Ask John: Is Patlabor Still a Viable Franchise?
I was intrigued by this question and wanted to share my perspective on it. “Could a new Patlabor series work? Would people be interested in seeing mecha and mecha pilots in these roles? Would everyday mecha policemen be enough of a draw or would the market be turned off by a mecha series that isn’t all about giant robots fighting?”
Masami Yuuki’s Mobile Police Patlabor manga premiered in 1988 and debuted in anime form near simultaneously. The most recent Patlabor anime was 2001′s third theatrical feature, although the most recent Patlabor production was a 2007 arcade Pachislo machine from pachinko manufacturer Abilit. During its heyday, the Patlabor franchise was tremendously successful and popular with the manga winning the 1991 Shogakukan Manga Award for shounen manga, and the anime even promoting AXIA blank audio cassettes in an exclusive commercial.
Like most anime, Patlabor was not an entirely “original” creation. 1979′s Mobile Suit Gundam depicted mass-produced, government-owned mecha. Patlabor, though, may owe more to 1980′s Muteki Robo Trider G7, a Sunrise production in which the heroic giant robot was privately owned by a civilian who accepted job requests from the army. Trider G7 is also notable for spending much of its length on character interaction and depictions of routine daily life rather than giant robot battles. While Mobile Police Patlabor did include action scenes and giant robot battles, its primary Raison d’être lay in its character relationships and the depiction of a routine, ordinary Tokyo in which bipedal giant robots had supplemented or superseded heavy equipment machinery. The ancestry of Patlabor itself is now distinguishable in popular contemporary anime including Tiger & Bunny and Toshokan Senso.
The current, highly successful Tiger & Bunny franchise depicts a slight-future Tokyo in which privately super-powered policemen fight super-powered criminals, yet much of the series’ focus is on character relationships and personal drama. The concept isn’t very far removed from Patlabor’s concept of municipally owned police Labors that fight Labor crimes. Tonally, the influence of Patlabor also seems evident in the Toshokan Senso franchise, which got an anime feature film last June. In appearance and personality, Toshokan Senso’s protagonist Iku Kasahara could almost be a sister to Patlabor’s protagonist Noa Izumi. In terms of series construction, very reminiscent of Patlabor, Toshokan Senso revolves around a small, quirky team of law officers who spend most of their time on mundane activities and interactions, only occasionally launching into militaristic action. Similarly, the highly successful 1997 live-action TV drama Odoru Daisosasen got its most recent theatrical feature only two years ago. Like Patlabor, Odoru Daisosasen includes action but is primarily a dialogue-heavy comedy revolving around the mundane bureaucracy of boring daily police work.
Considering evidence that other anime and live-action franchises with characteristics descended from Patlabor remain popular with today’s Japanese audiences, and the fact that other 80′s anime franchises have been revived recently, including Saint Seiya and Sailor Moon, Patlabor certainly seems viable for revival. Furthermore, considering that Patlabor hasn’t had an ongoing series in slightly over twenty years, the series seems especially viable to introduce to new viewers that weren’t watching anime, or weren’t even alive back in 1992 when the “New Files” (P-Series) OVA series concluded. Recent speculation about the possibility of a live-action Patlabor production has been widely met with eager and curious reaction rather than blunt disdain, suggesting that interest in the Patlabor franchise is still present and positive. While I believe that certain popular 90′s contemporaries of Patlabor including the Cyber Formula, Silent Mobius, and Rayearth franchises are probably products of their time and would be difficult to successfully revive today, the characters, concepts, and narrative approach of Patlabor are entirely as accessible and appealing to contemporary viewers as these characteristics were twenty years ago.