Review for Patlabor Mobile Police: OVA Series 1 Collection
What took Patlabor so long? I mean, it’s a sci-fi show for one, it’s got giant robots in for another, and it’s directed by Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame to boot. That’s a whole lot of cachet right there. It’s also a vintage show from the late eighties, and was first released in the US by CPM years ago. It would have been the perfect license for the UK during the first anime boom, tailored for the heart of the sci-fi anime fan, and that’s no less true today. But it was never released here. No doubt part of that has to do with the size of the franchise, which is something that UK distributors used to quail at, before Naruto showed a model that could work. Patlabor debuted as a 7 episode OVA series in 1988, which then begat a 47 episode television run. This was followed by another 16 episode OVA series in 1990, and the show spun-off two feature films as well. More recently a third feature film was made without Oshii’s involvement, and with just a passing resemblance to the series, but of all of that massive franchise, only the first two feature films ever made it to the UK, first through the auspices of Manga Video, and then Mamoru Oshii’s re-mastered versions from Bandai’s partner company Beez. I’ve watched and indeed reviewed these movies for the site, but I never got to see the original series that started it all, until now.
We have a nostalgia boom in anime to thank for that, as fans are of that age that wants to revisit those classic shows in re-mastered HD quality. The older shows are perfect for such re-visitation, as they were made with cel and ink, not in the bowels of a computer, and are ripe for a little cleaning up, and for Blu-ray releases. Maiden Japan in the US has picked up the whole of the Patlabor TV franchise from the ashes of CPM, and are re-releasing the shows, both OVA and TV series on shiny high definition Blu-ray. As so often happens, this stroke of anime fortune is working its way around the world, and in Australia, it’s Madman who are releasing the shows, although they are only releasing the OVAs in HD. In the UK, it’s MVM who have picked up the Patlabor license, although at this time, they are just releasing the first OVA series. With any luck, it will sell like hotcakes, MVM will license the rest and we in the UK will finally get to see the whole of this seminal sci-fi anime series.
In an alternate Tokyo (it was the future Tokyo when this show was originally made though), all of the city's energy is invested in Project Babylon, the creation of artificial islands and dams, and the reclamation of thousands of square hectares of habitable land area, to allow for the expansion of the city. Such a monumental undertaking would have been impossible, were it not for the Labors. Giant humanoid robots now do much of the heavy lifting in the city, 8000 of them piloted by trained professionals now do the work of what would have taken many times that number in manpower alone. The output by these powerful machines ensures that Project Babylon runs to schedule.
Of course not every Labor is used responsibly; some people use them for criminal activities, which is where the Patrol Labors come in, the so-called Patlabors. The Special Vehicle Section of the Tokyo Police force come equipped with Labors of their own, with which they detect and combat Labor crime in the city. The 2nd Unit is the unconventional department, whose methods leave much to be desired, and is seen as a dumping ground for those officers who don't quite fit in elsewhere. The fledgling department has been up and running for three months at the start of the OVA series, making do with upgraded civilian Labors and a handful of personnel. But as the prevalence of Labor crime increases, and terrorism continues to afflict the city, things are about to get more serious for SV2. Captain Goto is about to take delivery of 3 dedicated Police Labors, and with them come five new recruits to the department. Among them is one Noa Izumi, a total robot geek who has already picked out a name for her would-be Labor, Alphonse, and there’s Asuma Shinohara, who got volunteered by his father for the police, and would much rather be anywhere else.
The seven OVA episodes of Patlabor’s first series are presented across 2 DVD discs by MVM. On the same day as this is released, you’ll be able to get the show on Blu-ray as well.
1. Second Unit, Move Out
2. Long Shot
3. The 450 Million Year Old Trap!
4. The Tragedy of L
5. The SV2’s Longest Day: Part 1
6. The SV2’s Longest Day: Part 2
7. SV Units, Go North
The Patlabor OVAs get a 4:3 regular native PAL transfer across these two DVDs, one dual layer, and one single. Something that causes me the slightest annoyance is that it’s a better transfer than on those movie special editions from Beez. Those after all were standards converted efforts, soft of resolution and with the usual problems with judder and ghosting. There’s none of that here, as it appears that Madman Entertainment sourced the HD masters for their DVD release, and the show makes full use of the extra resolution afforded by PAL.
The image is clear and sharp throughout, and the animation is smooth and crisp. It looks as if some restoration has been applied, as the image is free of artefacts or print damage, and there are no signs of age such as faded colours or the like. The copy looks fantastic. The animation is OVA quality of course, in that respect it cannot match up to the feature films, but the character designs are consistent throughout, the Labors look fantastic, and the futuristic alternate Tokyo is detailed and vibrant. I really do like the way the characters come across, and Oshii manages to marry slapstick comic reaction with subtle changes of mood to create engaging character studies. It looks astounding on DVD; I can’t imagine how much better it will look on Blu-ray.
You have the choice between DD 2.0 English and Japanese, with translated subtitles and a signs only track to go with the English audio. I listened to the Japanese audio as always, and there were no technical issues to worry about. The dialogue is clear throughout, the action comes across well, as does the show’s music, and any pitch correction that may have been applied due to PAL speedup is unnoticeable. I gave the dub a try and found it to be of its age, and it will do until something better comes along. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of error, although my gut instinct was that the translation might have been a little looser than we are used to with modern anime releases.
The discs present their content with static menus, and jacket pictures.
The only extra content on disc 2 are trailers for Majikoi Oh! Samurai Girls and Mayo Chiki!
