Patlabor, TV Series
The ideal review is cool, calm, and critical. The strengths and weaknesses of a show being noted and delineated with absolutely objective judgment. Stuff that in this case, it's much more fun being an anime fan than a reviewer, especially when there's wonderful stuff like this.
I would also like to thank Fabien Le Lez for making this review possible. While Patlabor is a personal favorite I'd never been able to find the final episodes in any form. Even though It has been commercially released, and assumedly finished. Thanks the the kindness of Fabien I was able to have the pleasure of finally seeing the conclusion, which of course meant I had to watch the whole series again (any excuse will do anyway).
The world of Patlabor is a near future show. It makes some projections of scientific advances in the future, the most obvious being the existence of general purpose mecha. These mecha being designed for the worlds largest construction project, the remodeling of Tokyo bay to cope with the effects of global warming and land shortages. However, by and large, the world is much the same as the one we inhabit now...and needless to say people have not changed that much.
Society is just as varied and flawed as ever. And a goodly number of these people recognize the labor (the name for mecha in the series) as a symbol of the times. Those who oppose the construction work, called the Babylon project, know that without labors such a drastic modification of a natural system would be impossible. Likewise the military, corporations and criminals ...or perhaps even someone who's just had a couple too many to drink...realise the potential of labors as powerful tools. Indeed labor crime is a growth industry in this city.
The answer is to set up a unit specializing in labor related crimes. And, if you want to argue with labors, you need one of your own. In this case the labor unit has the Ingram-98, one of the worlds most advanced labors. However serving in this unit is not without it's own problems. Their specialized nature, their exclusion from the `normal' police force and their location in a newly constructed landfill far from civilization makes them one of the less popular postings. Not to mention that trying to subdue a rampaging labor in a suburban setting makes any mistakes expensive, quite capable of destroying a promising career.
Although the rather unusual, and un-conventional, captain Gotoh sees this more as an opportunity. Hand picking a team, for reasons known only to him, of somewhat unusual police officers. Taken together they form the `special vehicles division 2, section 2' and quickly gain a reputation. Although not perhaps the sort of reputation any of them with career aspirations might have wanted. None the less, during their service, they become a team and manage to achieve some impressive results.
The TV series is perhaps the core of the Patlabor world. It begins with the team receiving a replacement for their aging vehicles. This superior vehicle, the Ingram-98 that will both put them on the front line and make them responsible for the outcome. In addition they gain two more members to bring them up to full strength, allowing them to field two units in response to any call. Although there's no shortage of other complexities with keeping this rather unusual unit running smoothly.
The stories are often episodic, but highly varied. Some stories go for two episodes and there is a longer story thread that both develops during the show and takes up 5 or so episodes for a conclusion. They are always unified by the strong characters, references to previous events and forces within the world. Crime stories, odd stories, character stories and even a couple of ghost stories. It's simply impossible to summarize the broad range available.
So, why do I adore this show? Why can I watch it multiple times and always enjoy the experience? The reason is simply quality. The world is interesting, the writing is exceptionally strong and the characters are wonderful. You are quickly immersed in a very solidly constructed world in which events and interactions both entertain and make sense. It's got style, charm and an immense sense of character and depth that makes watching it a pleasure.
Mind you, a lot of people strongly dislike this show. And there are some reasons for this. For one thing it's fairly offbeat and strongly character based. If you wanted mega-mecha action then you may be disappointed. The mecha is an important elements but not the focus of the show. And there is as much focus on the limitations, complexities and human factors of the mecha as anything else. Indeed many mecha fans find the weapons used, being a rather large revolver and an electrified baton, to be deeply unimpressive.
In a similar manner some will love and others will loath the story. It's almost always calm and subtle, with much of the pleasure being in the depth presented. In order to do this it often moves at a quite sedate pace, is quite willing to have an episode with no action at all, and has a somewhat weird feel to it...which others will call a quixotic charm. The truly funny thing is that people will love or hate it for exactly the same reason. Every elements of the show has been meticulously constructed to express the strong story and environment the creative team had in mind. The skill involved, and the strong unification and balance of the various elements, impresses me every time I confront it.
As you can guess I love it. The slow pace and story complexity beautifully highlights the intricate and interesting characters. The depth also meaning that when the action does heat up, such as the griffon saga, you really feel it. But mostly I guess it is the characters, and what a rich lot they are. Managing to have both a strong personality and great depth in characters is impressive. And the cast is wide and varied too. The problems of administration within this large group of people, the presence and importance of the sizable maintenance team, even some of the opponents are intriguing, play well off one another and even survive without a dominant `lead' character...although Izumi is damn cute. It also has a sizable number of mature characters, which is surprisingly rare in anime when you think about it. Even truly fringe characters have more personality than the leads in many other series.
I guess I should also mention the mecha. They're varied, well designed and entertaining. They also have an unusual focus though. They're incredibly well designed in the `wide' scope. The practicalities, strengths, weaknesses and limitations of these devices are very well considered. They're not uber-toys, they're simply complex (and ruinously expensive) machines. There's a delightful amount of detail which is deeply woven into the stories and action. In `close' scope there are some problems, the `density' (size vs. weight) seems a little screwy and the question of how these mecha are piloted, expressed in the cockpit view, seems to have been put in the too hard basket.
The production is superb. But, like the show in general, strongly focused on the story and low on flash. As a result it has a clean and elegant style that has aged very well. The characters look good, the environment is complex and the ability to express personality is immense. The mecha themselves are also great, giving a very real sense of size and weight to their actions. The use of sound effects being a very important element in this illusion. The movement animation, while clearly stressed at times by the amount of detail requested, is really very good for a television show of this period. It's still very watchable now. The voices are abso-freaking-lutely astounding. I don't understand more than a handful of words in Japanese, but the sense of personality and the high quality of these voices awes me. And this extends even to quite minor characters who may only get speaking parts every handful of episodes. The opening and closing music is quite good and some of the incidental music is superb.