Note: This article was initially planned as part of Reverse Thieves‘ “Anime Secret Santa” project whereby a number of blogs would all review a specific film or animated series during November-December 2012
From the very first instance of its titular machines – the police robots called Labours – doing their jobs, Mobile Police Patlabor is set clearly up as a film about the speed of progress and the risks of letting technology run rampant. It features a construction worker in an out-of-control demolition vehicle which has escaped from a building site and is cutting a path through traditional Japanese houses on the outskirts of an industrialised, futuristic Tokyo. It is a strong visual image that is ultimately repeated and developed throughout the film – yet it is not per se an anti-technology message here. The concept of progress is shown as something to be cynical about the ramifications of but not something to specifically fear or oppose for its own sake.
This in many ways is the typical cyberpunk narrative, and one beloved of Mamoru Oshii. There is a tension in such science-fiction between embracing progress and scientific development, and worrying about what is being lost in so doing. Films such as Ghost in the Shell (also Oshii) take a far more idealised and fantastical approach, exploring ideas of the human body itself being replaced with machines, and in so doing end up exploring a far more philosophical set of questions about identity, ensoulment and sentience. By contrast, Patlabor’s concerns are more earthly and grounded; its technology is far more realistic despite featuring humanoid robots and computer viruses. Ultimately, Patlabor is talking not about whether technology takes away humanity, or redefines what life is, but about how technology can physically destroy what people are used to and like. Its depiction of Tokyo is grimy, overcrowded and decaying, the action focused mostly on the suburbs that look up at the industrial centre’s skyscrapers. Traditional wooden houses are crowded into ever-diminishing areas as the force of progress – massive buildings, automated industry and giant robots – keep encroaching.
Notable here is that the conflict is not one between nature and technology – for what is being lost in Patlabor is an urban space itself – but almost a conflict of power dynamics. Life in the “backwards” suburbs is shown to be its own kind of routine; not without problems but those problems are side-effects of the encroachment of an unwelcome new lifestyle. Much talk is given over to how “Labours,” giant utility robots which are claimed to have revolutionised the world, have improved everyone’s quality of life – yet all the viewer sees in Patlabor is Labours being used to destroy and entrench the new status quo. It is a look upwards at progress from those who are not benefiting from it. Scenes of a Labour factory, with its clinical and impersonal production lines, enforce this presentation of industry as something not wholly worthy of admiration. It is impressive to the characters to see such a vast scale of production but yet what is being produced is shown to be fallible and destructive. The entire central conspiracy indeed rotates around the fact that progress has happened so fast that trying to stop it would destroy an entire lifestyle and world – the new world that has profited from Labours. Thus, the world of Patlabor, the world the viewer is told is a utopia built on industry and technology (indeed one derived from the Japanese economic boom of the 1980s) is a fragile and out-of-control one which is being undone from beyond the grave by the figure of E. Hoba (his name a play on words on Jehova which begins a chain of deductions key to his mystery).
At its heart, Patlabor is thus a mystery; its full title, Mobile Police Patlabor, sets it clearly up as a detective story and the focus is on a police precinct. Notably, much of the mystery is resolved early on – the nature of the crimes, the likely perpetrator. However, like the production lines and automated systems that define its future, the crimes themselves are unstoppable; machines rebelling against human control as a result of some mysterious, inexplicable and undefined scheme put into action before the man responsible killed himself. It is this that makes it stand out so well as a science-fiction police story; while Ghost in the Shell’s Section 9 were special operatives fighting crimes involving new technology and immersing themselves deeply within it, Patlabor‘s Special Vehicles Unit feel like antiques and misfits. Their strength is in doing traditional policing and this ultimately comes up against its limits when the crimes are defined by new technology. As with the traditional city being edged out by the new Tokyo, the police are themselves finally coming to their limit. It is thematically fitting their investigations focus on the marginalised traditions yet their crimes are based around the cutting edge technology; in the quest to find out Hoba’s MO and motive, they begin to reconsider their own understanding of the world.
A scene in which the young officer Noa expresses her fear of seeing her own Labour, Alphonse, scrapped as a result of the apparently inexplicable spate of malfunctions provides a humanising look at this central conflict of technology; the only viable solution to this uncontrollable rate of progress is destruction. As the human factor is gradually being superceded – or at the least losing what control it has over the situation – there can be no way to stop progress without a dramatic end to the new technology. Even those who want to tentatively step into the unstoppable world have to throw aside their reservations and accept every aspect of it – including its unstoppability. Any story concerning computers and technology must in some way touch on the human aspect, and the importance of checks and balances; the third Ghost in the Shell film (Solid State Society, part of the Stand Alone Complex continuity) explores this in some depth. Yet Patlabor looks at the issue on a more fundamental level; the police force have a duty to be the checks and balances of society but they now protect a society that is itself being forced out by one which is unregulatable in the traditional sense.
In this way, a traditional narrative of industrial conspiracy becomes itself changed – it is not as simple as saying that the entity of Shinohara Heavy Industries are the antagonists as such but instead that they are simply the agents of this uncontrollable, unwelcome future. That their aim – to improve the world with new technology while retaining that vital human factor – is so easily subverted by E. Hoba’s machinations and that the resulting chain of events appears unstoppable simply because of their influence shows the fundamental flaw of this futuristic society. When industry becomes central to society, corporations need to be untouchable in order to maintain the quality of life that is being built. It is not so much that they do not want to be seen as fallible but instead that they cannot ever slow down and take responsibility. Patlabor is not simply railing against corruption and the destruction of tradition; it is exploring the possibility of a tipping point whereby progress becomes inherently unstoppable and its agents become necessarily unaccountable.