemizu), and his driver Shinshi (Issei Futamata) who is constantly calling his wife. On back up is the huge and hulking Hiromi (Daisuke Gouri) who is really as gentle as they come. Leading the team is the sardonic Goto (Ryunosuke Ohbayashi) who’s laid back manner hides his strategic skills. The team will face rampaging Labors, giant sea monsters, ghosts and terrorist plots. Will they be up for the challenge, or will this Patlabor squad end up laid off because of the bad economy.

Good Points:
  • Impressive mecha and futuristic design
  • Some amusing satirical moments around cumbersome rules and annoying bureaucracy
  • Has a sense of fun that keeps things from getting too dark

Bad Points:
  • Focuses more on parody and satire than mecha action
  • Animation looks a little rough in places
  • All the characters tend to be pretty stereotypical

An interesting intersection of Oshii comedic projects with the science fiction path he would chart going forward. The first four episodes focus on humor and tackling various anime and film tropes. But the final three episodes tone down the humor and go for some solid detective work and thrills. It is a mixed bag in the end. Some of the humor doesn’t quite hit and some of the thrills feel a little tame. An entertaining series, but it needed a bit more consistency.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Putting the "patrol" back in Patlabor!
Oshii’s work on the Patlabor series falls between his two best-known hits Urusei Yatsura and Ghost in the Shell. In many ways this mecha series serves as the perfect bridge. It contains quite a bit of humor and satire of life in Japan, but it also has some interesting sci-fi action.  Episodes five and six cover a terrorist plot that a specialized team must handle – just like Ghost in the Shell. As interesting as it is to see how this series fits in the scheme of Oshii’s work, lets see how it works on it’s own.

From a visual perspective the series looks pretty good for a late 80s OAV series. There’s some great detail in the mecha and futuristic design of the vehicles. But most of the outfits and settings tend to look pretty contemporary. This isn’t a big surprise since it is supposed to be in the near future. Character design is simple, but pleasing. It isn’t the AIC look, but it doesn’t have some of the flair we’d see from Kenichi Sonoda who worked on Bubblegum Crisis around the same time.

Noa at the controls of Alphonse.
When it comes to the action scenes they tend to be short, but realistic and solidly animated. These are not extended slug-fests that you see in a lot of other anime series. Instead Patlabor shows that weapons that big usually only need one or two hits to get its point across. It also shows some of the issues a giant robot suit may have when dealing with urban environments. For example, in the second episode Noa finds she can’t get her Patlabor under an overpass and she can’t climb over it either. She’s literally stopped in her tracks, and has to come up with a clever solution involving a blimp to get around the obstacle.

Sound effects are pretty standard stuff for anime of this era. Most of it is typical sound effect work for a city: traffic, background chatter, sirens, etc. The mecha and weapons have some specialized sound effects, but nothing as unique as the work used in Neon Genesis Evangelion or Gundam Wing.  When it comes to music, Oshii began his fruitful relationship with composer Kenji Kawai on Patlabor. This is a collaboration that would continue for decades, with Kawai working on nearly every one of Oshii’s projects (live action and animated) from this point on. Kawaii had worked on the martial arts comedy series Ranma ½ and so was well versed on comedic score writing. His music for Patlabor has a bit of that style, but also uses his more action oriented style. It’s a bit frantic and intense, something very different from what we end up hearing in Ghost in the Shell and Avalon. It’s neat to hear this initial collaboration and how different both men approached projects this early in their careers.

Goto doesn't know what to make of his new team.
Now I watched this seven episode series in Japanese with English subtitles, so my judgment of the acting is going to include my usual caveat. It is harder for me to judge Japanese voice acting, but for the most part it really fit the show. Because of the way Patalabor shifts from humorous to serious, it requires a cast that can make those switches at the drop of a hat. And they do a very good job. I especially liked Ohbayashi as Goto. He injected a real blasé attitude to his voice that really fit the animated version of his character.

