Patlabor: The Modern Prometheus

Nowadays, it’s in vogue to reference Frankenstein. In the era of fake news, self-driving cars, and toxic social media platforms, many critics find themselves flocking to Mary Shelley’s novel in order to grapple with potential dangers of technology. Even so, a lot of articles (and novels, and films, and philosophical treatises…) get it wrong. They either gawk at the literal horror or figurative metaphor of the Creature, or go all-in and condemn him (or it) absolutely.

That makes Mamoru Oshii’s fourth directorial feature film even more remarkable. Fans remember Patlabor: The Movie best for its gorgeous animation (this was the bubble economy, after all) and its final culminating, high-octane action sequences. Sadly, far less attention is given to its more philosophical ponderings. In her comprehensive study of Oshii’s filmography, Dani Cavallaro acknowledges that it “could be read as a dispassionate commentary on the perennial human fear of technological advancement…traceable back to the Frankenstein story” (199). At its core, Patlabor: The Movie continues the conversation Shelley generated two centuries ago, and applies that critique to an eerily familiar and fast-approaching future.

Viewers are introduced to the film’s major characters—Noa Izumi and Asuma Shinohara, two rank-and-file police officers—as they fly over Tokyo Bay. Released in 1989, Patlabor: The Movie imagines a future Tokyo as grappling with the vicissitudes of climate change at the turn of the millennium. The bureaucratic and governing institutions of Oshii’s film see technology as a silver bullet, and so they poured an enormous amount of money, time, and labor into the Babylon Project in order to safeguard future prosperity.

This massive public works project, as Noa and Asuma’s pilot-turned-cicerone informs them, will ensure “that land shortages won’t be an issue for Tokyo in the 21st century.” In addition to a sea wall, the Japanese government is working to build two artificial islands that will “secure more than 45,000 hectares” of land. Through a series of carefully engineered sluices, they hope to drain the bay to combat rising sea levels. In order to achieve all of this, the project calls for thousands of Labors, the film’s eponymous mechs. Closing out his masked exposition dump, the pilot proudly declares that “yesterday’s science fiction is now a reality.”

Patlabor Movie Still - A yellow robot holds a girder under a blue sky.

If this all sounds too utopian and millenarian (there’s a reason why this takes place in 1999), you’d be right. One of Oshii’s primary concerns with his film is to challenge the blanket notion ideal that technology is some sort of panacea. Oshii’s polemic isn’t juvenile, though. He doesn’t naively believe that we should return to some sort of agrarian existence. Rather, he suggests that we should exercise a more vigilant and skeptical relationship vis-à-vis science. By doing so, he continues a conversation begun by an eighteen-year old teenager in 1816.

Mary Shelley was a Romantic writer of the first degree. Growing up in the aftermath of the French Revolution, at the tail end of the European Enlightenment, she was acutely aware of the popular intellectual trends of her day. Massive technological gains and scientific discoveries were made in the preceding century, and there was a real belief that an unrestricted “pursuit of knowledge [would] benefit mankind” (Comitini 185). Like the pencil-pushing bureaucrats of Oshii’s film, many of Shelley’s peers believed that science was a cure-all, one that would jettison humanity into some sort of idyllic future.

Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of Shelley’s novel, embodies this faith in “god-like science.” From an early age, Victor gravitated to numbers, empirical data, and hard facts. He reveled in the abstract complexities of the world, and hoped to one day conquer those mysteries. He “ardently desired the acquisition of knowledge,” and while at university began dabbling in darker, less credible sciences. Influenced no doubt by the premature death of his mother, Victor threw himself into his work. He had one goal: to infuse “life into an inanimate body.” And, as you probably know, he was successful.

The Labors act as a corollary to Frankenstein’s creature. Like him, these massive mechanical constructs are capable of some truly remarkable physical feats. At the same time, they are also capable of destruction, if not properly handled or monitored.

The audience gets its first glimpse of technology-run-amok in the opening minutes of the film. An unmanned military tank goes haywire and rampages through a forest. It is only through the concerted and coordinated effort of the JSDF that it’s put down. Similar instances abound. Noa, who in the earlier OVA was absolutely enamored with all things mecha, looks upon the new Type Zero unit with suspicion. Teeing up one of the film’s important thematic questions, she asks Asuma, “Don’t you think he looks kinda evil?”

Patlabor Movie Still - a dark outline of a robot, whose red eyes glare toward the camera.

