"Patlabor": Good ‘Ol Popcorn Fun
You know, we’ve had giant robots in virtually every profession ever created. Guardians against evil giant monsters, construction tools, tools of war…. Heck, we’ve even had them as tools in a popularity contest. But few series have had the giant robots in the hands of the normal, everyday police. Thanks to Project Headgear’s Patlabor, that is no longer an issue.
In the not-to-distant future, giant robots known as Labors help in various construction projects. Obviously, many are also used for crime and evil. Enter Special Vehicles Division 2, a group of police officers who pilot a new type of giant robot known as the Patrol Labor, or Patlabor for short. Among the officers of the newly-formed division are Noa Izumi, who’s been itching to pilot a Patlabor her whole life, and Asuma Shinobara, whose father’s company makes the Patlabors. With the help of their teammates, captains, and mechanics, these two take down terrorists, giant monsters, and even naughty old ladies!
When you think of Mamoru Oshii, you likely think of stuff like Ghost in the Shell (the movies anyway), the Blood movie series, and Jin-Roh. You know, really serious stuff that forces you to examine your soul and all that. Well, prepare to be shocked as Patlabor is a lazy comedy, pure and simple. Only two of the series’ seven episodes focus on the action, and that’s the big two-parter near the end. The rest focuses on the everyday life of Noa, Asuma, and the gang as members of the police. Rarely are they in the thick of the action, so most of their information (and, by extension ours) is gained second-hand (usually by Captain Goto). This is a rather refreshing change, as it allows us to view these events purely from the characters’ point-of-view. Unlike other series, where the viewer sits on the sidelines watching, in essence, an animated play, the limited viewpoint offers the viewer the ability to experience these situations alongside the heroes. We tag along as they wreck a building and are scared off by ghosts. We see them bum-rushing military Labors in an effort to stop a takeover. We see what the group does on their vacation and love it.
All the main characters are very strong from the get-go. Noa is the cheerful young rookie who’s just living her dream. Thankfully, she’s not a super-pilot and still makes mistakes from time to time. Asuma is the guy who’s been forced into his position, but decides to make the best of it and turns out to be a pretty good officer. Ota’s your typical, but enjoyable, gung-ho, military-minded screw-up. Yamazaki is the gentle giant. Shinshi’s the married man of the group. Kanuka’s the stern Hawaiian/Japanese girl from New York. Goto’s the lazy, but effective, captain. Shinobu’s the duty-minded commander. Sakaki and Shige are the mechanics who love their jobs. All of them work together extremely well and are what make the show such a joy to watch. The best part is that the creators avoided all the typical anime exaggerations and made the series more realistic.
Unfortunately, not everything’s perfect. The biggest problem is that the series is too short. At only seven episodes, it feels as though the gang leaves as soon as we get to know them, which makes me wish there were more episodes on this OAV. (Sure, there’s a TV series, but I’ll get to that later.) The second biggest problem is the presentation of the series. The back of the box, the intro, and even the commentary keep saying over and over that Noa is the lead character because Asuma was too hard to work with. But it’s Asuma who gets all the screen time and development. In four of the episodes it’s Asuma that ends up saving the day or taking the initiative, while Noa is reduced to being Asuma’s second-in-command or assistant. Despite the intro having nobody but Noa in it, she hardly does anything but beat up some Labors, spend time with Asuma, and get food. I don’t mind this in the episodes themselves, but the packaging needs to reflect this.
For being made in 1988, the animation is pretty good. The Patlabors themselves are pretty detailed and move very fluidly, while many of the explosions and special effects are typical for its time period. Being an OAV, they had a larger budget than normal to work with, but since this was a new studio working in untested waters, they couldn’t do quite as much as other OAVs could. Still, they maximized their budget and provide some very nice eye-candy, even if it is faded. Those who have been raised on digital animation might feel a bit off, but don’t let that stop you.
Things are a bit different on the music front. While the music isn’t groundbreaking, it is plentiful. Each episode has its own ending theme, an instrumental piece, and it fits very well. The actual music enhances the on-screen action pretty decently, but the more light-hearted, comical music works much better than the serious, dramatic music. Voice-wise, we have a mixed bag here. With the exception of Dan Green and Veronica Taylor, almost all of the English voice artists overact or underact their lines, especially Elisa Wain (Noa). It’s a tolerable dub, but it doesn’t compare to many of the better dubs out there, such as Gunslinger Girl, Naruto, or Gundam Wing. The Japanese version is mostly flat, though Kanuka’s English provides some fun moments, and it is a better overall track than the English dub. Though Goto is really good in both versions.
One thing I like about Central Park Media releases is their tendency to include some really nice extras. On the first disc we have commentary by Mamoru Oshii on the first three episodes as the main feature. Here, he talks about how Team Headgear got started, what he wanted to accomplish in the series, some of the problems faced, his opinion on the English dub, and why he likes Episode 3 (often the most criticized) so much. It’s a fun listen, but Japanese commentaries really tend to sound very dry, so there were times where my attention would drift during Oshii’s talks. Outside of that, we have trailers (strangely, not as many as some of CPM’s other releases), an art gallery, and a two-page bio on Oshii himself.
The main feature of the second disc is the first episode of the Patlabor TV Series in both English and Japanese. It seems the creators decided to take the Tenchi Universe route with the series by having the same core cast but placed in an alternate universe. (OK, so Patlabor came before Tenchi Universe, so it should be the other way around, but you get my point.) While it’s an interesting take on the franchise, I think I would have preferred an extension of the OAV instead. Aside from that, we have dubbing outtakes (including a rather obvious ad-lib for Episode 4), trailers for various Patlabor releases, and more CPM trailers. It’s not overflowing with extras, but it’s still well done.
Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend the Patlabor OAV. It’s not the greatest giant robot series ever, and it’s hardly epic, even when it tries to be, but it is an extremely well done “sit down and watch” series that doesn’t require much of an investment.