Technology and the Human Factor in Patlabor


The first feature film in the Mobile Police Patlabor series, released in 1989, is a serious, thought-provoking cyberpunk adventure of a sort that is quite different from the norm. The usual aesthetic cues of the genre as depicted in animé of the time are absent, replaced with a kind of near-future setting that feels very much like an idealised industrial-boom Japan – elements such as the floating city/factory Babel are evocative of the grandiose science-fiction worlds depicted in something like Bubblegum Crisis (1987) or even the space colonies of Zeta Gundam (1985) yet there is an unfinishedness to the world; it is detailing the tensions of the transition between the real and the future, and the mad rush to capitalise on an industralising world. Its cyberpunk future is an industrial revolution, detailing the gaps in society as the wealthy profit from progress while the rest of the world has to catch up.

As a result it is a story about the lacks of checks and balances in a rapidly-industrialising world, which is arguably a very pure kind of cyberpunk story. It is a subgenre of science-fiction preoccupied with corporate overreach and the dehumanising effects of technology, and even though Patlabor eschews straightforward analogies for this such as cybernetics or virtual worlds, instead focusing on innovations in construction technology and industrial robotics, the end result is the same. Machines are streamlining the world to the point where that vital human factor – the “sanity check” that makes sure things are not just moving smoothly, but moving in the right direction – can easily be forgotten in the quest for efficiency. The story’s main case begins with a rogue construction machine tearing up an old town section – its operator is completely unable to control it in a simple sequence stating the film’s themes clearly. The television series of Patlabor also begins with this scene, in a fashion; a very similar construction-unit is out of control, destroying public property, and it falls to the police in their own industrial robots to restrain it. Yet the denouement of this scene in the series is very different to that of the feature film, and lays down its own theme on which the series will develop. Rather than being professional and – through force – enforcing the law, here the police are inept and lose control of the situation, and the pilot is nothing more than a drunk rather than there being some advanced computer virus assuming control of machines. It is still a story – as the opening narration claims – about the capacity for “new crimes” in an industralised age, but even the world being depicted is quite a different one. The Patlabor film wants to establish themes of machinery outpacing humanity; the series wants to, in a fashion similar to some of the classic 2000AD Future Shock stories or Judge Dredd‘s tales of stressed-out “Futsies”, explore what can go wrong when very ordinary humans are put in a science-fiction world that is not quite as perfect or efficient as usual. Drink-driving is a very mundane kind of police-case but in the Patlabor setting it is potentially catastrophic as giant robots give great power with minimal effort.

Again the idea of an unfinished, unready future is presented – but from a different angle. This is not an unreadiness resulting from inequality or overreach, but from perennial flaws in society being made worse by the increasing power of technology. The police in the Patlabor series are not the investigating detectives of the film so much as ordinary patrol officers keeping tabs on smaller crimes, and it is this angle which makes the series so endearing. From there the story moves to introduce the protagonist, Noa – an idealistic policewoman committed to her idea of what the duty of the police is – and the rest of the Special Vehicles unit. Their world – the police station which is the setting for the series – is also a peripheral one, and this works well in a story about the awkward rough edges of progress. Although they have high-tech weapons to fight high-tech criminals in the new Ingram machines, they have a rough-and-ready office in an awkward place, and must rely on home-grown food and fishing in the harbour to eat. As a result, their efforts are shown in the third episode to focus on reappropriating the futuristic law-enforcement technology to more rural and traditional ends – helping rescue their boat once it runs aground, for example. In a way this is an example of the cyberpunk inequality of access to technology; Shinohara, the company who produce the Ingram, are exceptionally worried about their investment and the machines, but the police department seems to not receive the investment in its people needed to make life comfortable and futuristic. In this way, the more domestic and personal tone of Patlabor on Television comes back around to the conceptual science-fiction of the film version; the detective or police series must by definition focus on the day to day rather than the standout cases. Thus from two different versions of the same opening scene, there is an initial divergence which comes around very quickly to presenting the obverse of the thematic coin of the film. The state of being “left behind” by the future – which the end-card of each episode says is a world that may yet come to be – is something to capitalise on.

In the series, the domestic life and need to farm and fish provides a refreshing kind of rurality in the busy city depicted in the rest of the setting. In the film, the Special Vehicles Unit are shown to be underprepared for the future in a different way – they do not have the newest systems on their machines – but in the end this is a virtue as only the unupgraded machines escape the virus. Both of these examples lead to the same conclusion – that there is some benefit to sometimes not rushing to progress faster than society can adapt. The inherent absurdity of a highly-equipped police department having been completely overlooked in the provision of food, and thus needing to find ways to use what it has to provide what it has not, provides an entertaining backdrop for Patlabor on Television – a well-meaning setting of making do and getting by. Yet what it also does, in a much softer fashion than the film’s rogue robots and deadly viruses, is show how an over-emphasis on flashy technology like the Ingrams forgets the human element.



  1. gunlord500

    Good post, but I think one of the most important differences between the movies and the TV shows is the latter’s emphasis on humor. Sure, the drunk guy illustrates the dangers of unrestrained technology in some ways similar to the virus of the first film, but he’s also there just to be funny. Drunkards are always good for a laugh (though of course drunk driving is no laughing matter IRL).

    • r042

      I don’t deny its a good joke but I think it’s an intentional reference too; the film and the series are tonally different and so the same scene done two ways – one funny and one uncanny – thus seems quite carefully chosen.

  2. TheSubtleDoctor

    You know, I never thought of Patlabor as a cyberpunk kind of story, but you are right, it does tick those pretty specific boxes. I guess the lack of (a) a dark, angsty mood and (b) those “straightforward analogies” you mention such as cybernetics and virtual world. Goes to show that we (I) can confuse essential and accidental genre characteristics sometimes.

  3. Henry Star Tuttle (@Morzas_)

    I recall reading somewhere that for something to be cyberpunk, there has to be a resistance. That’s the punk part. And Patlabor is a cyberpunk work where you see what those who are tasked with the resistance down have to deal with. Am I making sense?

    • r042

      That’s fair, I think – and yet at the same time it occasionally makes the “authorities” of the police (public sector) the “resistance” against private sector greed and malpractice, making it an almost three way conflict (“society’s” representatives as a political entity vs “the people” versus the corporate elite who are distinct from both)

      It makes the cop show aspect key; cyberpunk often presents the law as compromised or an agent of oppression but Special Vehicles do seem to be on the side of the people more. I’ve not seen Psyco Pass but that seemed to be as you say from the perspective of a dystopian authority, not a group of police trying to provide a public service in the face of unaccountable elites.

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