Patlabor: A Primer

Labor: a robot specifically designed for construction work. Labors allow dramatic advances in construction, but also in crime. To combat these new Labor crimes, the police created a special unit: The Patrol Labor. And thus, the birth of the Patlabor.

What’s Patlabor?

It’s a multi-media franchise consisting of anime, manga, and games in the late 80s and early 90s. By far, the anime is the most visible and popular facet of it, spanning a couple of movies, OVAs, and a 47-episode TV series. It was conceived by a core group of creators called Headgear, composed of people like Mamoru Oshii and Yutaka Izubuchi.

It’s about the misadventures of a police Labor unit called the SV2 (Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2). They tend to be surprisingly competent at their job, except for the odd city block they have to wreck to get it done. Depending on the show you’re watching, it’s a comedy, action, mystery, or a combination of all three. There’s a lot to love, and we’ll get to that.

Why should I watch Patlabor?

Do you know the real robot genre? Gundam? Macross? Heck, even Code Geass? Well, Patlabor is realer than those. In fact, it may be the most real real robot anime. It asks the question, “what if Japan had robots to boost its infrastructure development?” And, as all good science fiction settings go, it follows up with more questions: “What if a construction robot went amok? Who’s going to stop it, and how? What if they’re used for crimes?”

Consider this robot. It’s the AV-98 Ingram, a cutting-edge Patlabor. It looks great, having that heroic look to give a psychological edge over criminals. It’s got its own robot-sized electromagnetic baton, revolver, and even a shotgun.

It also gets smashed, beaten up, mutilated, abused, and tortured throughout its appearances. It’s better-made than most Labors, but it doesn’t have indestructible armor or outstanding firepower. The guns I mentioned don’t factor into fights very much because they often don’t have enough clearance to use them. The emphasis on rough hand-to-hand combat makes mecha action very visceral and brutal. If Gundam is about samurai fighting duels and cutting down lesser soldiers, then Patlabor is about drunken salarymen wrestling each other to the ground.

Another main strength of the Patlabor franchise lies in its characters. At the surface, they seem simple enough, but the writing injects a degree of nuance that makes them memorable. They just grow on you, these lovable rogues. Patlabor has strong, competent policewomen, who arguably kick ass more than the guys. They’re legitimately awesome and not STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS, trust me on this.

Lastly, the production values of each Patlabor work are very high, and the movies look top-notch. The creative direction is strong–it feels like Headgear is in charge, not soulless toy company executives. Luminaries like Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kawai have lent their considerable talents into the franchise. Even if you’re not into mecha, the first two movies are excellent films watchable on their own. The second film is my favorite Oshii film ever.

Sounds good, then. Where do I start?

Before I go on with watching order, you need to know that Patlabor has two separate timelines: the Movie timeline, consisting of the first OVA (Mobile Police Patlabor) and the movies. The other one is the TV timeline, consisting of the TV series and the second OVA (Mobile Police Patlabor: The New Files). Both are good, but the Movie timeline offers less time investment.

That said, start with the first OVA, which will introduce the cast and whet your appetite for the first two movies, which are excellent. WXIII, the third movie, is more of a sidestory, which makes it optional. I watched WXIII last and it’s no big loss if you don’t watch it, which I’ll explain later. The animation short that comes with it, though, isn’t. Whatever you do, watch MiniPato.

Now, if you watched them all and liked what you saw, then try out the TV series, and its succeeding OVA!

If you’re really short on time, then just watch the first two movies.

Now, for the show guide proper. I’ve indicated the anime where Kanuka Clancy appears, because I believe that it’s Very Important Data. Kanuka makes everything more awesome.

Mobile Police Patlabor

Animation studio: Studio DEEN
Episode count: 7
Kanuka Clancy presence: High

The first Patlabor anime. Solid introduction to the franchise. Is the source of this quote. Some of the episodes here are recycled into movie-length plots, though they’re mostly character-driven. It’s like a sample platter of sorts, having comedy, action, and mystery that the franchise is known for.

Studio DEEN has a bad reputation, but their work here is very solid. They used to be very good!

Patlabor: the Movie

Animation studio: Production I.G
Kanuka Clancy presence: COMBAT

This was actually the first Patlabor I watched. It’s surprisingly a good entry point into the franchise itself if you just want a good story with police robots. I figured things out fairly quickly and I didn’t have many questions about the characters that detracted from my enjoyment of the movie.

It’s basically an investigative tale with some visceral robot action. An mysterious virus is causing Labors to go berserk. Being an Oshii film, it has several Biblical references that are thankfully more endearing than annoying.

Also has the best Kanuka scene ever.

