Mar 27, 2018
gabrielrroiz (All reviews)
Patlabor is a classic. The term comes with a lot of responsibility, and believe me, I truly do not like to take or give it lightly, but throughout the years Patlabor has cemented its name as one of the more well recognized and critically praised mecha franchises of the 80s. Managing to stand not that far away in terms of importance and influence, to the likes of Gundam or Macross. Sadly, my experience with it has been nothing short of underwhelming, basically making for a highly frustrating disappointment overall. On this analysis I will attempt to shed some light to what I consider to be the pivotal structure problem with the series, the characters, which are my main reason for never managing to connect with some of its entries. As references for this I will be using mostly the ova series Mobile Police Patlabor, with some additional commentaries on its continuations, Patlabor Movie 1 and 2.

My issue at heart here is actually philosophical one, on the writing of this OVA. The main ideal of characterization this series seems to be going for is something I fundamentally disagree. On the OVA’s first episode, there is a line by Gotou that describes perfectly, said ideal of character writing. On said commentary he points out how his subordinates, the main guys we follow through most of the episodes, are not the autistic pilots of Gundams, dangaios, Mazingers. This commentary lands a pretty decent joke and reference (you would have to kill me, to make me remember an instance where the jokes in this Ova actually made me laugh) but is also indicative of a bigger view on how these characters were purposefully created. It references a logic of taking out eccentricities, extreme aspects of personality, in order to portray their personalities as more mundane, normal, you could say as “realistic people”. Even in this case where the personas are a bit more expressive and show a wider range of emotions than in pretentious crap like Kara no Kyoukai. The problem being, this attempt at streamlining does not lead necessary to what I would call better characters. In fact, I think it plays the contrary effect on this franchise, the personalities are streamlined, to the point they really lack basic aspects of really basic character writing like engaging conflicts, arcs, motivations, depth, psychological introspection, making they really way less interesting as people to the emotionally unstable autistic pilots, who were portrayed in really exaggerated ways, that were kind of a genre cliché (blame Zeta Gundam for this). This for me is a clear example of confusing subtlety, in having the character aspect being more nuanced, having it to be implied through details and small actions rather than literally explained, for dullness in having barely anything in terms of content to these personas. Patlabor is an obvious attempt of going for the latter, but forgets to give the meaning on the small, in having a good grasp on ideas they were trying to imply, to give us a good enough of a sense as to whom these people really are.

