By Bob Clark
Mamoru Oshii’s career throughout the 70’s and 80’s is interesting to consider when looking at his rise to notoreity as a feature director in the 90’s and 00’s. Like many animators in Japan, he got his start behind the scenes on television series based on popular manga, and for a time had a good deal of success with Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura. At first glance, the popular harem-comedy wouldn’t appear to have much in common with the more mature stabs at politics and philosophy that permeate through the director’s later, better known works, but even in his handling of the show and subsequent features based on the manga he found ways to inject his own personal themes into the characters. The series’ second feature film Beautiful Dreamer stands as a savvy precursor both to the surreal dream-narrative adventures in the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, and to the existentialist dilemmas of Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, right down to the shared imagery of a protagonist confronting their own reflection in the underside of a body of water, struggling to breath and wake up out of their suffocating dreams.
Over time, however, Takahashi didn’t approve of the deviations that Oshii took from her celebrated manga, and the director eventually left to pursue his own projects, like the pure art-house animation Angel’s Egg, while his team from Urusei Yatsura moved onto less highbrow, but in a way more creatively successful works like the soft-core hentai turned mainstream satire film Project A-ko. But he wasn’t the only one who eventually left the Takahashi series to follow a newer creative direction– screenwriter Kazunori Ito would go on to work alongside Oshii on the live-action feature The Red Spectacles, a part of the director’s Kerberos cycle of films, animation and manga, and would eventually script his first Ghost in the Shell film before moving on to join the .hack franchise. But before either of those endeavors the two of them created the Patlabor series, best known in America for the second feature film and recognized as a precursor of sorts for the same ambitious blend of groundbreaking digital hybrid action animation and serious subject matters that the Ghost in the Shell films would later represent. Yet in ways both obvious and subtle, those features were merely building up from the established themes and subjects already present in the first incarnation of the franchise, as an Original Video Animation, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Patlabor: The Mobile Police as an OVA is that, no matter what you think or know of the series or Oshii’s career from their feature incarnations, it represents something of a surprise.
To be sure, there’s a lot that any viewer familiar with Oshii’s two Patlabor films will easily recognize– set in a tentatively near future Japan, it follows Special Vehicle Unit 2, a police squad armed with state of the art human-piloted “Labor” robots, technically to investigate and deal with emergency situations created by criminals piloting Labors of their own, but with most of the focus centering on the day-to-day lives of the various excitable rookies and laid-back veterans who make up the team. On film, this often manifested in long stretches of quiet introspection and political exposition as the detectives sought to unravel conspiracies aimed at bringing down contemporary Japan in terrorist plots and circuitous coups-d’etat, and though those are present at key moments of the OVA, they take a back seat for a long while in favor of comic antics between the members of SV2 in ways that fit neatly into the archetypes of special police procedural teams in anime and manga of the period. It’s not hard to look at the tomboyish Noa Izumi, whose childish fascination with Labors goes far enough for her to nickname her own unit “Alphonse”, and think of Leona Ozaki of Dominion: Tank Police and her borderline obsessive devotion to “Bonaparte”. Similarly characters like Isao Ohta and the unlikely-named Kanuka Clancy fit the patterns of the perpetually itchy-trigger-fingered and exotic Western female figures prevalent in similar works of the time– indeed, with the mix of stock-character driven comedy and mostly shallower ideas at play here, there’s not much to distinguish Patlabor from other, lesser-pedigreed anime of the period.