As for the scripts themselves, well that is where it gets a bit tougher to judge. Patlabor doesn’t really take itself seriously, but then it does. The show is at once a parody, then a satire, then a thriller and then a buddy cop series. Now this isn’t anything new to anime, and in fact it is something that makes anime fun to watch. But sometimes this wild and wacky nature can create an odd sense of pacing. So while I had some fun with the first four episodes, I also found that they were a bit on the slow side.

Mad bombers don't phase Clancy in the slightest.
The first episode gets the crew together and deals with them attempting to stop a rampaging Labor with very little training. This episode plays out like a rookie cop movie, and shares a lot in common with the first episode of You’re Under Arrest in the way the story plays out. The second episode also follows typical police drama tropes, where a VIP comes to Tokyo and terrorists target him for assassination. The Patlabor unit attempts to thwart the plot and we meet their newest member Kanuka Clancy (You Inoue). She ends up being cool, calm member of the team. This demeanor turns deadly when she’s provoked (as we find out in later episodes). This episode also plays with the mad bomber episodes popular in most cop shows and movies.

Episodes three and four of Patlabor turn out to be the most silly of the series. The first deals with a gigantic creature living in Tokyo Bay and creating all kinds of havoc. There are several nods to the kaiju classic Godzilla, as well as other giant monster films and anime. The ending is basically a ridiculous joke, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Urusei Yatsura. I thought it was funny that the narrator even says that it is a disappointing ending. The next episode plays with the haunted hot springs tropes that occur in lots of anime series (TenchiMuyo had an episode just like this, but with a less satirical ending). Essentially the characters are sent to a training camp, but discover a girl and a Labor haunt it. Yeah, you read that right: a haunted suit of robo-armor. The episode turns into a detective show as the characters try to piece together why the ghosts are haunting the camp. This whole episode plays so light and silly that you begin to wonder if the series is really just going to go completely wacky going forward.

Hijinks ensue when the team gets some time off.
Episodes five and six get really serious, with a terrorist attempting to take control of Tokyo. Goto pits his strategic brain against the terrorist who had military training. As the story progresses, we learn that Goto may have a past with this man. Does this mean Goto is in league with the terrorist? The first episode consists of both men getting their pieces in motion on the chess board, and the second episode they each make their final moves for a checkmate. This is the first episode that doesn’t play like a parody of an anime or television trope.  The humor here comes with an edge, commenting on how bureaucracies can actually end up helping the villains that know how to exploit them. The pacing in these episodes is the best of the series. Every element works to turn these episodes into a fine thriller and delivering a solid ending. To be honest, when I first heard about Patlabor, I thought this was going to be what the whole OAV series was going to be like.

Oshii did not direct the final episode, and it feels a bit different from the others. Like the previous two episodes, it is more of a thriller than a parody. But the final episode does inject a bit more humor into the script. In this story a stolen truck is hijacked. The poor dope who stole the stolen truck doesn’t realize it has a military grade patlabor on it, and a terrorist at the controls. What follows is a chase into northern Japan, and ends with Patlabors engaging in the best mecha combat in the OAV series (even if it does include some wrestling moves for laughs).

Budget cuts cause cramped situations.
This first OAV series for Patlabor was a mixed bag for me. I readily admit it was probably because of my expectations. I’ve seen clips from the series and the movies, so I think I was expecting something a bit more action oriented and serious. The fact that things went into a parody mode at times really threw me, but I still had fun with it. I can see how Oshii’s Urusei Yatsura experience added to the development of the series. This mix may not have clicked completely for me, but it was popular enough to spawn a television series, a second OAV series, two movies and a manga retelling. Patlabor was a very popular franchise and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of it. I think this is one of those shows that I will revisit later and see how it plays with adjusted expections.


  1. For writers, directors or artists, middle works, like middle school, are often neither this nor that -- neither neophyte energy nor mature proficiency. If they are fortunate the mix is interesting for that reason.

