Yasuhiro Yoshiura and Yutaka Izubuchi On Rebooting the Essence of Patlabor

(Originally written for Anime-now! in 2016)

Sequels, reboots, remakes and side stories are everywhere today. But many times, the key to success—and longevity—is in the assurance that no matter how many incarnations an intellectual property goes through, the core ideas remain constant and relevant, if perhaps in a different guise.

Sometimes, the people who understand this best are the people who have been impassioned by those very elements. The story behind 2016’s Patlabor Reboot is just such a tale. Behind the scenes, the production itself is almost an allegorical narrative about a master bequeathing an heirloom to a young successor who has proven his worth.

October 15th, 2016 saw the screening of Go! Go! Nihon Animator Mihon-Ichi—a select number of short films produced as part of Dwango and Studio Khara’s collaborative project, the Japan Anima(tor) Expo.

This was also the premiere of Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot, an “extra” entry in the list of shorts that was shown at the end of this collection. The first night featured an after-showing talk event with Patlabor Reboot director Yasuhiro Yoshiura (Time of Eve, Patema Inverted) and supervisor Yutaka Izubuchi (Raxhephon, Space Battleship Yamato 2199), moderated by anime and tokusatsu academic researcher Ryusuke Hikawa.

Before the screening, I sat down with Yoshiura and Izubuchi to hear what they had to say about the past, present and future of Patlabor.

Director Yoshiura grew up with Patlabor, and in particular the first movie was highly influential in his understanding of framing to tell a story through the medium of film. He often refers to Mamoru Oshii’s book, Methods, a reference guide to the layout composition of key scenes in Patlabor 2: The Movie. He thus absorbed the essence of Patlabor long ago, and jumped at the chance to direct this new project as soon as it was presented. As this reboot was the first Patlabor anime in over a decade, however, clearly some updating was in order. How did he incorporate modern sensibilities into a classic property without changing things too much?

The first thing one notices is that the mecha are all rendered in CG, for the first time in a Patlabor production.

However, beyond the design tweaks, Yoshiura emphasized that incorporating CG into mecha sequences means that we can now have scenes from the ground view where we look up at the robots, which would be very tricky to do analog. In doing so, one can achieve a variety of very tokusatsu-like angles. “Labors are supposed to be like construction vehicles,” he explains, “so they need to move with hefty weight, like weaponized cranes, sort of like in Pacific Rim.”

Guillermo del Toro made Pacific Rim as an homage to Japanese tokusatsu and robot shows, so what is the significance of a Japanese director reincorporating that back into a Japanese production? Yoshiura explains that, “del Toro is not merely making a carbon copy of tokusatsu, he is borrowing cues and then injecting his own flavor and ‘pleasure principle’” (a Freudian term).” That is what Yoshiura found so alluring, and thus decided to reinsert into Patlabor Reboot.

Izubuchi weighed in, saying that Yoshiura’s approach is always to keep things grounded, and that is apparent in his layouts. He explains how recently in anime it is very convenient to have, for example, a close-up shot of a missile. The idea in Patlabor Reboot is to do away with that, and instead have all the set-ups be shot as if from the perspective of a cameraman on the scene. Another is the viewpoint of a net user live-streaming the situation as it unfolds in real time. The realism comes when mixing all these perspectives together, and for the viewer it gives a sense of presence.

The low, street-side angles in the shots of downtown Tokyo force you to be constantly looking up at the robot action taking place in front of you. Viewed on the big screen, this gave the effect of total immersion.

I was sitting at the front row, reserved for press and media. Normally this would be uncomfortable, but it was the perfect way to view Patlabor Reboot on the big screen because director Yasuhiro Yoshiura is a genius at framing the action from street view eye-level. In other words, my front row seat was right on the same plane as the crowds scattering in downtown Tokyo, and tilting my head upwards, I could spot giant metal behemoths clobbering each other amongst the buildings. The whole experience was like a window into the outside world. I felt like one of the pedestrians looking up at the spectacle unfolding before them.

As an experience, then, the film in this sense certainly feels “real” enough, but what of the society depicted onscreen? The depth of Patlabor lies in its social relevance with regards to the “character” of Tokyo, and how it skillfully uses robot anime tropes to portray the sociopolitical idiosyncrasies of the region in an objective light. I was slightly worried that the “presence” of Tokyo would not be fleshed out enough in such a short runtime, and thus would lack some necessary element of the Patlabor formula. As one of the original creators of the franchise, Izubuchi explained that Patlabor is always set ten years in the future (including this reboot) so as to give us a world which is instantly recognizable and not a fantasy world, but with one difference: the existence of huge construction robots. Therefore, it is a possible realistic future.