Patlabor 2: the Movie

Animation studio: Production I.G
Kanuka Clancy presence: None

Takes a few years after the first movie. Now this is a movie you shouldn’t go in without knowing a thing about Patlabor. It’s kind of a swan song to the series, as SV2 has split up by the beginning of the movie. The main characters are Gotoh and Shinobu, the captains of the Patlabor units. The tone is a lot more serious and Oshii tackles some political themes with astute clarity. It’s got a haunting mood and offers several scenes that are my favorite in the entire franchise. Whatever you do, definitely watch this.

WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3

Animation studio: Madhouse
Kanuka Clancy presence: None

This is a sidestory. Gotoh and the SV2 appear, but the main characters are two detectives who were minor characters elsewhere. I was actually surprised that it wasn’t an Oshii film, but was directed by one Fumihiko Takayama. Nevertheless, it’s got Oshii’s ponderous style. It’s about a mysterious sea monster causing death and destruction around the Babylon Project. While it’s a solid film, it’s not really a Patlabor film, more like a film set in the Patlabor world.


Animation studio: Production I.G
Kanuka Clancy presence: None

An anime short done in an experimental style. Humorous and self-aware. Just watch it!

Mobile Police Patlabor TV

Animation studio: Sunrise
Episode count: 47
Kanuka Clancy presence: Medium

Ah, the TV series. I love the TV series. It’s funny and endearing with lots of interesting mecha bits. Offers the most mecha in proportion to its content. The main plot is pretty nuanced because the main antagonist (Schaft Enterprises) doesn’t really want to kill the good guys, more like steal data from the Ingram so it could make better Labors.

It’s mostly episodic, though. Episodes range from Scooby-Doo mysteries (“There’s a monster in the sewer! Let’s check it out!”) to slice-of-life situations (“The SV2 gets defeated by its favorite Chinese takeout joint”) to character examinations (“Someone fell in love with Ota!”) to the really crazy ones (“What if Patlabor was a ‘normal’ mecha show?”). I have never been bored with a single episode of this show, because the writing is consistently great and the characters just grow with you.

Kanuka is in the show for the first half or so, and gets replaced by Takeo Kumagami, a TV timeline-only character. She’s cool, but she’s still no Kanuka.

Mobile Police Patlabor: The New Files

Animation studio: Studio DEEN
Episode count: 16
Kanuka Clancy presence: Medium

A continuation of the TV series. It provides closure to the Schaft plot, and has one of my favorite episodes in the franchise. As it picks up where the TV series left, Kumagami is in the SV2, but Kanuka appears to lend a bit of help against Schaft. It’s really just more of the same from the TV series, which is a good thing. You shouldn’t watch this without watching the TV first.

The ending is quite low-key and open-ended, concluding the TV timeline. Contrast with the second movie’s, which provides firm closure to its own timeline.

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19 Responses to Patlabor: A Primer

  1. daemoncorps says:

    I’ve never been all that big on mecha, but this entry really makes Patlabor come off as that much more accessible. Will definitely check out at least the first OVA series.

  2. illegenes says:

    Thank you SO much for putting the time in and dedication to make a primer like this; I was just expressing my curiosity in watching this series the other day, and didn’t know where to start, so this will be super helpful!

  3. Shance says:

    Another good primer for another mecha anime that I know I should watch (aside from Getter Robo). You mentioning Kawai Kenji instantly won me over.

  4. This is a timely post given the immanent Region A release of the first Av on BD.

    Agreed that Patlabor 2 is Oshii’s best.

    Dude. I am so happy to encounter another Kanuka fan. Maybe I just don’t talk to enough Patlabor people, but I haven’t sen much love for her. I am always down for some Kanuka.

    Thanks for putting this together. It reminds me why I enjoy this franchise as much as I do. I have to go re-watch the Chinese take-out episode now.

  5. Patlabor 2 is up there with my best five animated films of all time. Best thing Oshii’s ever had a had in. Hell, you could quite easily argue Patlabor was the finest thing done in his entire career. The perfect marriage of social commentary, character driven workplace comedy, bleeding-edge science fiction and political thriller. Its the greatest science fiction work of the late 80’s/early 90’s, and to mind the Anime of it’s decade. It even gave the flagging OVA industry a major kick in the pants, paving the way for the Western Anime boom of the early 2000s.

    There’s just so much to LOVE in this franchise, depending on how much you want out of it. Giant robot fights? We got it. Urusei Yatsura fans who wish Oshii would write more comedy? He wrote the funniest episodes in the TV show AND OVA. Proto-Ghost in the Shell: SAC cyberterrorism and military intrigue? It’s in abundance. It reminds me a lot of Robocop: it’s exactly as deep or shallow as you want it to be depending on your own desired viewing experience.

