Reviewby Mike Crandol,
Patlabor: The Mobile Police (TV Series)
In the near future (actually 1999, but hey, who's counting?) the rise of giant mechanical robots known as Labors has created a tremendous growth in industrialization. The nature of these human-piloted machines also makes them well-suited for criminal activity, and in response the metro police have created a special Patrol Labor unit, or Patlabor for short. Police recruit Noa Izumi's lifelong dream is to be a Patlabor pilot, and as luck would have it she joins Special Vehicles Division 2 just as they receive the latest model Labor, the Ingram. Along with her fellow crew of oddballs and misfits, Noa answers the call to action whenever there is Labor trouble in the city.
Though lesser-known than the Gundam franchise or Macross/Robotech, Patlabor: The Mobile Police stands as one of the crowning achievements of the giant robot genre. Under the guidance of future Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, the crew behind Patlabor created a show in which the notion of towering humanoid machines is presented in a plausible, realistic manner, with an emphasis on character-driven humor as opposed to superheroic mecha battles. Not a series about giant robots so much as a series about the people who pilot them, Patlabor led the way for more sophisticated anime in a subgenre that had previously been geared almost exclusively towards younger audiences. Those gunning for nonstop action best look elsewhere, but few television shows animated or live-action, Japanese or American can match Patlabor's fully developed ensemble of honest, likeable characters.
Patlabor is one of those rare and wonderful series that somehow manages to establish a believable, three-dimensional cast before the first episode has even broke for a commercial. As soon as the characters open their mouths for the first time, you feel like you've known them for years. From the impulsive Ota to the pragmatic Asuma, the put-upon yet laid-back Captain Goto and the go-get-em recruit Noa, everyone's personality and motivations are clearly delineated. Even the smaller players have been imbued with defining character traits, a facet many other "character-driven" anime often ignore. By the end of the first five episodes on the disc many of the cast have revealed additional sides to their personas, making them seem even more sincere. The idea of a mech show in which the mecha took a back seat to the characters would later be used to more widespread acclaim in Neon Genesis Evangelion, which obviously owes a debt to this earlier work.
Equally as impressive as the strong characterizations is the way Patlabor creates a future world in which huge robots are depicted in a believable manner. We willingly suspend our disbelief when watching Gundam or Evangelion but in the back of our minds we know such machines will never be practical instruments of war. Labors, on the other hand, are primarily construction tools, and if giant mechs ever do exist that is what they most likely will be used for. The Patlabor team is more likely to encounter a drunken Labor pilot accidentally stepping on buildings than an evil warlord with an army of robotic followers. And while Patlabor's Ingrams may not be the most realistic way to deal with a rogue Labor, the manner in which they are used is entirely logical: instead of launching out of a hidden underground base the Ingrams are loaded on a truck and driven to the scene of the crime, where the Ingram pilot is then guided by another officer in a patrol car. The action may not be as grand as some other series', but Patlabor's entertainment value comes from it's unique speculation on the real-world uses of a fantastic staple of anime fiction. coupled with the winning characterizations, this makes Patlabor a truly remarkable work.
The series was produced on a modest budget way back in 1989, and it shows. While there are some dynamic scenes of the Labors in action, more frequently Patlabor is characterized by static or herky-jerky animation....however it should be noted this was the norm for an 80's anime TV show. The art design is pretty generic; the Labors could easily fit into any other mech show, but this may have been intentional given the show's aim for realism. The character designs are also pretty bland, ironic since the characters themselves are anything but. Important players like Noa, Asuma, or the Japanese-American Clancy Kanuka look like background characters from a more strikingly designed anime. Again it must be said this may have been the artist's goal all along, as these are supposed to be ordinary working joes like you and me and not superheroes out to save the world. Anyway, the characters' personalities are so vivid they overcome their forgettable designs, as well as the series' other technical faults.
Also typical of the era is the musical score. Performed almost exclusively on synthesizers, it lacks the punch of the orchestral scores that would make a comeback in mid-90s anime productions. But Patlabor refrains from the excessive overuse of synthesizers that plagues other anime such as Project A-Ko or The Dirty Pair. Despite being hopelessly cheesy, Patlabor's closing theme, "Midnight Blue", is guaranteed to stick in your head for days. If you're lucky you'll grow to like it.
Patlabor's original cast is a testament that Japan has always been careful to hire top-notch acting talent to voice their anime. While us strictly English-speaking types may not be able to understand what they say it is clear that every voice actor in Patlabor is speaking their lines with conviction. The same cannot be said of the English cast, which is a painful reminder of why dubs were hated so back in the day. Though the dub was recorded very recently one would think it's a holdover from 10 years ago. Exceptions include Captain Goto and Kanuka, whose American voices bring their respectively blasé ¡nd no-nonsense attitudes to life, but the all-important main character of Noa is voiced so flat and lifelessly it seriously detracts from the enjoyment of the show. The rest of the cast is mediocre at best. This is a big disappointment in today's anime market, where high-quality English dubs are becoming more and more predominant.
Much better than the English vocal track is the video presentation. Though the art design and animation belies it's age Patlabor is virtually free of the color-fading and degradation common for a show that's over ten years old. Central Park Media is to be commended for such a clean transfer that's much fresher-looking than ADV's release of the similarly-aged Dirty Pair, for example. The only problem with the disc are the chapter stops, which are not grouped by episode on the menu but simply run from 1-10. Hopefully on future Patlabor releases CPM will provide a menu that's easier to navigate.
Volume 2 of Patlabor is scheduled to be released in June, almost 10 months after the release of Volume 1. Further installments have been promised to show up more frequently, which is good news indeed. Though it may be "old school" anime, in this day and age where we are plagued with a glut of second-rate action anime, Patlabor is a refreshing change of pace.
+ honest and endearing characters in a rational, realistic Giant Mech tale with a high laugh-quotient
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