Pondering the Role of Present-Day Tokyo in Patlabor Reboot

A version of this article previously appeared on Anime-Now! in 2016.

Early in 2016, news of an animated Mobile Police Patlabor remake in the fall had anime fans excited for the return of the Special Vehicles Section 2, a ragtag band of crime-fighters saving Tokyo from bad guys who misuse technology for their own evil means. While that description is accurate, the charm, depth and complexity of the characters, storylines and settings is what has granted Patlabor an enduring decades-long appreciation around the world, since the series’ debut as a 6-part OVA in 1988.

However, the big reveal was that the new animation―the first since 2001’s third big-screen outing, WXIII Patlabor the Movie 3―will be neither a feature film nor a series, but instead a very brief, ten-minute short to be screened as part of the Japan Anima(tor)’s Exhibition.

The Anima(tor) Expo, as it is also known, is the brainchild of Hideaki Anno’s Studio Khara with collaboration from Dwango (producers of the Nico-nico Douga video streaming community site), with the aim of raising a new generation of skilled animators in Japan, through experimental short films. These films would act as a showcase for upcoming young animators’ talent, like a portfolio of new creators, as well as new, exemplary reference material by veterans alike. The result is comparable to the avant-garde manga anthology magazines from the mid-1960s such as Osamu Tezuka’s COM and Katsuichi Nagai’s Garo, which eschewed commercialism in exchange for originality and quality.

As of the writing of this article in 2016, the project had gathered 36 short films exhibiting the vast spectrum of Japanese animation creators, from Mahiro Maeda’s (Animatrix) elaborate hand-drawn pencil sketch masterpiece that is 20min Walk From Nishi-Ogikubo Station, 2 Bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, Kitchen, 2mths Deposit, No Pets Allowed, to Shinji  Aramaki’s (Space Pirate Captain Harlock) photo-realistic CG extravaganza of Evangelion: Another Impact (Confidential).

I was personally intrigued as to what role Patlabor would play within this framework.

Patlabor has undergone a resurgence of sorts in recent years with the return of Mamoru Oshii in the director’s chair, except this time, it was for a live-action series which ran in theaters from 2014 to 2015 under the title THE NEXT GENERATION: Patlabor.

The Next Generation PatLabor - AsianWiki

While on the surface Patlabor can be considered to be simply a mecha anime with giant, piloted police robots, it encompasses the far deeper theme of the struggle between, on the one hand, progress in society, through the development of technology and infrastructure, and on the other, the resistance to rapid change. It is a story of maintaining order within the resulting chaos, all the while questioning where this progress will lead, and how long it will last. Light-hearted, fun character moments are interspersed with bouts of action and political intrigue, with one constant theme, running throughout ― the “character” of Tokyo.

機動警察パトレイバー (8) (小学館文庫) | ゆうき まさみ |本 | 通販 | Amazon

Tokyo, throughout history, has had many collapses and rebirths, and its “scrap and build” nature remains one of its defining characteristics. From the bustling Edo culture, to the Meiji and Taisho era half-Westernized hodgepodge, to post-Great Kanto Earthquake and post-Pacific War Showa modernization, it has seen many transitions in its “personality.”

機動警察パトレイバー (11) (小学館文庫) | ゆうき まさみ |本 | 通販 | Amazon

It is this aspect of Tokyo that is at the heart of Patlabor. The original series and movies purposefully placed the setting “ten years in the future,” thus dating it to 1998 or 99. This was far enough to simulate the trajectory of the bubble economy, had it not burst, to the point that it would have brought about major changes in society through the implementation of construction robot technology known as “labors.” It was also close enough from the then-present year of 1988 to allow the viewer to recognize the bureaucracy and social systems at work that these developments would occur under. So it was therefore a realistic, hypothetical future, and thus a warning to the younger generation, to always be aware of the reasons why certain things are done and certain paths are traveled.

The Patlabor franchise was largely dormant in terms of new fiction for the majority of the two decades since 1993’s Patlabor 2: The Movie, whose depiction of terrorist gas attacks seemed almost prophetic after the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attack of 1995. I believe that this prolonged period of rest in the property is partly down to the diverged tangent that reality took after the bubble burst. Clearly, 1998 was not going to be anything like its depiction in the original series and movies. The hypothetical future was proven wrong. The economy entered a recession, manufacturing went down, and production of goods was outsourced. Patlabor had become pure fiction.

パトレイバー2」柘植行人(つげゆきひと)は令和の日本人に何を告げるのか?【4DX上映記念】 | アニメ!アニメ!

The 2014 THE NEXT GENERATION Patlabor live-action series, thus, was a surprise announcement. What relevance could Patlabor have for Japan today? What kind of Tokyo would be depicted? The story is set in the present day, with the present socioeconomic situation. The labor revolution came and went. The Patrol Labors are down to only the Special Vehicles Section 2, and there is very little work for them to do. This recession-era gloom sets the stage for Patlabor to return to “reality,” and once again be reborn as Tokyo ages. All the while, the old guard reminisces about the days of old.

The new Patlabor Reboot, then, featuring the classic AV-98 Ingram robot designs may very well be a sort of sehnsucht ― a longing for a sense of longing ― much like the original Patlabor anime invoked all so often. It is nostalgic, but it makes you painfully aware of that nostalgia. It has always been about nostalgia. Inasmuch as it invites you to ponder the future, it simultaneously forces you to question what you lost. Except this time, it’s perhaps on a meta level—the nostalgia being longed for, the Sehnsucht, is for the classic Patlabor itself.

In the cyclical scrap-and-build Tokyo, Patlabor continues to make us think and wonder.

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Renato Rivera Rusca

Renato Rivera Rusca is a graduate of Japanese Studies at Stirling University in Scotland and has conducted postgrad research on Japanese popular culture in Osaka University and Kyoto University. He has lectured at the Manga Faculty at Kyoto Seika University and has participated in many projects involving the Kyoto International Manga Museum since its inception. He is a lecturer at Meiji University, Yokohama National University, Okayama University, and is Assistant Producer of animation at Studio Machiken.