Credit where it is due, at the very least the cast here contains a variety of personalities. Each character has its own unique reaction and characteristic be it Oda’s aggressiveness, Nagumo’s rationality, Noah’s childishness. Such characteristic may never portray or give comprehension to a deeper true character, but the very least they serve to create scenes; each persona adds a unique facet and reaction to situations, which in turn makes for dynamic scenes. The developments in history are made on the basis of their unique personality, not on convenient character writing. But when we look to the foundational aspects of good writing, the characterization quite literally falls apart. How many of the main characters in Patlabor have well stablished and portrayed motivations and goals? The answer is two, them being the guys who have pretty much already accomplished their goals at episode 1(firing guns for Oda, being with Alphonse for Noah). So yeah the joy of seeing someone attempt for a goal, an objective, a thing of desire, and work his way through complications to get to that is completely gone here. This issue is only elevated by the complete disconnect between the conflict and the cast, the conflicts being presented through the OVA (with the exception of episode 5) have completely none personal stakes, they have absolutely no relation with whom they are, what they want, being that their repercussions only matter on a social scale (which also does not matter since the OVA has really bad world building, but this is a topic for later). It is a weird case where characters are not moved from desire, worldviews, personal issues, traumas, but because it is their job, they are paid for that and they just sort of have to do it. I usually prefer characters where the reasoning for their actions are explained and have more to them than simple duty, but hey that is just me. It also creates a weird instance where the lack of stakes or interest for the conflict in the characters themselves, also leaves me really disengaged on what is being presented, since it is through their eyes and perspective that we as audience members experience said events. You would think that in Ova where everyone lacks urgency completely, they would try to get us interested on them as people instead, develop those guys to be really compelling, well written. Which is completely not the case, throughout this entire fucking Ova most main characters never grow much from the way they were initially introduced. Take Shinshi for example, he is a main in this Ova and in the first movie. Throughout the course of both the only things we get to know about him is that he is a really passive scarred guy, and the fact he is married (which manages to be his most notable “trait”). At the end of the day we learn absolutely nothing new about the guy, he is still the same person he was in episode 1 (I would argue he is a worst character at this point, because now we know his existence is limited to that). I am not saying Patlabor needs to give ample characterization, depth, or psychological introspection to everyone, the kinds of basic layout which were being used here can work for simple secondary character. Take Sakaki for example he does not need much more than his gloomy obstinate and oozing in authority personality to work for his function, for the screen presence he occupies, and his relevance in the story, that is good enough. Giving this treatment to a main one or I would argue even less to some, is completely unacceptable though. The instances of character development that do happen are also so bizarrely handled. On its first movie Patlabor sets up what should be Noah’s most important flaw, an aspect that was a clear build up for a future arc in my vision (which I think the OVA was also trying to set up, but they were so incompetent at that I am not sure). Said flaw being her dependency on external objects, she named several things throughout her life as Alphonse, and implies her happiness can only happen in terms of being together with said objects. Of course the narrative has absolutely nothing to do with this flaw (it never does in Patlabor, because who needs conventional storytelling of tying conflict with characters flaws, and making arcs about overcoming those flaws, right). But then what happens in movie 2 really gets the cake as most awkward character moment ever. Said continuation literally starts with a scene of Noah saying she does not need her freaking Alphonse anymore and she is over it. Her infatuation with Alphonse the most important aspect of her personality, being built up and reiterated for an entire OVA series and a movie, and the resolution to all of that is part of a time skip, where what is shown is only the aftermath of said change. This movie in general also has this issue of presenting character change from previous entries with time skips, with barely any context, but it as least gives them new situations to react to and aspects of personality, which was more than I can say for most of the OVA, so well done, I guess.

The bigger issue here is not really the personas sucking (which they do). But in how Patlabor needs way stronger character writing for the narrative it is attempting to work (the films 1 and 2 are exceptions for being a detective mystery and political thriller respectively, more focused on plot). There is a great focus on detailing the day to day of these people, the way they interact and play with each other (was this supposed to be comedy), those moments were really more important than the conflict and surrounding narratives at hand in some episodes. There is a focus on character here, which is really not paying off, and comes mostly as a waste of time. I also do not think Patlabor understands what makes said slice of life like scenes functional. Scenes without conflict are great to show the personality of the individuals, showing how they truly act in the absence of an external force, these are the moments where we truly see characters’ act, instead of react to things like threats to their lives. Those can also be great to show people in a great variety of circumstances, or how mundane habits and values can shape or show the true personality besides facades. It can also be a way of stablishing relatability with characters, showing them as normal humans, which engage in the same kind of regular activities as you do. Patlabor barely uses those to any of those functions, instead opting for repeating the same traits (how many times did we need to see OTA wanting to shoot in his spare time?) repeating the same facts about the characters, repeating the same kind of interaction between them ad nauseam and also the most repetitive and obnoxious attempts at banter and humor I have ever seen. During the entire OVA, the only moments where I felt it put those scenes to great effect was in the start of episode 5. In 13 minutes this episode manages to do more for the characters, than the show had done so far in its entire run. By having they start the episode going home, meeting their family connections, or other relations they are inserted into, giving then an entire new situation, portraying a completely new aspect of their lives, even when one of them choose to do not go and stay at the district, that choice also tells a lot about them, especially in Gotou’s case. We even see hints at motivation and desire being drawn for Shinohara in this episode. It is this entire new, really mundane environment the characters go through this episode, that allows we to know way more about them, than any of their repetitive gibberish banter and constant reaffirmation of traits (because of course when we know something about a character we have to see it repeated eternally to understand he is really like that). Despite this instance of effective character writing being no life saver for the OVA (nothing could at this point) and never translating to some bigger exploration in further episodes, it still leads along with the more personal objective(finally) of a long lasting rivalry, to episodes 5 and 6 having the more engaging moments in the show. Those were the key difference of those episodes, not the change in tone (Ok not having those jokes happening so often surely helped).