Additionally, while he admitted that the short running time only allows for relatively light-hearted, action-oriented entertainment in the style of the original OVA series, Yoshiura argues that there is a certain seriousness in the theme.

“Using labors to make some anti-establishment statement or a terrorist attack is something that was done in the original, and we’re just updating it here, but we have added the modern element that when such an incident takes place, there will be a burst of information spreading quickly. When that happens, how would people react? If it really does happen, it will no longer be a laughing matter. That is one of the aspects I added this time around.”

It is an intriguing element to pontificate. The roles and (mis)uses of labors in a society where the spread of data is instantaneous is something certainly new for Patlabor, and brings the franchise right up to date.

He elaborated with the hint of a duality in the new version. “In the original, it would be a disgruntled construction worker that would run wild and make a mess of the town, but in this version, it’s a YouTuber. That means that even though the havoc he is causing is serious and real, there are people watching in real time that are commenting and enjoying this spectacle from a distance.” Thus we are problematizing not only the criminal himself, but also our own escapist, desensitized attitude enabled by modern technology. Not mechanical technology as predicted by the original Patlabor, but information technology.

Traditionally, of course, Patlabor certainly has always had a serious side. Therefore it is reassuring that even in this short, Yoshiura is keeping this underlying aspect intact and modernizing it to reflect today’s society.

Patlabor 2 was advertised as a “simulation anime”, much like Future War 198X ten years prior (1983), and also in Shin Godzilla, released in 2016, where certain “what if” scenarios play out in an extremely realistic environment. In each of those works, the settings, surrounding locations, and their depictions of political chain-of-command decision-making shape the stories being told.

Contemplating foreign audiences’ reactions, Izubuchi explains that when formulating a story, “You can do anything if the setting is a fantasy world. But Shin Godzilla and Patlabor are set in a realistic Japan, so would the message get across [to foreigners]?”

He wonders if Patlabor can be a template that can work for other environments, and if so, in what way. “Many countries experienced the scrap-and-build infrastructure renovation that is depicted in the first movie. But not every country can relate to why the [Japanese] Self-Defense Force needs permission before opening fire” on an enemy locked onto them while deployed in Cambodia, as seen in Patlabor 2.

He and Yoshiura agreed that every country has bureaucracy to deal with, and it rules over certain systems that govern public services like the police. So while the end result might be different to the Japanese Patlabor, it would be that country’s unique take on the idea. Izubuchi pondered for a while what American, British, or even Peruvian versions of the story and ideas of Patlabor would be like, though he made sure to stress that there are no talks of a Hollywood version in the works nor will there be any time soon.

It is ironic, because a lot of the political suspense from the Patlabor movies is a far cry from the original concepts of Patlabor during the planning stage, which was a blend of comedy and action, partly inspired by the Police Academy and Beverly Hills Cop series produced in Hollywood.

During the talk event, however, it was Izubuchi who delivered a major surprise for fans: His enthusiasm for a possible continuation of the anime. Though he heavily emphasized that there are currently “no talks happening right now” as to more Patlabor anime being produced, he pointed out that “a reboot is not a one-off,” and “2018 is the 30th anniversary…” Yoshiura echoed the sentiment, claiming that “it’s a sin if we don’t follow this up with anything more!”

(Editor’s Note: A new project, Patlabor EZY, was later announced in 2017 although as of 2021 further details have yet to be forthcoming. A series of Patlabor exhibits has also been touring Japan since 2019, with several new exhibits planned for this year.)

Izubuchi praised Yoshiura’s efforts by stating that franchises survive because fans who love the material take over and reinvigorate them. Thus, we need to hand over the reins to a new generation, but he was sure to add, “And I’m not just saying that because I directed Yamato 2199!”

Yoshiura agreed and expressed his hope that this not be the end, reaffirming that this short was a labor of love (no pun intended!), and everyone on the staff was a fan.

Patlabor Reboot is available on Blu-Ray and DVD in Japan. There has yet to be an official Western release, though the Japanese version does include English subtitles.

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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.