    1. Yeah I've noticed that trend too. Sometimes that middle period can be an interesting way to see how the artist ticks.

  2. I might like this one as I like the SF mecha thing, though I tend to like anime a bit more serious sprinkled with a little bit of humor, than a lot of humor, satire, etc. I didn't know it was made by the Ghost in the Shell creator. I tried to watch one the other night, Gundam 00. I guess that's the version (another bit of anime confusion to add to the uninitiated like myself). At any rate, I don't know if it was too late, but the storyline confused me somewhat, but I liked the art, and the war zone action.

    Here are a few animes I've added to my list, and I haven't even finished some I'm currently watching like Neon Genesis:

    Bubblegum Crisis (I see you gotta review)
    Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
    Code Geass

    1. Yeah the humor can be make or break for some people. Anime humor can get really wacky at times, even if the rest of the series or movie is dead serious. It doesn't always work for me, but I have a few friends that find the whole thing obnoxious.

      Gundam is a tough series to get a handle on, because it has so many variations, and has been around as a franchise for so long. It has a couple different time lines too if I'm not mistaken. The only series I've watched all the way through was "Gundam Wing" which I really liked back in the day (the late 90s). Really had a some serious war sequences and characters offing each other left and right. I found out later that "Wing" is considered one of the softer and fluffier entries in the saga. It did get a little angst filled at times, but in the late 90s that was kind of standard. Still I've heard that many of the earlier Gundam series had more realistic plots and gritty action.

      Bubblegum Crisis is tough for me. The newer series has better plot development and character development. But the classic 80s version has more personality and is a bit more fun. The 90s one got very angsty and had some plot twists that just bugged me as an old time fan. But I think I'm in the minority on that one. The older series has a lot of silly elements to it, some questionable characters and most of the characters are pretty stock. But I love the character and suit design of the original and the rockin' 80s style music.

      Vision of Escaflowne is a very good series, but it is much more of a fantasy with a lot of romance in it. If you're not up for love triangles this may not work for you. The world design is amazing though and there are some really unexpected and disturbing plot element in it. I really like it, but it might not work for everyone.

      The other series of heard of but haven't seen yet.

  3. Don't know much beyond the Patlabor trailer presented, but making live action films from some of the anime seems like a natural idea to me as well: http://youtu.be/RRpRZmjypWk

    1. Yeah I heard rumors this was happening. Curious to see where they end up with this one.

  4. I re-watch Gundam 00 ep.1 again last night, just the first episode, and will try to find a few more episodes on YT. The copy I found was a subtitled one so you had to read and keep up with the story. What threw me off the first time around, I felt like I missed something and was dropped into the series without some prior knowledge of something that had happened before. But finally about ten or more minutes into the episode you find out what Gundam is about (or this part of the series): Gundam is a peace keeping force to stop war. So if you want to continue to create war, a dictator, or aliens, and are intent on war, be prepared to be blown up and subdued, uh like, in a war. :) Fight fire with fire I guess. :) At any rate, I found it novel.

    Another thing that was interesting about it was that it did have a few hard SF elements to it: ie. on the space station, they had artificial gravity, so people could stand on the ceiling or whatever--there's no up or down. In some parts of one of the space ships, irrc, there wasn't any gravity, so people had to float around to get from place to place, and it looked like they had space elevators going up to the space station, though I may not have understood that correctly.

    Here's a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCs71PJ_wtw

    1. Sounds interesting. I need to check out more of that series. It has such a legacy and I did enjoy "Wing" quite a bit. This one sounds like a good one.

  5. I enjoyed your extensive Patlabor OVA coverage here Roman.

    When you consider Oshii, it's certainly no surprise that some of these episodes are slow. But Patlabor is such a unique series. So many different tones as you mentioned. But, a bit like life really which makes this look at the future kind of realistic in a way.

    I enjoy the character interplay probably the most with regard to the series, especially the TV series, but this is a great place for people to check it out. And I do think the animation is very good.

    I do think the politics can be on the slow side and go a bit too far but Oshii loves that stuff.

    1. I'm curious about the television series. I can see this working a bit better in that format. Yeah Oshii, is Oshii, so I knew that the pacing and the politics would be part of this series. It was the goofy tone that threw me.