Patlabor OVA ep 1 of 7: “Second Unit, Move Out!”

Patlabor is an 80s mecha anime that focuses heavily on the practicalities of dealing with Mecha. It isn’t a heady philosophical drama (that wasn’t grafted onto the Mecha scene until Evangelion) and it’s not a thrill a minute action extravaganza. It’s about the people who have to deal, day to day, with using giant mostly-bipedal machines in the context of an all too familiar world of traffic jams, petty rivalry, and bureaucracy.

The “Second Unit” of the episode title is a newly created unit of PatLabor. In this near-future world, the giant piloted machines that have been used for much industrial work are called Labors. As soon as they were widely disseminated, they began to be used for crimes (as one would) so specialized Labors were designed to combat labor crime – these the Patrol Labors, or PatLabor.

And in this episode, a newly manufactured pair of Patlabors are going to be delivered to be a new unit of Special Vehicles Second Division – stationed way out in the sticks. Which means that it will take a hell of a long time for them to be delivered, since the big robots have to make their trek through the city highways to get to their destination.

The entire first half of the episode involves people waiting. The chief engineer, Old Man Sakaki, is waiting patiently by the side of the road. When the deliverymen phone and say traffic is so heavy they have no idea when it will be coming, he has a chair brought out, and an umbrella to block the sun, and a phone on a long cable so he can be called directly with the new labor’s progress. At the same time, the new recruits who are supposed to pilot these Labors arrive on base: there’s the reluctant Asuma, gun crazy Isao, henpecked Mikiyasu, gentle giant Hiromi, and the late arrival who gets to the base hot rodding on a motorcycle, and the sole female of the group, Noa. They more or less get along, and have their individual quirks, but for the most part they just complain through the first half of the episode that they don’t have their damned robots. To keep them busy, the base commander orders them to do some grass mowing on the grounds.

Their boring leisure time is interrupted when an emergency is called in: a mining labor is invading the city, and the closest Patlabors to this attack are the new units still in transit. The Second Unit drives down, meets up with their shippers, and suits up for a fight. It’s a complete disaster… but this is just the first episode. The good guys eventually win, and return to base with their brand new Patlabors… one missing a head, the other an arm.

A contrast from 80s anime to today’s more polished product is how much more readily cartoonish the shows are. The disastrous mission gets underway when Isao is ordered to corral the rogue Labor, but he’s too gunhappy with the desire to shoot off his big revolver, and goes against the enemy guns blazing. He misses the labor, but happens to take out all the cops who were chasing the rogue robot. Cars crash and are flung about, and there’s the comical image of a single cop, holding a steering wheel and spinning in place. It makes no physical sense, but is perfectly fitting in with a cartoon sensibility. Isao’s entire gun-mad persona is equally cartoonish, as is Noa’s unhealthy obsession with personifying her Labor – she already has a name for it, “Alphonse”, before she’s even seen it. Patlabor isn’t strictly a comedy, and it has the mechanical attention to detail that mark so many anime and manga, regardless of the tone (one of the joys of Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess! is that, though his series is about goddesses and magic, he’s a total gear-head and loves drawing extremely detailed and accurate motorcycles and cars).

It’s action oriented by its nature, but the story of this first episode doesn’t foreground that action, but rather the practical details that it takes to get to the action. Parts get caught in traffic. The trainees have never actually fired their weapons, because the only safe firing range to do that has been booked up for months. Nothing is ready on time, nothing works the way it should, and inter-departmental rivalry undermines the ability of the Patlabors to do their job right.

It’s a fun introduction to the series, if not a complete ball out of the park success. The characters are broad strokes, and mostly primary colors. Asuma is Asuma Shinohara, heir to the Shinohara Heavy Industries corporation that actually builds the labors. His dad wants him to get direct experience with the robots they build. Noa loves labors with an almost creepy fervor. Their captain Goto seems lazy and unenthused, as well as semi-unprofessional: he chooses where to direct the rogue labor with their blockades and attacks not to get it into the easiest place to fight it, but to avoid damage to his home-town. These are bare character sketches. Hopefully, they’ll be filled out in the subsequent episodes.

The fun here is in the world of contrast – the silly cartoon characters in the real world bureaucracy of a science fiction concept. Everyone isn’t fighting for family honor or to overcome some horrible psychological problem rooted in their past (which will be easily related by a single scene shown in a brief flashback) but instead are a group of weirdos doing a weird job. It’s a nice foundation for hopefully more interesting stories to come.

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