October 26, 2009

Rear View: Patlabor - the Movie.

From grandmaster Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atomu ("Mighty Atom", or Astro Boy), and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-gō ("Iron Man #28", or Gigantor) - both original manga animated for TV in 1963 - to Gō Nagai's Majingā Z ("Mazinger Z", or Tranzor Z), and Tezuka-apprentice Yoshiyuki Tomino's epic Gandamu (Gundam), robot manga and anime have left an indelible impression on contemporary Japanese culture.

These transforming, combining mechanical warriors, often deployed to save Earth from invading forces, are Japan's answer to America's superheroes. But perhaps because they are mechanistic, and (largely) culturally neutral, they've managed to stomp into the consciousness of audiences worldwide. By the mid-1980s, animated television series based on Japanese concepts, like Voltron, Robotech, Gobots, and - above all - Transformers, provided an astounding boon to robot toys, comics, and merchandise internationally.

Japanese comics are created for a readership that shares very specific attitudes and customs, often virtually unknown outside Japan. Animation, on the other hand, has managed with its broad appeal to open overseas doors otherwise closed to Japanese comics, and have in fact become Japan's supreme goodwill ambassadors. Even when only available in Japanese, anime are usually more accessible than manga, not requiring ability to read Japanese or learning the often unique conventions of printed Japanese comics.

Manga also tend to be produced by a single artist, making them more direct and personal than anime, which are often a collective effort produced by teams, aiming for the broadest possible audience. While Japanese film in general has lingered in artistic and financial doldrums, anime has prospered on the back of the home video boom - to a point at which the Japanese animation industry easily dwarfs that of the EU or the USA - receiving a massive boost from the increased availability of video hardware in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Original Video Animation films (OVA's) begun appearing in 1983, aimed at the home video market, partially as a response to rising film and TV production costs, but also to the segmentation of the audience, with rising demand for original video material and more specialised programming. OVA's quickly became the niche for animation not mainstream enough to warrant a substantial TV audience, or lacking the budget necessary to produce a theatrical release.

Patlabor first appeared as a seven-part OVA series in 1988, the year most Westerners became aware of anime thanks to Katsuhiro Ōtomo's Akira, and Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece Tonari-no Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro). Though the concept for Patlabor was one that manga artist Masami Yūki had been working on since the early 1980s, having earned notoriety with a parody of Gandamu, and wanting to further the riaru robotto ("real robot") approach of Tomino's creation - as opposed to the more fanciful sūpā robotto ("super robot") varieties.

Originally conceived as a light comedy set in space, the concept was pitched to a studio in the mid-1980s. Upon rejection, Yūki brought it down to earth and injected more realism with the help of scriptwriter Kazunori Itō, and designers Akemi Takada and Yutaka Izubuchi. The revised concept was picked up by Bandai Visual on the condition there would be a manga tie-in to the OVA series (in Japan, anime frequently act as ads for manga). All that remained was to find a director, and Itō suggested Mamoru Oshii. Despite some initial skepticism whether he could pull off realistic science fiction - given his background in children's fantasy - Oshii joined the group of artists now known as Headgear.

Banding together as a collective, the Headgear quintet managed to retain full control of their creation rather than sign it over to a production company or an animation studio. Though some of the the members have collaborated on other projects, Patlabor was the only one Headgear worked on as a group, ultimately spawning three feature films, an additional sixteen-part OVA series, a TV series, a 22 volume manga, a series of novels, many model kits, CDs, and much, much merchandise.

Essentially an ensemble police procedural (think Hill Street Blues with giant robots), Patlabor is set in the latter half of 1999 (then, a decade into the future), in a Tōkyō where humanoid, multi-purpose machines - basically oversized powered exoskeletons - known as "labors" are employed in all aspects of industry and heavy construction, which in turn has led to the use of labors for unsavory purposes. Consequently, the police has branched out with a new, special section equipped with patrol labors - "patlabors" - to combat labor crime.

The main protagonists are the officers of the Special Vehicles Section 2, Division 2, an outfit stationed on a strip of reclaimed land in Tōkyō Bay with the reputation of being a dumping ground for freaks and misfits. There's the overeager young officer, the nervous salary-man, the trigger-happy jerk, the wizened engineer, his whizz-kid protégé, the spunky yet naïve girl, the quiet giant, and the femme fatale. Presided over by a captain whose Machiavellian streak is obscured by slack attitude (mainly manifested by a rather relaxed choice of footwear), for whom the career-oriented captain of the far more professional Division 1 is an object of unrequited love.

Although this (first) film's plot concerns the suicide of the developer of a new operating system for labors - which may in fact be part of a sinister plan to disrupt Tōkyō's largest re-development and land reclamation project by causing the thousands of labors it employs go berserk - it focuses more on the characters than actual crimes, and Division 2's two youngest members, Asuma Shinohara (the overeager one) and Noa Izumi (the spunky naïve one) in particular. Though the youngest patlabor officer, Noa is in fact the projects oldest character, its heroine ever since development began in the early 1980s, and a member of what was then a rather scant set of strong female manga and anime characters.

Unlike manga, which permeate mainstream Japanese society (in the early 1980s, Japan used more paper for comics than it did for toilet paper), anime isn't something the average Japanese adult spends time watching. Unlike overseas, where anime are an entrypoint for an audience which - more often than not - is adult, the domestic target audience tends to be quite young. Despite this, Headgear deliberately chose a more "mature" style for what essentially was an "adolescent" concept.

