In a future “10 years from now” when “now” was “the late 1980s/early 1990s” such that nobody has mobile phones and everyone still watches VHS tapes, pilotable robots have been adopted for construction labor and thusly branded “Labors.” But accidents happen, and due to the capabilities of Labors they can be used for criminal activity. That’s why you need a division of the police force equipped with custom Patrol Labors, or Patlabors for short—oh, who am I kidding? You probably didn’t even read this far unless you were already a fan because I said the word “robots.”
I sprang at the chance to tell everyone that Patlabor: The New Files best embodies what makes the series so great even 25 years later, and that Maiden Japan’s Blu-ray release looks fantastic. Except then it dawned on me: “25 years.” I’ve spent decades praising Patlabor, yet nobody in the US cares. Whatever the current trend of the era is, Patlabor doesn’t fit the bill. Not sexy enough, violent enough, cute enough, realistic or fantastic enough. And yeah, there are robots. Sure, you can say “the majority of The New Files has barely anything to do with robots and this show is upbeat, not dour” as my Patlabor article on the Otaku USA website from about five years ago did. But nobody reads that far. I want to be wrong though, so I’ll pretend:
What we refer to in the US as The New Files is 16 direct-to-video TV episode-length stories that are slightly higher in budget and audacity than the television series that it shares continuity with. Four episodes serve as the epilogue to what is commonly referred to as the “Griffon arc,” and these best embody the notion of “Japanese police force piloting robots to fight bad guys piloting robots” a title like Mobile Police Patlabor implies. But continuity isn’t that critical here—you don’t really need to watch anything prior to “get” it—and we don’t remember Patlabor because a white robot fought a black robot once. No, Patlabor’s unsurpassed feat was its ability to tell seemingly any type of story using the same set of characters. There’s an episode done like Ultraman, another like a Dungeons & Dragons-style labyrinth crawl, and one that may as well be an episode of Seinfeld since half of it is two people talking in a car.
Some episodes are about simple universal experiences like having a toothache at work or taking care of a kitten. Others are gleefully nuts. A bomber is hiding out in a public bath, with the only physical description being that he has moles under his armpit. Pornography is banned in the mechanics garage, resulting in a satire of Japan’s student protests of the 1960s. Series buffoon Ohta awakens with amnesia, and in his quest to regain his identity learns that he once beat up a guy who thought he’d show everyone how tough he was by eating cold noodles in winter. These are not the “anime plotlines and jokes” you’ve become accustomed to. One of the most memorable episodes for me is “Snow Rondo,” a quiet and personal story that’s a little surreal with a touch of romance.
Don’t get me wrong: the movies are phenomenal (the third is just “pretty good” by virtue of it not originally being written as a Patlabor entry), but they’re primarily dramatic in nature and only focus on a few characters. The New Files doesn’t just give everyone a moment in the spotlight; it lets you see multiple facets of each of them. Patlabor remains excellent in 2014 because of its versatility. Except for the English dub. Stick with the Japanese if you don’t want to end up hating this show.
You likely didn’t even read this far unless you already liked Patlabor to begin with. In which case, I commend you. You are the glory! I want to tell you everything I’m feeling now, ‘cause YOU ARE
THE ONE. Go buy the Patlabor fanzine on MagCloud that I and other OUSA staff contributed to! Recommended.
– Mamoru Oshii to Helm Final Patlabor Live-Action Film
– [Review] Mobile Police Patlabor: Headgear’s Collective Classic
– Wasted XIII: Entertaining outcast of the Patlabor franchise
– The Next Generation: Patlabor Episode 1 Review
– The Next Generation: Patlabor Episodes 2 and 3 Review
This review was featured in the April 2015 issue of Otaku USA Magazine. If you’d like a print copy, try your local newsstand, or order it now from our online store. For more in depth anime and manga coverage, don’t forget to subscribe!