Back in 2010 when I wrote Thirty Days of Anime I picked Patlabor: The Mobile Police as my favourite mecha series.  So I was very happy [1] to see a blu-ray of the original OAVs on the shelves in Canberra.

This is where Patlabor started, and it’s been a long time since I last watched these episodes [2].

So how did they stack up to my fond memories? The answer is surprisingly well, and with some new insights into how Patlabor evolved through its various iterations.

The Pilot Effect

The later TV series (and follow-on OAVs) run to a total of 63 episodes in a single continuity, and shape most of my memories of Patlabor.

The original OAVs only ran to 7 episodes and in retrospect felt like pilot episodes that were then re-worked by the TV series.

The pilot effect is most pronounced with the characters. There’s a sense of roughness, of backgrounds not fully worked out yet, that really intrigued me. The characters have the same cores, but the connections between the characters are still being thrashed out.

This is particularly obvious with the first two episodes Second Unit, Move Out! and Longshot, particularly as the full character roster wasn’t in place until the end of Longshot. This isn’t to say that the characterisations are bad, just that they felt a little like works in progress.

There’s also a sense that Mamoru Oshii was trying out storylines that he hadn’t quite worked out how to tell yet, and that he would come back to later. There are also rougher, but still effective, versions of some Oshii’s visual style that he would hone to perfection in the first two Patlabor movies [3].

All told the pilot effect actually made watching these episodes more interesting, as there’s a lot to think about in terms of how anime is scripted and produced.

The Parodies

As I mentioned in my Thirty Days post, the Labors in Patlabor are well researched, and rigorously thought out.

Somewhere along the line of doing all that work I think that headgear started laughing their heads off at the usual clichés of mecha anime. Every so often this manifests as parodies of other mecha shows. Examples include the dream sequence in episode 2 Longshot, or the snarky reference to anime clichés in the dressing down Captain Goto gives SV2 in episode 4 The Tragedy of L before sending them off for retraining.

I also think that headgear are Kaiju fans, there’s really no other way to explain the homage to (and parody of) Godzilla that is episode 3 The 450 Million Year Old Trap. Similarly for the ghost/detective story homage that is episode 4 The Tragedy of L.

The Politics

Patlabor has been tackling one of the toughest issues in Japanese politics for as long as I can remember, in particular the anti-war nature of the post WWII Japanese constitution [4].  There are very few anime that openly confront this [5] issue, and it is something that Oshii clearly thinks about a lot.

The two part story The SV2’s Longest Day (episodes 5 and 6) are pretty much devoted to this topic, and would later be reworked into Patlabor 2: The Movie.

One recurring theme throughout the episodes is environmental activism in the form of resistance to Project Babylon [6] which, combined with commentary on the soullessness of modern society, would become the core theme of Patlabor: The Movie.

The environmental side is interesting. Although the resistance is portrayed negatively (usually as terrorists), part of the rationale for Project Babylon is to counteract global warming/climate change. This does leave me wondering exactly where headgear and Oshii stand on the issue overall.

One political aspect that is not neglected within the series is the intra-organisational politics of the Japanese police. The character used to reveal these issues is often Captain Shinobu Nagumo. Where Goto has been “exiled” to SV2 for being too sharp, it appears to be the case that Nagumo was “exiled” to SV1 for being too honourable [7].

The final episode Go North, SV2! introduces the issues around military labours that would become central to the latter half of the TV series, but does so in a fairly lighthearted way.

The Verdict

Every franchise has to start somewhere; very few start as well as Patlabor did here. These episodes have aged extremely well and are still well worth watching. If you have any interest at all in Patlabor, this collection needs to be on your shelf. Recommended.

[1] I think I tweeted something like “Ooooh! Shiny!” I was right too.

[2] The fact that I’ve only seen them on VHS before may have had something to do with that.

[3] One of the first two Patlabor movies will make an appearance in the Twenty Days of Anime Movies series, but I’m not sure which one yet. Leave a comment if you’d like to sway the choice one way or the other.

[4] This has been in the news recently so this is still an ongoing issue in Japan.

[5] As I recall Silent Service is another, but I can’t think of too many more.

[6] The construction of huge sea walls to reclaim Tokyo bay for use as land.

[7] Which may explain why SV2 got the Ingrams ahead of SV1.