At first glance, anyway. Part of the seemingly uncharacteristic blend of madcap comedy and action can be seen as part of Oshii’s transition from the creative restraints of Urusei Yatsura into the more mature original work and adaptations he’d play with in the 90’s– the fact that screenwriter Ito also hailed from working on the same series underlines the comfort both creators had in dealing with even something as light and breezy as this, and seeing their comic-instincts fleshed out in full in the OVA helps to better appreciate the same aspects when they surface, in slighter form, in the features. Even at its uneven moments, there’s a genuine sense of fun in the way that Ito and Oshii seem to be allowing anything to enter their creative grab-bag of stories and themes, throwing all manner of exaggeration up against the wall to see what sticks. And though this spirit of experimentation can sometimes yield somewhat unimpressive results (episode 4 feels like a mix of gun-safety after-school special and a lame Scooby Doo ghost mystery, plus the obligatory anime trip-to-the-onsen-where-everyone-gets-naked), occasionally even the tepid stuff manages to find a gem of a character or two that makes the time well spent. Though the third episode spends most of its time on a mad-scientist’s underwater creature that breaks a tone that is otherwise fairly strict in its realism (for a robot-themed anime, anyway), the fact that it gives us the no-nonsense regular guy Tokyo cop Detective Matsui makes the episode worth-while, especially for how he later appears in the films as a key role in the minutiae of their overall political plots.
Furthermore, that political side that’s so clearly established in the feature films is something that the OVA itself finally gets around to in the two-part closing episodes, The SV2’s Longest Day, as the squad’s vacation time coincides with an attempt from a rogue element within the Japanese Self Defense Force to take over the government with an armed contingent of armed soldiers and Labors, a series of events that Oshii and Ito take as much time and patience to stretch out within the roughly hour, altogether, at their disposal. The slow pace and focus on the contrasting personalities and leadership styles of the casual Kiichi Goto and and the by-the-book Shinobu Nagumo would later be capitalized upon even further in Patlabor 2, where the creative marriage between Oshii, Ito and the rest of the creative crew of Headgear would come to bear some of the most impressive and elliptical harmony of imagery and story that anime has produced. It would be a disservice to call these finale episodes a mere dress-rehearsal for what the director and his team would eventually create in the features, but the quality of these episodes stands out from the rest of the OVA in ways that make the episodes that precede it look a little lesser by comparison, even as it builds off of the character development of the previous 4 episodes and takes advantage of all the creative and narrative experimentation in that build-up. As good as Patlabor is at its best moments, those high-water marks have an isolated feel from the rest of the series that isn’t quite the case with more unified, sustained OVA series like Hideaki Anno’s Gunbuster or Kazuya Tsurumaki’s FLCL.
In those series, each episode fit in with the rest as an essential piece of the puzzle of their own, and even when one installment might’ve stood a little taller than the others, it would be impossible to appreciate any of them without the rest. Patlabor, on the other hand, benefits from a disconnect so much that its creators were able to pick up its best aspects and capitalize on them fully in the features. It isn’t merely that you can watch The SV2’s Longest Day and get just as much out of it without the 4 episodes that come before– watching Patlabor 2 without seeing anything that came before it doesn’t hurt you that much, either. Part of that is because of just how much of Patlabor fits in with the stock characters and rote archetypes of other anime– there’s a familiar quality at seeing the bickering teammates of the SV2 during and between missions, because in a very real way most of this had been done before in higher profile works before and since. It’s especially easy to admire how Oshii’s vision in features matured from his more cost-sensitive time here animating for television– whether it’s Angel’s Egg or Ghost in the Shell there’s always been a heavily detailed look to the way that the director takes advantage of the higher frame rate and depth-of-field available for higher budgeted feature work, and seeing him cut corners for a television-scaled work like Patlabor helps put that into context, beyond being impresive in its own right.
It helps to better appreciate the ways that Oshii and Ito fit into the squad-procedural contours of Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, especially when one looks at the manga and sees just how much of the madcap and raunchy comedy they took out when coming up with their streamlined, matured vision on. Perhaps one of the reasons they got progressively more and more serious is because they’d finally gotten the last of that Takahashi-esque comedy out of their system in the Patlabor OVA, allowing them to move on to bigger and more profound subjects. Granted, neither of them has fully moved beyond the realm of sci-fi action or entertainment over the years, but the sophistication they’ve brought to bear to anime is something that might’ve only been possible after early gambits like these. In spite of the adage, it isn’t always necessary to put away childish things, but even childish things themselves can grow up.