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Old School
Patlabor OVA

by Mike Crandol,
It's a good time to be a Patlabor fan. Pioneer has just released the third feature film, WXIII, along with the hilarious “MiniPato” shorts in a handsome three-disc box set. Central Park Media is churning out the TV series on DVD at a steady rate. More than ten years after its inception, Patlabor remains one of the most respected anime titles around.

The project was conceived by an all-star team that included manga artist Masami Yuuki, designers Akemi Takada and Yutaka Izubuchi, and anime guru Mamoru Oshii; their ultimate goal had always been to produce an animated series for television. The idea: make a giant robot show that approached the concept of giant robots in a practical, realistic manner. No telepathic teenage pilots, no transforming 200-foot tall metal gargantuans, no flying around in outer space. The question was, would audiences want to watch a show that took all of the fantasy out of the giant-robot mythos? Network sponsors were wary. To prove Patlabor had what it would take, Oshii and pals, under the group name “Headgear”, produced the original Mobile Police Patlabor OAV series in 1988, and the rest is anime history.

If you want to get technical, the Patlabor movies follow this original continuity, though the eventual TV series is virtually identical in story and tone. Labor pilot Noa Izumi and her crew of misfit patrol officers man Special Vehicles Section 2, a division of the Metro Police assigned to combat Labor crimes in the future Tokyo of 1999. Labors are manually-piloted construction robots, but are also used to wreak havoc by various terrorist organizations. The SV2 has some labors of their own named “Ingrams”, specifically designed to subdue criminal perpetrators and keep the peace.

When Patlabor finally came to television the characters were reintroduced in a more hurried fashion; the OVA's first episode offers a more leisurely introduction that better establishes the cast and their relationship to one another. These are some of the best-written characters around, and with precious few lines of dialogue the audience learns volumes about who they are and what makes them tick. A brief conversation between the young, labor-obsessed Noa and her new partner Asuma cements their little-sister/big-brother dynamic. The contrast between the nebbish Shinshi and loose-cannon Ota is loads of fun, and the unconscious ramblings of Section 2 Captain Goto tip off his unrequited love for the commander of Section 1, the young but perpetually single Shinobu Nagumo. The manga's Lt. Takeo Kumagami is here replaced by the American Kanuka Clancy, who is less acidic in the OVA than in the TV series, where she was eventually traded back for Kumagami.

Though a mere seven episodes, the series constructs its imaginary future world thoroughly and convincingly, and there was little to develop when the eventual 47 episodes of the TV series went into production. As such these OVAs possess a creative spark and energy the television broadcast can't quite match. Many of the plots are downright silly, but the creators strictly adhere to their self-imposed rule that the robots and people who pilot them remain utterly believable. In this regard, Patlabor was something new and unique for its time, and Headgear's excitement is evident in every frame.

Even when things get goofy, Patlabor retains a high level of sophistication rare for anime. Episode three's scene-for-scene Godzilla spoof is played totally straight; those unfamiliar with the 1954 debut film of the big green monster would find this episode confusing and unfunny at best. But if you're up on your Godzilla lore this understated parody is absolutely hilarious; labor mechanic Shige begins ordering parts for an oxygen-destroying device to combat a creature that looks suspiciously like one of the officers at SV2. The “haunted spa” the gang visits in episode 4 is also pretty hokey, but the secret behind the mystery of the ghostly woman in white is an ingeniously layered conspiracy that leads Asuma and Noa to a partially-correct but misled conclusion. It takes Kanuka's cunning to put the pieces of the puzzle in the proper order and identify the real culprit responsible for the “haunting”.

This mix of broad comedy and intellectual wit can be directly attributed to the hands-on involvement of director Mamoru Oshii and screenwriter Kazunori Itōh, who assumed more distant, supervisory roles in the television production. The gem of this first OVA series is unquestionably the two-part “SV2's Longest Day”, which anticipates Oshii's and Itoh's work on the acclaimed Patlabor 2 motion picture. These episodes can be seen as a sort of dry-run for the later film, which also revolves around a complex military coup, the insubordination of SV2 and their rogue efforts to diffuse the political crisis. But the OVA is full of a warmth and personality missing from the coldly acerbic movie, and in many ways is the superior work. It balances the plot-heavy story with the personal dilemmas of the characters; Asuma, the black sheep of his family, gets to know Noa and her parents better, the relationship between Goto and Nagumo is further explored, and we get our first of many hilarious peeks at Shinshi's married life. Things turn serious once Goto's old college buddy Kai orchestrates a military takeover of Tokyo, but unlike Patlabor 2 there is a much-needed comedic subplot involving Kanuka, Ota, and Shinshi's ill-fated attempt to sabotage the coup. The pacing is fast and furious, the characters are totally engrossing, and the script is ingenious. Simply put, “The SV2's Longest Day” is the best installment of Patlabor ever - TV, movie, or OVA.

The series ends rather abruptly with another lighthearted outing involving a stolen communist (yeah, that's right, communist!) labor, but it is of course far from the last we'd see of the Patlabor world. Production on both the first Patlabor movie and the desired television series began in early 1989 even as the original OVAs wound to a close. Headgear had proven that audiences were ready for a more sensible, adult treatment of the Giant Robot story, and paved the way for more sophisticated mecha series like Evangelion and RahXephon. It can truly be said that the genre “came of age” with the release of Patlabor.

Central Park Media brought the original seven episodes of Mobile Police Patlabor to the West in 1996. Available only in its original language with subtitles, the series was spread over three VHS volumes available separately or as part of an attractive (and modestly priced) boxset. This was followed by subtitle-only releases of the television series as well as a five-volume boxset of the second OVA series - the 1990 continuation of the TV storyline. Believing Patlabor would appeal only to hardcore otaku , CPM gave all three series relatively small distribution, and as of this writing the original OVAs have never been reissued.

In 2001 Volume 1 of the Patlabor TV series was released on DVD with little fanfare. But the disc sold much better than expected, and CPM has since implemented a steady release schedule for the remainder of the series complete with a new English dub. Logically, the second OVA series should follow, so the original Patlabor still has a long while yet before it sees the light of DVD - and even then a release is iffy. CPM has stated that it will only continue to produce subsequent Patlabor volumes so long as they break even in sales. In the meantime, you can find the original series on VHS for a reasonable price on eBay or Half.com; though the tapes show up infrequently, and the 3-volume boxset is hard to come by. If the opportunity presents itself for you to purchase this classic series, don't hesitate. Mobile Police Patlabor is anime at its finest.

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