Patlabor the Movie and the Failure of the Future

An aerial shot of a helicopter surveying a path of destroyed houses

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.

Run-down shacks surrounding a dirty canal

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.

A dark shot of the Ark falling, with birds escaping from its zenith

It can’t be helped.

References:

  • Schaft Enterprises – A Patlabor Website has a comprehensive write-up on the background of the Patlabor universe. Highly recommended.
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3 Responses to Patlabor the Movie and the Failure of the Future

  1. Matt Wells says:

    I just finished marathoning the entire Patlabor animated canon, and Oshi’s deconstruction of post-war Japan’s shining optimism for the future is delicious. If Japan discards the past in favour of the promise of the future, what are they to do when that shining light of promise winks out? Such a shame the 20 year recession over there means we’re unlikely to ever see anything approaching Labors.

    Patlabor 2 seems to indicate that the destruction of the Ark did little to halt the progress of Project Babylon, merely slow it down past millenial completion. But then of course Tsuge initiated the Tokyo Wars and sent the country straight back to the days of martial law… It’s superb the way Oshi and Team Headgear deconstructed 80’s Japanese optimism in the guise of a workplace comedy/near future slice of life/giant robot police procedureal.

    The world of Patlabor is just so rich and ripe with ideas, concepts and questions; the way it pulls it all of while still being an immensely enjoyable cartoon is incredible. Best sci-fi show of the 90’s bar none. Sorry if I’m gushing, but I’ve been dying to praise the show since I finished the 2nd OVA!

    • schneider says:

      If anything, the movies were oddly prophetic. I love the TV series the most, simply because there’s more brilliant comedic writing and much more mecha.

  2. Martin says:

    I really enjoyed the Patlabor films, not necessarily as depictions of the future but more as depictions of how we imagined the early 21st Century would be. Alongside the crime thriller and mecha action it’s really interesting to view it along with the mindsets of the time (although I’m only *just* old enough to remember the late 80s clearly…).

    Those two movies sum up the saying: “the future just ain’t what it used to be.” Or, more appropriately perhaps, the contrast you highlight in this post is in line with a William Gibson observation: “the Future is already here; it just isn’t evenly distributed.” Looking at the cityscapes of the REAL 2012, I can see where he’s coming from.

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