Genre Self-Awareness in Patlabor


My previous article about Patlabor on Television suggested that – much like its feature film iteration – it was a kind of disguised cyberpunk story, replacing explicit reference to transhumanism and corporate unaccountability with an emphasis as much on unequal access to technology, and the inability of some to benefit from the world of the future that is supposedly being built. Yet it is a story, it is worth remembering, from the perspective of the police. The authorities – governments, police and corporations – of cyberpunk worlds are traditionally better-equipped than the “people”, less accountable, and inherently compromised ethically – a self-serving trifecta, often. Ghost in the Shell, another sizeable franchise within the genre, explored this tension directly by pitting its protagonist police against criminals whose motives were often understandable.

Patlabor on Television is frequently light on motive for its initial weekly antagonists; the “enemies” are drunk-drivers, vehicle thieves and ill-defined “terrorists” – or some kind of inexplicable event or disaster that is only tangentially related to Labours but allows them to shine as industrial machines (as the intro narration maintains they are). There is not the expected and built upon anti-authority angle that would make it a properly “punk” cyberpunk story, but instead a more public versus private conflict; episode 7, in which the Special Vehicles Unit are given a new Labour, apparently no-strings-attached, is a good example. The new SRX makes Division 1 the envy of all the other units – it has heavy firepower, improved specifications and looks impressive. Yet the team quickly realise that such a gift is too good to be true; the SRX is effectively untested and its manufacturers are looking for a way to gather data on it without being accountable should it go wrong. As a result, the Special Vehicles unit end up returning to using their Ingrams and the SRX is sent away effectively unused. This story is a good counterpoint to a previous episode in which an autonomous military Labour escapes and must be stopped – the real villains in Patlabor are clearly framed as carelessness and laziness from the corporate sector. The SRX is never shown as being an inherently doomed or faulty machine – all evidence presented in the episode is that it is a good Labour and would be an asset to the division, but at the same time in a job as high-risk as policing and – more specifically – high-profile, the risk of using an untested machine and the danger that the SRX’s manufacturers are profiting off uncredited work make it impossible for the police to take the new unit. The invisibility of the public sector here, though, is their virtue as well as an avenue for exploitation; when the time comes for them to take on a rogue Labour it is because they are discreet about doing it.

Much like in the film, the continued emphasis of these stories is on how progress leads to complacency and unaccountability, and honest people are the victims. Noa’s unit is shown to be out on a limb, all but isolated from the rest of the police, and many of the cases take place outside of the city. There is a definite association of distance from urban life and “the future” as shown by Labours with sincerity and care; this is reversed to comic effect when the SRX arrives and many of the more technically-minded officers are incredibly enthusiastic. This carries over visually; when the Ingrams are used, the action is framed awkwardly and as a more physical, improvised kind of work. The SRX’s only deployment has it simply stand around and fire a warning shot – animated in the high-detail pans and lens flares that were used in 1980s animé to convey detail and spectacle while avoiding motion. It is visually incongruous with the more industrial, low-tech world the series inhabits, and this reflects its role in the episode’s story. Thus Patlabor shows clearly in its visuals its roots in mecha animé while in its writing distancing itself very much from the traditional militarism of the genre. The episode with the rogue military Labour is another good example; the military themselves are sidelined throughout, and rarely directly interact with the police. A less subtle handling of this story would have had a direct character conflict between representatives of the two organisations, and expounded on the causes of the malfunction and so on. Patlabor does not; instead the Special Vehicles Unit are called in, told the information they need to know, and left to complete their mission. There is the implication of conspiracy – the machine has been defaced to remove identification marks – but in the episode this is not followed up and once it has been disabled, the police simply leave it for recovery and go home. In a sense this lets the viewer draw the conclusions that this future is an unaccountable and corrupt one without needing to spell it out – and makes the police seem much more self-aware. Leaving all the evidence out in the open will, it is implied, let others draw their conclusions from the visible attempt at deception while also not involving the agents of the Special Vehicles Unit any further. The police are thus shown to be not only able at their duties but also shrewd, leaving clues to the problems with the future depicted. Similarly in the SRX episode, they are able to get rid of the machine having worked out the problems with the arrangement by simply presenting that comically inept and childish attitude shown by some members as their standard state of operation. This does not reflect well on the manufacturers, and so the arrangement is cancelled. In many ways, then, the cast of Patlabor are playing the corrupt system; they have realised their powerlessness to deal with any of the major problems that cause crimes or conspiracy, and instead simply resolve the symptomatic cases in ways that humiliate or inconvenience those involved.

It is interesting to compare Patlabor with two other big-name cyberpunk mecha animé; 1995’s Ghost in the Shell (a Mamoru Oshii film, as was Patlabor) and 1987’s Bubblegum Crisis. All, in some fashion, focus on a roboticised, high-tech future and the role of law enforcement in a nominally cyberpunk world of corporate power. All three present ways of responding to a threat that cannot be reasonably challenged because the stakes are too high for ordinary agents on the ground – but the approach taken by each work to depicting these themes shows a different interpretation of the cyberpunk genre. Bubblegum Crisis presents its police force – the AD Police – as as under-equipped and inept as Patlabor‘s Special Vehicles Unit, and as a result a vigilante unit with the high technology needed to address futuristic crimes must save the day. It is heavily based in anti-establishment aesthetics, with its protagonist a rock star beginning the series performing in a run-down bar in a poor district and both the police and the corporations equally unable or unwilling to address the causes of crimes. Patlabor replaces an anti-establishment group with the police force as the protagonist, but then shows those police to put their public duty before the wishes of those above them. They feign not caring about the conspiracies and controversies around them but at the same time let others learn about them. This ethos is then mutated again come Ghost in the Shell, where Section 9 are presented as unorthodox state servants, but nevertheless dedicated ones. There is not the amusing feigned ineptitude of the SVU and the story is not so much about challenging a corrupt order but making sense of it. Patlabor is about the inability of society to keep up with technological progress, and as a result its plots are about what happens when things go wrong. Ghost in the Shell is about how even when technology has basically reached its transhuman endpoint, the focus returns to the human because it is the only thing that the individual can control.



  1. gunlord500

    I’d never really thought of it that way before. It’s another thing Patlabor does well–while a lot of ‘cyberpunk’ series revolve around corporate malfeasance or outright malevolence, after reading this entry I can’t think of many which revolve around plain corporate *incompetence.* I wonder if we’ll ever see a series where the corporate antagonists are both evil *and* inept, haha.

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