Given that it’s a Maiden Japan (Sentai sister company) release in the US, it’s unsurprising that they haven’t translated the show’s credit sequences. Sentai usually adds a translated credit reel at the end of each episode, and it’s a matter of pot luck when it comes to that reel appearing on Madman’s DVDs of the shows. They aren’t on this DVD, but I would bet that they are on the Blu-ray.
More of this please! Although I hadn’t seen any of the Patlabor TV or OVA episodes before, having just partaken of the substantially different in tone movies, watching these seven OVA episodes was ringing nostalgia bells for me in a big way. This is anime from when I got into the medium, the kind of show that attracted me to Japanese animation in the first place. It will come as a shock to anyone accustomed to modern anime, as it has none of the tropes or clichés that we take for granted and make allowances for, and it has characters instead of archetypes. You don’t get to slot these characters into easy little big-boobed, flat-chested, loli, geek, tsundere and moe boxes. What’s more, you get characters that interact with each other, that bounce off each other and develop because of that. This is a show with recognisable people in, and Mamoru Oshii somehow manages to combine slapstick comedy with genuine character drama as well, subtlety and nuance, mixed with double takes and pratfalls.
That this all happens in a show about giant robots, my least favourite anime genre, is all the more surprising. The thing that makes Patlabor stand out against all the other giant robot shows is that these giant robots are machines with a genuine believable purpose. In the show, the technology developed to augment the construction industry, and the need for the Patlabors only transpired once criminals started using the construction mechs for illicit purposes. But they remain machines throughout. They aren’t anthropomorphised and imbued with human characteristics (except by Noa Izumi, who has a couple of fangirl issues that she brings to her everyday work), and neither are they piloted by random teenagers without any training whatsoever, there’s no levelling up of abilities, and there is no succeeding through superior willpower. Go beyond the design specifications of these robots, and you wind up breaking the robots.
Patlabor then is a realistic near future (when it was made) sci-fi that is character based. Captain Goto’s understated wry sense of humour lies at the heart of SV2, and even in these early episodes, the relationship that he has with fellow Captain Shinobu Nagumo is conveyed almost in subtext. Of the new recruits, Noa Izumi is the one geeky robot fan who has already decided on a name for her Labor before she even gets into the cockpit, but her partner Asuma Shinohara is less enthusiastic. His family owns the biggest Labor manufacturer in Japan, but he’s been ‘drafted’ into the police by his father who doesn’t think his son is responsible enough to succeed to the company. Then there’s Ohta, the other Labor pilot who’s just a little too gung-ho about his robot’s weaponry, a trait that gets him into trouble on more than one occasion. By the second episode, they even get a transfer officer from the US, Kanuka Clancy, whose professional and duty-bound to a degree that frustrates even her superiors, and they decide that Japan’s SV2 would be a good place for her to get out of their hair.
The thing about these Patlabor OVA episodes is that it’s the characters that make the strongest impression and the stories less so. Not that the stories should be dismissed out of hand. The first OVA series certainly kicks off strongly, and finishes off in much the same way. The first episode is a neat introduction to SV2, and you get to know the characters in a nice short space of time, get an introduction to this near future Tokyo and its problems with Labor crime, and the new recruits get a harsh introduction to the realities of their roles as Labor pilots. The second episode sees them slot together a little better as a team, when they have to provide security for a visiting dignitary. With that dignitary comes Kanuka Clancy providing security, and thereafter gets a year-long transfer to SV2. These are strong opening episodes with a fair bit of action and giant robot sourced terrorism for this newly created police department to deal with.
Things take a dip in quality for the next two episodes, with the biggest dip in episode three. That’s the one with the giant sea monster. Genetic engineering goes horribly wrong, resulting in a story which after just two episodes still feels utterly out of place in this show’s universe. It’s only the characters’ reactions to the absurd situation that just about makes it watchable, but it’s never more than forgettable. The fourth episode plays it purely for laughs, as Ohta’s gun fixation comes back to bite him when the entire unit is reassigned for retraining, and it becomes an object lesson for Ohta in not being so trigger happy. The way the instructors accomplish this is roundabout, convoluted, and par for the course for a comedy episode.
There then follows the two episode story which is the strongest in the set, and one that presages the second Patlabor movie too, although it maintains the light and frivolous tone of the series which the second movie dispensed with. The SV2 unit is on vacation when someone attempts a military coup in Tokyo. They waited for that precise moment because of a prior acquaintance with SV2’s Captain Goto, and having him out of the way offers a greater chance of achieving their aims. It becomes a race against time for SV2 to get back into operation before this military group can achieve their aims, especially when the news leaks that a certain US cruise missile has fallen into the insurgents’ hands.
The final episode brings things down a bit, with another minor terrorist incident involving an experimental combat Labor, one that was initially stolen by terrorists, but then winds up being hijacked by an opportunistic truck thief. Things get political when the Labor’s manufacturers get involved, wanting to hush the theft up.
The Patlabor OVAs are fun. The stories may not be up to much, you certainly get a lot more depth and narrative richness in current anime, but what Patlabor does with its characters is peerless. They may indulge in the odd pratfall and double take, but they also have the subtlety and nuance of genuine human beings, albeit in animated form. There’s not a lot of animation involved in a character looking thoughtful, but with Patlabor you can actually begin to grasp the inner landscapes of these characters, and simply revel in being in their company for half an hour or so at a time. I really do hope that this release does well enough to justify the rest of the series. Patlabor is the kind of show we could well use more of in the UK.