Buried Treasure
Patlabor TV & OAVs

by Justin Sevakis, May 1st 2008

To Japanese fans Patlabor is a seminal work, a television event as memorable and as game changing as Evangelion or Urusei Yatsura. However, despite the success of its two insanely good feature films, the series simply never caught fire with American fans. There are a few reasons for this, the biggest one being that despite featuring mecha quite prominently, the show is really not a mecha series at all. It's a sitcom. In the early days of US anime fandom when everybody was hungering for action, character driven comedy was simply not going to wash. By the time fandom grew up, Patlabor was already pretty dated looking.

Old-school anime fans have always bemoaned that lost opportunity. As a comedy, Patlabor ranks up with some of anime's best, not for any manic energy but rather for its subtlety. Where most anime (and, in general, Asian) comedies resort to cartoon violence and stupid one-liners for its humor, there was always a little more going on under the hood with Patlabor: a sense of humor based on personalities, on bizarre situations and on irony. It feels decidedly Western in how it goes about making us laugh.

Patlabor chronicles the exploits of the Tokyo Police Department's Special Vehicles Section II division, a rag-tag bunch of misfits and losers stuck out on a peninsula of reclaimed land, miles away from the rest of civilization. "Special Vehicles" implies the use of labors, mecha suits developed to help with things like construction, firefighting and military pursuits. Inevitably, some of these labors get misused, and... well, without mecha of their own, the police would be pretty much helpless.

Of course, being a government organization means there's never enough money, and enough red tape and politics to sink a battleship. The SVII crew is often reduced to growing food in their back yard (due to the poor pay and the lack of stores and restaurants in the area). Ridiculed by the media and most criminals alike, the oddball crew of young officers works hard, and usually somehow manages to make things work in their favor. Barely.

And the crew itself? There's Noa Izumi, a girl who loves labors and gives hers a pet name ("Alphonse"). There's Asuma Shinohara, the angry young man for whom joining the force is an act of rebellion. There's ultra-violent high-strung maniac Ota, eternally-whipped house-husband Shinshi, gentle giant Hiromi. All these guys serve under Captain Goto, a laid-back slobby middle aged man who rarely appears awake, let alone interested in what he's doing. (He is, however, secretly a genius.) New York-trained Kanuka Clancy and later Takeo Kumagami, both strong stoic women, seem to be tasked with the constant duty of shriveling in embarrassment at their teammates. The team also shares the headquarters with the much more competent, higher-regarded Section I.

Patlabor was directed by Mamoru Oshii, shortly after returning to the scene with Twilight Q in 1986. From that OAV, the crew formed the artist group known as "Headgear" -- including writer Kazunori Ito, mechanical designer Yutaka Izubuchi, character designer Akemi Takada and manga artist Masami Yuuki. Headgear was a powerhouse of creative talent that still occasionally work together today (Ito and Oshii, in particular). Though as "Headgear" they produced little else besides Patlabor, the group is talked about to this day as a great artist collective; a meeting of the minds equivalent to Buñuel and Dali getting together.

Truly, what makes Patlabor great is its writing, and its sense of its characters as they go through their day-to-day drudgery. Few anime series, science fiction or otherwise, will devote an entire episode to the show's least socially acceptable character attempting to find a wife (and failing). Fewer still would document the complete destruction of their entire elite brigade of mecha-piloting men in uniform by a rebellious Chinese food delivery boy not feeding them on time. And I can't think of another series that would document the pain caused by piloting a mecha with a toothache.

It's these stupid little stories that comprise Patlabor, punctuated with little bits of political intrigue (it is by Oshii, after all) and action. The SVII never gets any respect from the media (nor do they really deserve any), as they bumble their way through rescue and recovery operations, get spooked by scary stories and intentionally annoy each other. But along the way the characters mature, and by the end of the series you get the feeling that the rookies that we were introduced to have come a long way, and have become truly respectable officers. In the second Patlabor movie, we see that most of the team has moved on, and we're able to appreciate just how far they've come.