Manga artists have always felt a kinship with filmmakers. In fact, many manga artists create stories as if they were making films, often incorporating every camera technique ever invented - many of them dream of directing and of the early days of Japanese animation when practically anyone who could draw could switch careers. Here's where the choice of Mamoru Oshii as director really paid off: this feature allowed him to utilise his considerable skills and further his style of philosophical longueurs interspersed with rapid bursts of ferocious action.

Fairly successful in its tightrope attempt to provide enough information for audiences unfamiliar with the Patlabor OVA's while avoiding boring committed fans to tears, the film's overall mood is more solemn compared to the original series, its palette cooler, less bright. Likely due to director Oshii's inclinations, biblical references rain down throughout the story like frogs on Egypt, while the mechanical action is mainly confined to the finale (hardware aficionados will find much more labor-on-labor action in the Patlabor manga). However, Yutaka Izubuchi's mechanical designs are among the most original and realistic, logically extrapolating on exisitng heavy equipment, and worth glimpsing even briefly.

In between labor battles and extensive dialogue, Oshii takes the audience on a tour of vanishing Tōkyō vistas, eminently commenting on the relentless, seemingly unyielding march of progress - a theme he would return to with similar adroitness in several later features, like his 1995 international breakthrough suto In Za Sheru/Kōkaku Kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell). However, Oshii's restrained and subtle manner also allows for scenes brimming with technical information and acronyms, requiring that viewers remain active; previous knowledge of the OVA's isn't crucial provided viewers pay attention.

Oshii has said the his films wouldn't work without composer Kenji Kawai's music, even claiming that Kawai's music is "half the film". Here the fairly conventional, upbeat soundtrack is complemented by Kawai's more ambient, meditative pieces, making Patlabor an excellent introduction to the style for which he and Oshii would later become famous. Curiously, the cast of voice actors are practically all middle aged veterans, portraying characters who pretty much all are half their age.

Like Japanese poetry, Japanese comics tend to value the unstated, allowing pictures alone carry a story. Mamoru Oshii excels at this seemingly spare approach, occasionally indulging in caricature to reveal the "essence" of a prevalent mood or situation. Though likely a nod toward fans of the original OVA's more comedic slant, the sudden simplicity can be bewildering, with serious exchanges suddenly drawn in an overtly "cartoony" style, or characters depicted as abbreviated caricatures against a hyperrealistic backdrop.

But Japanese manga - and their distant cousin anime - tend to be unashamedly emotional and human, representing the one space where the Japanese are allowed to "drop their mask" and indulge in fantasy. Often created by artists with little formal training, they tend to be very unpretentious, with few aspirations toward artistic excellence and fame. Their main aim is to entertain.

It's always hazardous to set a film in the future, particularly the near future. Though when 1999 did roll round there was little - apart from certain stylistic aspects - that dated the first Patlabor feature. In fact, though the Internet and cell phones are conspicuously absent, the film's environmentalist theme seems quite prescient. Land reclamation in Tōkyō Bay may not have been quite as aggressive as the film depicts, but some 20% (or, roughly, 250 km2) has been reclaimed over the past century.

While massive exoskeletons aren't yet employed in construction, heavy machinery has been known to be used for nefarious purposes - likely making police wish they did have patlabors at their disposal. Certianly, robotics research continues unabated, persistently improving and redefining robot capabilities, interfaces and roles in society. Unmanned vehicles fly over war zones, scour the ground for explosives, allow humans a broader virtual presence, while gaining more parity with them. This film ironically illustrates the folly of giant, humanoid machines, in a scene where a construction labour displays all the efficiency of a kid let loose among building blocks when engaged in the raising of a building.

Until the recent recession rendered it idle, Japan had the world's largest fleet of mechanized workers, with robots even being manufactured by robots in the facilities of Yaskawa Electric - Japans largest manufacturer of industrial robots (the closest existing parallel to Patlabor's Shinohara labor factory). In 2005, more than 370,000 robots worked in factories across Japan - roughly 40% of the world's total, averaging 32 robots per 1,000 human manufacturing employees. A 2007 Japanese government plan called for a million industrial robots to be installed by 2025; that won't likely happen now.

Yet, with nearly 25% of its citizens 65 or older, Japan is banking on robots to replenish its rapidly diminishing workforce and help nurse the elderly. The option to allow millions of workers in from overseas appears utterly unappealing to a society steeped in xenophobia (Japan has the lowest rate of foreign workers among the world's developed economies, at less than 2% of the workforce, compared to 15% in the USA, or 10% in Britain), even paying foreign workers to return from whence they came once recession has rendered them "redundant".

Japanese scientists and engineers, having grown up watching robot cartoons, are more than eager to create humanoid, robotic companions to care for the more than a million Japanese who will be over 100 years old by the middle of this century. Many of their projects tend to be far-fetched, concentrating on humanoid and other impractical designs, that likely can't be readily brought to market. Robots may be cheaper than human workers over the long term, but the upfront investment costs are much higher.

While the first Patlabor film may share a certain amount of technological skepticism with the majority of science fiction films - particularly in its prediction of the impact computer viruses and malicious code cold have - it's no reactionary dismissal of change. Rather, it merely advocates a reconsideration of the past's - and its artifacts - worth. It's brilliance lies not so much in its technical qualities, as it does with director Oshii's respect for the audience.

Oshii and his Headgear colleagues dare to tell a complex and ambitious story without explaining every last detail, trusting in the audience's own ability to work things out. This, ultimately, renders the fact that its anime inconsequential, for beneath the skillfully drawn veneer lies an ambitious, well-crafted crime story in a slightly futuristic setting. It just happens to be animated.

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