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Patlabor is back. Perhaps a new Patlabor for a new age, but it is distinctly, unmistakably Patlabor.

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October 15th, 2016: The first night of a week-long screening of Go! Go! Nihon Animee(taa) Mihon-Ichi!, a select number of short films produced as part of Dwango and Studio Khara’s collaborative project, the “Japan Anima(tor) Exhibition.” On the bill were twelve of the thirty-six Animator Expo shorts, and one never-before-seen “Extra” addition: the ten-minute long Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot.

Let me begin by saying this: All of these works are masterpieces in their own right, though they are varied enough to be hit-and-miss for some, depending on tastes. One thing was palpable on this first night, however—most of the audience was there for one reason.

Usually, I try to remain objective, and coming from an academic background, I mostly attempt to maintain focus on the craftsmanship behind making anime or on its sociocultural relevance. Today, please allow me to “break character” just a little, though, simply to tell you that Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot is absolutely brilliant. Be warned–I will spend the next few minutes just gushing about its greatness.

The original Mobile Police Patlabor is an anime classic. If you have never seen it, stop reading this and watch any random entry at all–TV episode, movie, OVA, manga–they’re all great, you cannot go wrong.

The setup is that, in the near future, a giant expansion of the urban sprawl through land reclamation in Tokyo Bay will bring about greater prosperity to the capital, but giant construction robots known as “Labors” will be needed to undertake this monumental project. These Labors can be misappropriated and used for any manner of destructive criminal activity. In comes the Special Vehicles Section, a small squad of the metropolitan police’s patrol Labors, or “Patlabors.”

The original OVA series from 1988 was a contemporary of another classic robot hard-SF anime series, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, directed by Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion). So it is very exciting to see Anno’s Animator Expo project host the new iteration in the beloved franchise.

Pondering the Role of Present-Day Tokyo in Patlabor Reboot

I already wrote about the depth of Patlabor in terms of 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.

Having finally gotten to see the finished product, however, I can say that I had nothing to fear. This was straight-up, no-holds-barred, pure, unadulterated Patlabor at its finest–almost to a shocking degree.

It was a very strange experience, in fact. I thought it would be jarring to see Patlabor set in a 21st-century Tokyo, where people have smartphones and where YouTube and NicoNico Douga exist.

To me, Patlabor was a tale of what would have happened had the economic bubble not burst–if the Showa era had continued. (For example, the last feature-length Patlabor anime, WXIII, was set in Showa 75, which does not exist, thus pointing to an alternate Japan timeline that correlates to the year 2000.) Instead, I found myself enthralled.

The Tokyo I saw before me was the very Tokyo I live in, that I move around in. The Yamanote Line train is the same one I took just the other day. The street corner is the one I walked by in the morning. Everything is so familiar, and if I look up, there are giant robots fighting each other. That is Patlabor. The feeling that Tokyo is alive.

Everything felt right. Yutaka Izubuchi designing the mecha? Check. Masami Yuuki designing the characters? Check. The atmospheric, signature musical riffs by Kenji Kawai? Check. A director who can layer all these elements together and frame everything perfectly? Yes, to an absolutely perfect degree.

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.

The character interactions were very much in keeping with the original dynamic, with a tight script full of sharp banter that comes thick and fast, as expected, but not without a few twists. In keeping with the format of the Japan Anima(tor) Expo shorts, the cast is made up of Koichi Yamadera and Megumi Hayashibara dividing all the roles between them, with the skillful performances that one would expect from the two veterans.

Overall, Patlabor Reboot is a wonderful love letter to the original without being a slave to it. If anything, it proves that the source material can be adapted to today’s world after all, and can even be a fully immersive experience.

The first night also featured an insightful talk session with director Yoshiura and supervisor Yutaka Izubuchi. Stay tuned for my forthcoming report on that part of the event.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that the anime fan in me was skipping for joy during these short but densely-packed eight minutes. During my teens, I had a framed poster of Noa Izumi’s AV-98 Ingram Patrol Labor “Alphonse” (with cutaway internal mechanical details) up on my wall. I have written essays on the production of the 1989 movie. One of the first ever articles I wrote for a mock newspaper editing class at school in the 1990s was about the release of the movie in the UK.

Almost fifteen years ago, I thought I was so lucky to be able to see the third movie, Patlabor WXIII, on the big screen in Tokyo. And now, I have been witness to the moment when director Yoshiura delivered the complete distillation of Patlabor into its concentrated elements. Nothing can be more commendable for a reboot. Do not miss this.

Mobile Police Patlabor Reboot is screening as part of the Go! Go! Japan Anima(tor) Expo at Shinjuku Wald 9 in Tokyo and Umeda Burg 7 in Osaka until October 21st. Limited-edition Blu-rays (with exclusive reproduction keyframe art) are available to purchase at the theatres during this time, with a general release slated for October 26th. There is no news on a Western release as of yet.

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