Patlabor: The Early Days opens with a quick burst of action, with one of the titular Labor robots tearing apart other mecha before the lyrics to the theme song about romancing said giant robot kick in, setting the viewer up to anticipate a show full of combat, action, and conflict.
This all comes after Patlabor dumps its entire lore and premise on the viewer, explaining how the rapid development of technology lead to the invention of the “Labors”, giant robots originally made for construction purposes that quickly filtered out through the rest of society and eventually lead to the spread of Labor-assisted crime. In order to combat this threat, a new system law enforcement is created—the Patrol Labor, or Patlabor units. The explanation of the show’s premise accompanied by background music emphasizing stress and conflict leads the viewer to expect that Patlabor is going to be primarily about how our heroes capture and defeat Labor criminals in stirring battles.
And yet in the very first episode, Isao Ota—the member of the SV2 (Special Vehicles Unit 2) who is most obsessed with guns and getting into fights—completely fails to land a single shot with the enormous revolver that his Labor is equipped with when trying to stop a terrorist hijacking another Labor. Not only does he fail to do any damage, but the head on his machine gets totally blown off.
Noa Izumi, piloting the other Labor in the SV2, also initially fails to stop the enemy Labor, gets one of the arms on her suit completely blown off, and only brings the crisis to an end when she uses that severed arm like a club to take the enemy down.
From the moment Ota pulls out his revolver out to Noa smashing her Labor’s ripped off arm into another Labor as she screams “ROCKET PUNCH!”, this process—where the heroes fail and are nearly defeated almost instantly—all takes about four minutes.
Some math: The Patlabor OVA episodes, not counting the opening, end credits, or previews for the next episode, are roughly 25 minutes long—meaning the actual “combat” in this episode takes up a little over 1/6th of the episode’s runtime. In a more typical mecha anime, battles are likely to eat up far more of each episode. And they’re sure as hell not going to depict those fights as anticlimactic showdowns where the protagonists get their asses kicked by total nobodies.
So what fills those remaining 21 minutes?
Eating. Watching TV. Cutting grass around their homebase by hand. Talking—and complaining—about the filing processes and budget constraints around live weapons practice with Labors that mean that anyone who wants to practice shooting the robots’ enormous guns only gets to do so about once a year. Mostly, they’re just stuck in a traffic jam.
And in the second episode? More time stuck in a traffic jam.
To be clear, this is not a complaint. Actually, it’s exactly what makes Patlabor so great, and what makes it so different from so many other entries in in the cop procedural and mecha genres.
Giant Robots, Society, and You
It’s an old as dirt observation that mecha anime isn’t really about the mecha, but Patlabor is not only not about the mecha, nor the people piloting them, nor even just the people who have to repair them, but every part of society that giant cop robots would have to coexist with—the pre-existing systems, societies, and bureaucracies they slot into, and the new ones they create by virtue of their existence. The result is a vision of the future focused on the nuts-and-bolts of daily life, luring the viewer in with promises of hot-blooded mech action and then saying “Okay, but what I really want to talk about is how they’d handle the paperwork for pension benefits and property damage”.
To contextualize Patlabor and its vision for the future, it’s probably best to compare it to other series featuring giant things—monsters, robots, people—and how the matter of construction, destruction, and reconstruction in these series typically aren’t too much of a concern. Neo-Tokyo is evacuated all the time in Neon Genesis Evangelion, as battles with the angels tear apart the city on a regular basis.Tokusatsu series like Ultraman regularly feature masses of roads and buildings being blown to hell. The list goes on.
In contrast, the second episode of The Early Days features a crucial, tense moment when Noa and her partner Asuma are rushing to a bomb planted by terrorists—only Noa in her labor can’t follow Asuma in his car. There’s a bridge that’s too low for her to crawl under and too big for her to step over without destroying the whole damn thing. Instead of just saying to hell with the damage and smashing right through it, they hail a blimp so that Noa’s Labor can grab on and drift over the bridge without leaving a scratch.
It’s about the most “action packed” segment in the whole episode—with a bumping song and everything—and it’s dedicated entirely to lifting one machine about 50 feet vertically to cross about 40 feet of horizontal distance.
Remember, all of this is just so they wouldn’t damage a bridge that no one was even on top of—no lives were immediately threatened if they decided to just plow through it. So it’s all for the sake of preserving a nameless part of Tokyo’s infrastructure they would never revisit in the series, would never have any larger significance, would never matter as anything beyond “this bridge.”
Because in Patlabor, it’s not enough to “stop the bad guy.” That’s not even what it’s really about. It’s about “other people live here too, y’know”. The nameless citizens of Tokyo whom the Patlabor serve need that bridge, and they need the roads too—as shown in the traffic jams of the first two episodes. This is antithetical to both the “you have to break the rules to get results” moral of cop procedurals and the “cities as disposable props” trope of giant mecha and monster anime.
To put it simply:
You’re Off Your Case, Chief!
Episode three, “The 450 Million Year Old Trap,” has the SV2 dealing with the awakening of a giant sea monster, forcing the crew to come up with proposals of how to deal with it. One suggests using their machines’ batteries and generators to feed tons of voltage into the mouth of the water to stun the monster, a pitch that’s immediately dismissed because it would kill all of the fish for several miles, as well as damaging all of the underwater infrastructure in the area.
Then, episode four, “The Tragedy Of L”, has Ota bringing a hostage crisis to an end by firing an enormous, building-rattling blank into a tape rental store—which gets the entire SV2 a lecture from their boss Goto about how they’re public servants, not action heroes piloting Mazinger or Dangaioh. They’ve pissed off the top brass, and they’re all being sent out for retraining because of Ota’s dumbass stunt. Critically, this isn’t painted as an unfair consequence, or as unnecessary red tape blocking them from doing their jobs—the punishment is presented as lenient and on top of this, the rest of the episode has Goto concocting an elaborate ghost story to force them all to learn a lesson about being responsible and cautious when using their guns.
By making property damage something that matters, by making regulations, rules and constraints important and necessary instead of red tape to be dismissed, Patlabor quietly constructs a vision of a future where the really radical altering substance isn’t the presence of giant robots, but an understanding that just because you have power and a ‘noble’ goal, doesn’t mean you can do anything you want.
The people you’ll never meet matter too. They need to use the roads, they need to be able to go home, and you can’t just blow up a building because you’re trying to stop a ‘bad guy’.
Where other giant robot series let the destruction flow freely for the sake of dramatic battles, and other cop procedurals rant about how the pencil pushers and their rules keep getting in the way of catching crooks, every episode of Patlabor: The Early Days reinforces that the main characters of this story are not the only people who matter, and that the battles they put themselves into are supposed to be in service to others—to the rest of society—not in service of their own personal hero stories. Like Goto says: “You’re public servants.” You can’t electrocute the sea to capture a monster and just ignore all the damage it does to the ecosystem and to people’s livelihoods simply because because it’s convenient to you right now.
In Patlabor, nobody lives fight to fight, dramatic arc to dramatic arc. You serve—and live in—a society that goes on with or without you. The worst thing you can do there, like Ota so often does, is to decide the consequences don’t matter and just grab your gun and fire when it pleases you. To be a big ol’ action hero, a real gloryhound.
When you have a hammer, all the world may look like a nail. When you have a giant revolver, all the world might look like target practice. Patlabor sees those impulses, and smacks you on the back of the head for having them, reminding you that ideally, you never pull that gun out in the first place.