I joined the police force and all I got was this inconvenient robot — Patlabor and the mundane

Sometimes you begin excitedly telling a story to friends only to realize halfway through the telling that it’s not a particularly interesting story. Yelling “Trotty too hottie” at Trot Nixon over the right field wall at Fenway Park wasn’t all that hilarious to anyone but teenaged you and your fellow friends at the time. The time your friend managed to eat an entire cheese loaf in English class on a dare also wasn’t all that funny.

Or maybe you just had to be there.

As humans, we have the habit of exaggerating the truly mundane because it means something to us, embellishing and using our imaginations to tell better stories than what actually might have happened. At its core, Mobile Police Patlabor: The Early Days is a collection of the opposite of these stories: things fantastic in nature are made mundane, beginning with the robots themselves.

Anime doesn’t always have the best track record for having robots that make sense within the in-universe context of their purpose — other than to look cool and sell toys, which are two core tenets of robot shows — but Patlabor‘s patrol labors are grounded by practicality. Labors were not initially developed for combat. Instead, they are humanoid construction robots that people occasionally use for violence. The patrol labors of the police force are based on a civil engineering labor prototype and are specifically designed to stop labor crime (although that doesn’t stop their unit for using them to fight other crimes). Patlabor follows a labor police unit: the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2 (SV2).

In a way, this makes the robots of Patlabor decidedly uncool. They’re being used by the police, and resemble police patrol cars in design and color scheme. This is exacerbated by the fact that these patlabors are woefully inefficient in many ways. Traveling long distances at any useful speed is out of the question, so transport vehicles are needed to cart the labors from one place to another. The labors that were supposed to have arrived in time with unit personnel become mired in traffic on the freeway so the unit has to go retrieve them in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A stolen labor runs out of fuel just in time to be surrounded by police. Noa Izumi’s patlabor unit is stymied by an overpass en route to diffusing a bomb and requires help from a nearby police blimp (which she inadvertently destroys). Patlabors also require massive upkeep, to the point where Captain Kiichi Gotoh can rule out most terrorist organizations because he knows the faction he’s fighting has a labor, and upstart terrorists wouldn’t be able to finance labor maintenance.

For much of the series, the patlabors themselves do very little by way of movement or fighting. Patlabors are useful because they are fairly intimidating, and make for good blockades as well as a show of force. Outside of the gun-crazy Isao Ohta’s multiple misfires — who probably shouldn’t be a police officer, and also is exactly the type of person who desperately wants to be a police officer for all the wrong reasons — the patlabors don’t even fire their weapons. The most dramatic combat moment for any of the SV2 patlabor unit is when Hiromi Yamazaki is shot from a nuclear submarine, lands on the deck of a boat, and crumples an anti-aircraft gun using the labor. Even here, the use of a labor is more for added physical strength and protection — another testament to their construction roots. One could argue that Mobile Police Patlabor: The Early Days itself — despite thinking that the robots are, in their own way, super cool — purposefully doesn’t try to make a strong case that labors are the answer for fighting labor crime, or any crime.

Frankly, the reasoning behind using labors to fight labor crime seems like, for lack of a better phrase, very human thing to do, drawing the seemingly easiest line between two points only to find that it’s not the easiest line at all.

There’s nothing mundane about some of the situations in which the members of the SV2 find themselves. One in particular is a lengthy cat-and-mouse game between Gotoh and a former friend-turned-criminal-mastermind. Another involves a godzilla-like creature. Patlabor isn’t afraid to be silly or a bit weird. Yet, it’s often more slice-of-life than procedural, where most problems are solved without any sort of violence and we spend a large amount of time as viewers just hanging out with the cast doing mundane things.

For a final meta turn, a lot has been written about Patlabor by fans far more dedicated and authoritative than myself. As of 2016, there were still dedicated fanzines being printed solely about Patlabor. I’m certain that this mundane post pales in comparison to what is out there, and my thoughts are in no way original or all that interesting. Yet, here they are regardless, like a story I keep telling that’s not all that funny but still makes me laugh. Patlabor in and of itself — despite making the fantastic mundane — is a bit like this, highly recommended by fans only to have their charges return with the verdict that Patlabor is actually boring and too slow.

If this post inspires just one person to watch Patlabor, I will have been successful, even if they don’t enjoy it as much as I did.

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3 comments

  1. I concur with the comment made by jamie9800; this is quite well articulated and is concise enough to be speak to Patlabor’s bizarre, yet remarkably effective take on having robots in a show. This is a series I only finally got around to in 2017 (burned through everything, including the TV series), and I was kicking myself for not getting to it sooner 8~ years ago when I had first become aware of it.

    I think one of the big reasons why it took me so long to get to is exactly because basically all the promotional artwork or screenshots of this show would suggest it’s *that* kind of robot show when it’s (predominantly) so far away from that. I have no doubt that this is why so many articles on the topic of Patlabor will include at least one paragraph of the true nature of the show.

    I don’t mind watching two super powered robots beat the crap out of each other every now and then, but I certainly need to be in the right mood for that sort of thing.

    Recently I had been showing one of my friends the early OVAs time line and we just watched the first movie a few days ago. Being able to show even one person any of this show definitely made my splurge on all the BDs worth it. If I ever need to link someone to a short read in the hopes of convincing them that Patlabor is worth their time, I have no doubt I’ll use your article.

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