Reviewby Mike Crandol, Feb 27th 2003
Patlabor: The Mobile Police (TV Series)
Since joining Special Vehicles Section 2, labor pilot Noa Izumi has encountered all manners of bizarre dilemmas, and her job shows no signs of getting dull. Along with her partner Asuma, Noa and the team work under the sharp but unenthusiastic guidance of Captain Goto to preserve the peace of future Tokyo. The more practical-minded Ota and Kanuka question how using their Ingrams to help a humpback whale trapped in the bay or building ice castles for a winter festival constitutes preserving the peace, but the rest of the crew doesn't seem to mind. Things take a turn for the worse when Goto begins to receive threats from a mysterious source, and Noa is mistaken for a visiting celebrity and kidnapped for ransom. Of course, no job is too tough to handle for the misfits at Division 2.
Before things got serious in Patlabor 2 and the upcoming WXIII movie, the Patlabor TV series was working its magic as one of anime's premier situation comedies. Volume 4 contains episodes 15-18, and though later installments would foreshadow the movies' dramatic tone, these earlier outings are clearly made to tickle the funny bone rather than pick the brain. This is not to say they are inferior to their more intellectual counterparts; indeed, they possess rich warmth of characterization that is often missing from the plot-heavy movies, and the two styles compliment each other brilliantly. When considered as a whole, the Patlabor canon is truly one of the most versatile and rewarding works of anime ever conceived.
The gang at Special Vehicles Section 2 find themselves in some stereotypically cornball situations in this volume, but the sharp characterizations and--more importantly--the hilarious character interplay more than compensate for the formulaic scripts. Though ostensibly a lesser player than Noa or Asuma, Captain Goto easily steals the show, and it's no surprise he took on a more central role in the Patlabor movies. The standout episode on this release, “Target: Goto,” finds the unwitting leader of Division 2 marked by an unnamed aggressor whose tactics alternate between serious death threats and leaving cat poo in the captain's shoes. Goto's indifferent attitude to the matter is priceless, and when his underlings attempt to figure out what's going on, his effortless yet entirely successful attempts to dodge the issue are laugh-out-loud funny. Ever-bickering Noa and Kanuka put aside their differences long enough to tail Goto around town incognito--only to have him turn around at the end of the day and invite them both to dinner. The crisis is eventually resolved by his combination of keen deduction and total inaction, making the laid-back Goto seem like a more down-to-earth version of another Irresponsible Captain.
Goto, along with the indomitable Noa, uptight Kanuka, and the rest of the cast, are among the most fully realized animated characters of the past fifteen years, making Patlabor one of the best giant-robot shows despite having few episodes that feature robots at all. If the series has a weakness, it's an unwillingness to evolve. Almost halfway into the series run things are still exactly the same around SV2 as the day Noa showed up for duty, and there are no life-altering developments that are not totally undone by the end of each episode. This insistence on resetting to zero every week limits the series' potential, but the writers never fail to find new ways to showcase the many sides of their characters' personalities, and Patlabor remains consistently entertaining if more than a little predictable.
It also remains a curiously bland-looking production despite mecha designs by Lodoss War's Yutaka Izubuchi and character designs by Kimagure Orange Road's Akemi Takada. The Ingrams are designed with a real-world mentality in mind, and while they certainly look more plausible than a massive Gundam or Evangelion, they are also not as memorable. Likewise, there is nothing visually striking about any of the cast members. The animation is slightly better than in earlier volumes, but this is still a modestly budgeted show that is over 10 years old, and fully animated scenes are sparse. The music is tinny and repetitive. But the above could be said of any number of anime series from the era, and none of it prevents Patlabor from being a first-rate show. If nothing else, the technical shortcomings serve to bring into greater relief how inconsequential they are next to strong stories and characters.
Not so inconsequential is the quality of the vocal performances, which can make or break even the best written of shows. Patlabor's two audio tracks could be used as textbook examples of the right and wrong way to cast an anime. The original Japanese cast is sheer perfection: Goto's delivery is understated and blasé, Kanuka is suitably testy, and the nerdy Shinshi's voice is a perfect mix of nervousness and suppressed rage. Many well-established voice actors including Miina Tominaga, Toshio Furukawa, and Yoshiko Sakakibara round out the cast. On the flip side we have a completely lifeless and wooden English dub that robs the series of much of its charm. The American cast seems either not to understand the material or just not to care, and Patlabor is a throwback to the early, dreary days of English dubbing.
The previous two volumes of the series put out by Central Park Media each featured a healthy number of bonus features, but there is little extra material this time around. There is an interview transcript with screenwriter Michiko Yokote, who also wrote many of the Patlabor novels (published only in Japan), as well as the more standard still gallery and preview trailers. But the show's the main thing, of course, and it looks and sounds as good as one could hope for its age, if not better. My only gripe with the DVD is the same gripe I have with all of CPM's releases: upon choosing an audio track from the language selection menu, the disc immediately begins playing the first episode. Why, o why does it not take me to the scene selection menu instead???
Patlabor: The Mobile Police could be described as the little anime series that could. From humble beginnings it launched the careers of many of the industry's top talents and has gone on to become one of the most respected titles in the medium's history. With the third movie about to hit American shores, the timing couldn't be better to catch up on this excellent series if you haven't done so already. This is what people are talking about when they say just how good anime can be.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C-
+ Some of anime's most vivid characters in a first-rate mecha comedy
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