I first watched Patlabor the Movie in my early years as a mecha fan. It was great and all, but I had missed a few key points that I found in a recent rewatch.
As a franchise, Patlabor is about the near future, as far as the late 1980s are concerned, where mecha (Labors) perform construction work for the purpose of an ambitious land-reclaiming project. Still, people remain the same. The emergence of Labors has led to Labor-related crime and terrorism, necessitating the creation of a Labor police force. This is the franchise in the nutshell.
Patlabor the Movie was created during Japan’s real estate bubble. Yet most of the cinematography tackles the ugly side of the nation’s prosperity: despite the boom of highrise buildings, there remain the old-fashioned wooden houses that the not-so-rich live in–the film’s absentee antagonist lived in a couple dozen ramshackle houses to hatch his virus on the labor world, a stark contrast to the state-of-the-art skyscrapers he used in his plan. These houses are sad relics that are unceremoniously torn down in the name of progress.
Tokyo is richer, there are robots, but the world of Patlabor remains every bit as petty and unremarkable as the real world. Advances in technology bring forth new human means to cause ruin and destruction. Patlabor isn’t escapism; it is a failure of the future. Technology failed to advance humanity. Technology only caused more problems than the one it tried to solve.
At the end of the film, our protagonists end up jettisoning the Ark’s layers that could be easily construed as an act of terrorism in itself. I found it really sad–they are forced to destroy an structure of the future to protect the present, and no one is going to thank them for it. A disaster is averted, but the loss of the Ark will set progress back for years.
It can’t be helped.
- Schaft Enterprises – A Patlabor Website has a comprehensive write-up on the background of the Patlabor universe. Highly recommended.