There's a Simpsons/South Park quality to the SVII, when it's a source of comedy just how dysfunctional and incompetent everyone is. Noa acts like a little girl half the time, and Asuma is usually not much better. Ota is a complete liability, with his violent trigger-happy sense of justice. Shinshi's a wimp, Hiromi doesn't say anything at all. As their personalities bounce off each other with a succession of amusing thuds, the team gradually figures out how to work together. Goto, of course, has no qualms with manipulating them in order to get his way.

Patlabor began with its original 7-part OAV. A fluidly animated marvel for its day, and as compelling in its mechanics as its story, the original Patlabor OAV series became insanely popular in Japan, and its popularity spawned the TV series. Unfortunately, TV production back in 1989 is not what it is today, and so the approach taken by the later series to its subject matter is far more light-hearted and childish. (There are a few too many "ghost story" episodes for my taste.) The genesis of the SVII is re-told, and things proceed from there. A second OAV series, known in Japan as the V-Files, are really just an additional sixteen TV episodes that weren't aired on TV. The aforementioned high-budget movies came out alongside the TV series and the New Files, respectively.

If the show was ill-suited to the American market, one thing that did not help matters at all was the English dub. Produced by Matlin Recording for CPM, the English version was simply a trainwreck. Despite having an impressive studio, Matlin Recording (which specialized in television work and 5.1 mixes) simply epitomized the sort of sloppy lack of effort with which people who don't enjoy anime tend to treat the medium. I personally sat in on a few of Matlin's recording sessions (usually while shooting a behind-the-scenes featurette) and was dismayed to discover that "director" Allen Gus often didn't even show up to his own sessions, leaving the engineer to handle matters. Among my other discoveries were that actors were given no direction (or even a description of their characters beforehand), nor was any attempt made to rewrite the terse translation for English. Got the part? Great. Go into the booth with a print-out of the subtitle script. Read. Too short? Add a word or two. Done. Next line. It's no wonder that several character names are butchered.

I wish what I described above was something heretofore unheard of in the industry, but in truth this sort of sloppiness is fairly common in anime dubbing circles. Most of those that consider anime work beneath them are able to put forth the 20% of the effort necessary to achieve 80% of the effect, and more or less pull off a passable dub. Not so with Matlin Recording. After CPM gave up dubbing Patlabor they never again got another anime dubbing job.

But it was too late for Patlabor, a show that relied on the subtlety of its characters to the point that this dub was a fatal blow. Elisa Wain, an actress who "sounds like an anime character" but has the range of a pop-gun even under the best direction, simply does her "anime voice" for every one of Noa's lines with little regard for emotion or context. Michael Schwartz seems to have gotten the instruction to "talk sleepy" and turns in a fairly dimensionless Captain Goto (especially after Peter Marinker's memorable performance in the Manga Video releases of the movies). Luckily, Dan Green is a decent enough actor that he could more or less direct himself. He turns in a generic Asuma, but even a dim light shines like the sun among darkness this black.

Despite slow sales, Central Park Media brought out all 70 episodes of Patlabor on DVD (though they did give up dubbing it halfway through New Files), and it's a nice piece of history to have adorning my shelf. It's not quite the epoch-making masterwork it's cracked up to be, but it's an important relic nonetheless. The series is responsible, in many ways, for bringing the concept of "working man's science fiction" to anime, and for bringing a more refined and intelligent sense of humor to the artform. Its legacy lives on today in shows like Planetes.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It: Both the OAVs and TV series were released on DVD by Central Park Media, and despite the crappy dub, the discs themselves are quite high quality. (Unfortunately, Akemi Takada's gorgeous artwork was not available, and so the boxes all kind of suck.) These discs are all still available in low-priced boxed sets, but not as singles. I don't expect another print run on these, so if you want Patlabor on DVD, you probably won't get another chance.

An $800 boxed set of all three series was released several years ago in Japan, and is now out of print. There's no English on it anyway. I haven't found any reviews of this boxed set and nobody I know owns it, so it's hard to tell if the video quality is any better. (The series doesn't appear to have undergone any significant remastering.) Today, only the movies and an hour-long "best of" compliation are available in Japan.

Screenshots ©1988, 1989, 1992 Headgear/Emotion/TFC. All rights reserved.


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