    Mini-Pato was godly. 50 minutes of nothing but Oshii gags firing on all cylinders, a logical explaination for why Ingrams carry mecha sized revolvers without blowing holes through Tokyo buildings, and Shige explaining why the Ingram is the absolute tits when it comes to conceptual mecha design. Speaking of mecha porn, Yutaka Izabuchi is a God. Whether its the hero appeal of the Ingram,the sinister elegance of the Griffon, the endearing ugliness of the Boxer and Tyrant or the perfect military aesthetic of the Helldiver, the man designs some damn good robots.

    Really wish the manga was fully translated. Aside from dozens of storylines that never made it into animation continuity, I understand that the entire Griffon Arc ended up radically different from the TV version. Richard Wong’s a much darker and manipulative character, there’s unwholesome implications that he bought Bud from a pedophile ring, and he even tries to rape Kumagami! He doesn’t get off scott free in this version either.

    And the characters… its amazing the way you end up loving every single one, learning all their little traits and quirks like you would a member of your family. In the case of Ohta its a homicidal, neo-conservative nutjob with a badge, a gun and a giant robot permit, but I think most people can relate to family members like that. I honestly can’t think of a single point where the female characters were expolited for their sexuality. Noa may be moe for Alphonse, but her naievety is never fetishised or abused. Shinobu is a stone cold badass (Oh Captain, my Captain!), Kanuka is rightfully worshipped for the Ovaries of Steel she holds (“COMBAT!!”), and even Kumagami has her moments to shine. The episode where they go to the hot springs and poor Ohta is completely pusyswhipped by the two girls, a servant to two masters is excrutiating to watch. And then they take turns tossing him out the window… marvellous stuff.

    And Gotoh is one of the greatest characters in all of fiction. I get the feeling he and Yang Wen-Li would be good drinking buddies if they ever met.

    • cybustier says:

      Some personal favourite eps: the one with the Yakuza guy who collects Labors, the one with the wannabe terrorists who get stuck in the building they tried to blow up, the take out episode, both of the Sewer Monster eps, the one where Gotoh defeats an assasination attempt by doing nothing, the one where a fired kids’ show host takes the studio hostage, the lovingly crafted Ultraman parody, the one where the mechanic crew mutinies after Sakaki throws away all their porn, the one where three past villains of the week team up for revenge but become best friends, the one where they try to find a terrorist hiding in a public bath house, EVERY OHTA-CENTRIC EPISODE, and of course the love hotel episode. So much amazing comedy conveyed purely through decent character animation and the performance of the voice actors, i’ve never seen anything like it in anime since.

    • cybustier says:

      Intersting note: I’ve been reading the manga version currently and Kanuka doesn’t even make an appearance. According to online resources she’s exclusive to the OVA continuity and early TV series. Her role is filled right from the start of the second volume by Kumagami. Odd that both the OVA and manga adaptation went in such different directions, only for the TV series to bring them together in the middle.

      • Kanuka is featured in the movie continuity as well. This has been a message from your friendly, neighborhood pedant.

        • cybustier says:

          Oh ho! So you would match pedantry with me sirrah?! In my blanket statement of OVA continuity, I included the movies as well! After all, the films are direct sequels to the original OVA series, and the two animated canons are colloquially known to many as OVA continuity and TV continuity, the latter of which includes the second OVA series.

          Kanuka might make a cameo later on in the manga, but it does go in some interesting divergences from the other two continuities. Ohta has a lot more pathos to his character, we see far more of Noa’s personal life outside the force, and Shinshi and Yamazaki recieve even less screentime. And Richard Wong is a major antagonist from the get-go, long before the start of the Griffon Arc.

      • schneider says:

        I’ve heard from somebody who read the French releases (which were complete) that a really sweet exchange happens between Noa and Asuma in the final volume. Are you able to confirm this?

        • cybustier says:

          I’m afraid not. i only have the two volumes Viz translated before the dropped it. Existing english translations only go as far as the midway of the 1st Griffon arc, so there’s still a lot of material left unexplored. There might be chinese raws for the rest of the manga out there somewhere, its definitely worth a look. The moment you’re describing sounds highly plausible anyway.

      • Thiago says:

        If I am not wrong, Kanuka has a much smaller role in the Manga (she goes to Japan to investigate children’s disappearance-like Bud’s). And the manga brings up her parents’ deaths when she was a kid (as far as I know, the only continuity that does so).

  6. Pingback: 12 Days of Meditations #10: Tackling shows with difficult continuity | Continuing World

  7. Felipe says:

    Thank you for this! I’m finally getting into this franchise after years of putting it off and your post was helpful to find out where to start.

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