"Who knows? Maybe Division 2 will turn into an elite unit. Or maybe we'll become a gang of thugs. I can't wait to find out."—Captain Gotoh
The Babylon Project was our last best hope for peace. Oh wait, that's not right. The Babylon Project was Tokyo's last best hope to reclaim much needed land from the sea, using newly developed heavy equipment known as Labors. Like any technological advance, Labors could be used for good—but also made an attractive target for crime. And so, the Tokyo Police Department formed the Special Vehicles Unit. The plan was to fight fire with fire: special police Labors would handle Labor-related crime and keep the Babylon Project on track.
Of course, the Tokyo Police Department did not count on the fact that the crazy cops of Special Vehicles Unit 2 have a tendency to cause as much damage saving the city from Labor crime as the criminals themselves…
Most mecha shows are about war, action, and big explosions. Mobile Police Patlabor is about ordinary cops. Yes, there are giant robots, although those are depicted with more technical accuracy that the usual mecha show: they stumble, break down, suffer computer crashes, and generally cause expensive property damage wherever they go. And Patlabor does feature the occasional police procedural plot, with a crime to solve. But mostly it is about the motley crew of Section 2. So let's meet them.
In the front office is Captain Gotoh. Seemingly lazy and disconnected, he hides a brilliant strategic mind and a cruel sense of humor. He rarely shows his exasperation with his team's antics. He leaves those histrionics to the other shift captain, Shinobu Nagumo, who has little patience with Gotoh (in spite of the obvious crush he has on her).
Piloting one of the team's Model 98-V Ingram Labors, Isao Ohta is a prime candidate for anger therapy. His obsession with violence is only matched by his inability to execute that violence competently. His backup is cocky New York cop Clancy Kanuka; his carrier driver is the nervous, henpecked Mikiyasu Shinji.
Noa Izumi has named the other Ingram "Alphonse" and treats it like a family pet, which would be a little weird and unhealthy if she were not so darned cute. Her backup, Asuma Shinohara, is the estranged heir to the corporation that makes the Ingrams for the police department. Her driver, Hiromi Yamazaki, is a silent giant too big to even fit into the cockpit of a Labor. Add a crusty engineer and his manic assistant, and you have the makings of a team any law-abiding citizen should think twice before calling in to stop trouble.
This ensemble cast first came together for a direct-to-video series and a feature film (reviewed earlier here at DVD Verdict), all of which turned out to be successful enough to spur its creators at Studio Headgear (led by future Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii) to develop a 47-episode television series (and a second direct-to-video series) that follows a slightly different continuity. A second, more somber feature film followed. Do not even ask where the recent WXIII Patlabor 3 movie fits into all this.
So, to make a long story short, Central Park Media has begun the long task of releasing the television incarnation of Patlabor starting with a four-disc boxed set that covers the initial 18 episodes. Episodes 1 through 3 establish the characters and their day-to-day grind. The comic interplay among the cast is highlighted, as we see Noa's first eager attempts to ingratiate herself with the squad (and rescue "her" Labor when Alphonse is stolen), Kanuka's shrewd efforts to one-up her fellow officers, and a bumbling attempt to save a fishing boat before Chief Mechanic Sakaki catches them. On the whole, not much happens in these episodes, at least by the standards of the usual mecha show. Throughout Patlabor, the action is relatively intermittent and more time is spent on character development and comic dialogue. In truth, this is probably more like real cops would behave if there really were a Special Vehicles Unit Section 2. Most of their day would be spent sitting around waiting for a call. The regular cops would do most of the work, the investigations, and only call for the heavy armor in a crisis. And such equipment is so bulky and untested that using it would pose constant risks in a crowded city like Tokyo.
The shift in focus away from plot is still evident by the fourth episode, "Go to Demon Mountain," in which SV-2 must decide whether to capture a dangerous giant monster rampaging through the woods, kill it, or simply run like hell away from it. In the end, after the monster is defeated (what did you think would happen—this is a comedy!), the explanation for its existence is tacked on as an afterthought. Much the same is true for Episode 5, "Labor X-10 Out of Control," in which our heroes try to take down a rampaging military mech. The actual fight sequence, which is pretty exciting on its own, only comprises the last few minutes of the episode; most of the story involves the build-up, with the SV-2 crew waiting to find out what is going on.
I will spare you a blow-by-blow synopsis of every episode in this set, but suffice it to say that Mobile Police Patlabor runs from silly comedy to actual suspense, although admittedly there is more focus on hijinks than thrills. When the show does turn serious, as in the politically charged "Red Labor Landing" or the two-part attack by a rival Labor company ("Eve's Trap" and "Eve's Shudder"), we are drawn in by the action because we like the characters and care about their fates. The Ingrams are not flashy and nimble, like in some Gundam or Macross show. They operate like real machines. So, for instance, in an episode like "The Tower: SOS," where SV-2 must lead a dangerous rescue operation during a high-rise fire—with the international media looking on—there is a real sense that own heroes might fail, or that someone might genuinely get hurt. Of course, since this show is ostensibly a comedy, it usually turns out all right in the end.
Mobile Police Patlabor is very much a product of the late-1980s glut of low-budget television animation in Japan, so do not look for highly stylized graphic pyrotechnics. Central Park Media's presentation of the show on DVD is a little faded (not much different than my VHS collection of the series) and you are better off skipping the English dub. Captain Gotoh, for example, is badly miscast, his English voice sounding a little shrill and sarcastic. Stick with the original Japanese mix. Extras are also a mixed bag. Disc Two has a silly featurette covering the English dubbing crew. Disc Three has video from a dubbing contest at an anime convention and the winner's trip to New York to play Ohta's girlfriend in Episode 12 (yes, even the usually borderline psychotic Ohta gets some character development on this show). But most of the supplements are in DVD-ROM format (scripts, art, interviews), with only abbreviated versions of these things on the regular program. So if your computer cannot handle DVD-ROM, you are not going to get much besides the show itself.
Patlabor has always been one of my favorite anime shows. I love its character-driven blend of comedy and thrills. It has staked out a unique spot in the mecha genre, and its stories hardly look dated over a decade later. This show is often called a sort of science fiction version of Hill Street Blues, and its ensemble antics are full of wit and intelligence. But Central Park Media has done a mediocre job presenting this groundbreaking and thoroughly enjoyable series on DVD. Nevertheless, even those who do not consider themselves anime fans will warm to the show's characters. This is one of those few anime series that is completely accessible to mainstream viewers. Give it a try.
Special Vehicles Unit Section 2 is ordered to surround the offices of Central Park Media and pummel some sense into them. Captain Gotoh is given a raise. Court is adjourned.
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