Jun 7, 2016
Mobile Police Patlabor is a multimedia franchise founded in the late 80s by a bevy of then relatively unknown talent. Most notable among these names is director Mamoru Oshii, the philosophical tech-mind behind other works such as Ghost in the Shell, Jin-Roh, and The Sky Crawlers. Being both fairly convinced of his talent and a mecha fan, I dropped in to give the much lauded Patlabor franchise a try. The Early Days OVA starts one of two anime continuities which the first two movies continue.

This 7-episode 1988 OVA is a brief but effective peek into the world of Patlabor. A Japanese rookie police squad is transferred to a new district where they’ll uphold the law with the help of their Patlabors – giant mechanized Patrol “Labor Units” created to combat rising Labor crime. Patlabor is among the closest a mecha series has come to being a “slice of life” show, with little to no overarching plot and an episodic structure that details the daily life of the SVD2 squad and the environment they have to work in. It’s primarily a mix of comedy and drama, but is not beholden to both, knowing exactly when to divide and redistribute the mix to make its individual stories more fun or more emotional. It’s a show that’s convincingly capable of doing anything thanks to having talent great enough to know how to handle anything.

It’s difficult to not undersell Patlabor because on the surface it’s a modest, unpretentious series but with excellent, tactful craft that overcomes its simple premise. The world construction is extremely similar to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (despite Oshii not working on that) in the sense that Patlabor has a very well-defined setting that’s constantly and gradually built on in the background through the broad range of subjects its cast has to deal with in their adventures. Despite Patlabor’s mostly light-hearted tone and humor, its surrounding is revealed to be a prescient future society rife with environmental concerns, increasingly concealed upper class bureaucracy, and red-tape clashes between the police, military, and government. It’s borderline dystopian without rubbing it in your face, but being able to both acknowledge that border while not succumbing to overbearing themes of pessimism and nihilism is why the series is so successful and unique. It’s a struggle of optimists in a world that’s increasingly not welcoming them, and Patlabor manages to have its cake and eat it too regardless of which tone it chooses to put on.

Still, this OVA is largely a fun comedy driven by likable characters with strong personality traits that aren’t exaggerated to the point of having them become caricatures, and not overused to the point of making any of them annoying. Among the SVD2 squad is central character Noa Izumi, a tomboyish Labor fangirl who joins the police in order to pilot a mech. Her closest comrade is Asuma Shinohara, the spoiled son of a leading metal manufacturer’s president. They’re joined by the trigger-happy and sexually repressed Isao Oota, nerdy “whipped” husband Mikiyasu Shinshi, and peaceful giant Hiromi Yamazaki. They’re soon joined by an American transfer named Kanuka Clancy, an ace police officer who’s by far the most serious and intelligent of the squad. Squad captain Kiichi Gotou reveals himself to be the strongest member of the cast, a perpetually depressed-looking man with an unprofessionally sullen demeanor. What’s at first seemingly a personality played for a joke becomes the most important part of making Patlabor’s serious tone believable. Gotou is the weary cop who’s been worn down (but not broken) by the technicalities of the law and justice, and the suspicious self-serving nature of the higher-ups he serves. The only one who comes close to understanding him is Shinobu Nagumo, a more professional but ultimately more naive fellow captain. When the OVA climaxes in episodes 5 and 6, it’s Gotou’s presence in the storyline that hints at something beyond Patalbor’s usual comedic conceit, and since his character bears the weight of the drama the lighter tone most of the series has is not jeopardized. Gotou is Patlabor’s main connection to the more serious side of its story and yet he’s still funny in his complete frustration and exhaustion regarding his job while also being startlingly intelligent and competent. In summary, Gotou rules.

That two-parter mentioned above is an exception in this OVA, however. It’s a little odd how the OVA doesn’t conclude on those episodes since they’re clearly the climax and the final episode completely skips over the implied consequences of the previous one which is puzzling and begs an explanation. The 7th episode could’ve and should’ve been placed before those two episodes. The majority of Patlabor: Early Days is effectively funny episodic comedy starring an easily lovable cast with well-animated action sequences. The pacing of every scene is always pitch-perfect, slow and natural when capturing the malaise of the bored squad members who celebrate being suspended from work, and slick and uplifting whenever action is required. Oshii knows what he’s doing in a consummate sense that’s extremely easy to overlook if you don’t consider how mediocre a lot of otherwise fine anime are directed. Patlabor isn’t a lazy production, constantly switching frames and camera angles so that its mundanity somehow isn’t boring to watch. When the objects on screen aren’t moving around a lot, the camera always is and no frame is sloppy or unfocused. Episode 4’s ghastly ghost story uses uniquely garish coloring over many scenes that sells the clash between Patlabor’s tone and the sort of horror it’s parodying, and Gotou and Nagumo’s relationship with the majority of it being told through facial expressions and things unsaid is always refreshingly mature among the more frantic cast.

Yutaka Izubuchi’s mechanical designs are sleek but utilitarian. The Patlabors are literally giant police officers, armed with over-sized handguns and nightclubs. At first this may seem tacky, and yet it’s more plausible than your usual Gundam’s reliance on vaguely explained beam technology. Kenji Kawai’s score is typical for the time, a mixture of bright synth build-ups to electric guitar solos. Anyone who’s seen a fair amount of 80s anime will recognize the style, and while very derivative it’s a kind of style I personally love and I’ve already found myself humming a few of its tunes after finishing the series. Every credits sequence having its own unique theme is a nice touch, and the opening theme being a love song from Noa to her Patlabor (nicknamed “Alphonse”) is a cute and appropriate lead-in to Patlabor’s general tone.

Patlabor: Early Days is not going to please a broad audience. It’s inevitable some people are simply going to find it boring. For others such as myself, its seemingly simple construction won’t feel empty at all and instead an honest, restrained approach that makes any of its more ambitious and potent moments much stronger. It’s made with a class that boosts its modest interests above many other series that wear their ambition on their shoulder but have a much less realized premise. For people who like the more commonly easy-going anime of its era and want a particularly solid-written series that never trips over any of its concepts, it’s easy to recommend Patlabor: Early Days.