Yes, Noa. Yes he does.

Her suspicions counterbalance the quixotic ideal that Labors are solely instruments of progressive change. It’s quickly made apparent that institutional forces can, and will, take advantage of these Labors for regressive purposes. Moreover, their mere existence can be threatening. To provide a perhaps clearer explanation, look no further than the debates surrounding nuclear power, especially in Japan. Nuclear energy limits our reliance on coal and other CO2-emitting fuels. But, if not properly contained and regulated, it can have disastrous consequences. The same can be said of the Labors.

But Oshii’s critique of technology isn’t skin-deep; it doesn’t begin and end at “broken robots,” which is a pretty common mecha trope. Yes, Eiichi Hoba, the “villain” of the film, wants to send humanity a message by programming within the dominant operating system a virus. And that virus, given the proper meteorological conditions, will cause the Labors to go berserk. But technology’s influence is more pernicious, and Oshii’s commentary more complex than that.

Over the course of three gorgeously illustrated montage sequences, Detective Matsui and his partner attempt to follow Eiichi Hoba’s paper trail. These moody scenes, set to Kenji Kawai’s atmospheric soundtrack, highlight the unintended and underexposed consequences of modernization. They ask the question: “Who gets left behind?”

Patlabor Movie Still - A man walks sullenly through a flooded avenue, flanked by buildings on either side.

Matsui wanders the underbelly of Tokyo. The city’s pearly white skyline, punctuated by monolithic high-rises, remains constantly in view. This juxtaposition is purposeful. We see firsthand the absolute squalor and degradation that the city’s impoverished and struggling residents are forced to endure. Streets are strewn with garbage; the stink of sunbaked sewage permeates the streets. Future Tokyo can generate enormous wealth, enough to build thousands and thousands of Labors; their mere existence is biblical. They can conjure land out of the oceans and literally part the seas.

But they cannot help the less fortunate.

For all the bluster and bombast about building a better future— “a prosperous tomorrow for the twenty-first century”—a significant portion of the population will be left behind. Oshii wants to make sure that this glaring contradiction does not go unnoticed. “Let me tell you something,” Matusi tells Commander Goto, “while we were tracking down his past, the feeling of being left behind by a rapid passage of time kept nagging at me.” It’s not just rogue mechs, the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons, that illustrates technology’s more harmful qualities. Oshii weaves the very fabric of reality into his film. Labors signify the harsh economic realities under capitalism, just as much as they signal the potential for a better tomorrow.

Early on in Frankenstein, when Victor is still studying at school, one of his professors takes the doctor-to-be aside and attempts to sway him from his present course. “Learn from me,” this mentor figure remarks, “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Hoba’s warning is much the same. And we never actually meet him. Upon scaling the colossal Ark that sits in the middle of Tokyo Bay, SV2 only finds a command center filled with birds, with no trace of Hoba. This was an incredibly smart decision on Oshii’s part—his prophetic message is not limited to a single man, but rather permeates the entire text. That makes it more powerful, and universal.

But Oshii isn’t a Luddite. On the contrary, like Shelley, he doesn’t believe that humanity should go back to the Stone Age. At one point, Asuma rhetorically asks, “We can’t let the Labors become the bad guys, now can we?” And ultimately, the film doesn’t. Patlabor: The Movie ends on an optimistic note: SV2 Section 2 thwarts the malfunctioning mechs and dismantles the infrastructure Hoba put in place to set his prophecy in motion.

Yet, his warning remains.

Hayao Miyazaki, a close friend of Oshii’s and legendarily critical curmudgeon, picks up these thematic strands in Princess Mononoke (1997). In it, Miyazaki imagines a dramatic confrontation between the industrial world of man and the life-sustaining world of Nature. But, like Oshii, Miyazaki doesn’t come down on one side or the other. Writing on the film, Kristen Abbey points out that “modernity is neither desirable nor escapable, but it is also not evil” (118). And it’s much the same with Patlabor. It doesn’t seek to halt technology’s progress—in fact, it often heralds it. However, it warns us that we must be forever vigilant.

Works Cited

Cavallaro, Dani. The Cinema of Mamoru Oshii: Fantasy, Technology and Politics.

MacFarland & Company, 2006.

Comitini, Patricia. “The Limits of Discourse and the Ideology of Form in Mary Shelley’s

‘Frankenstein.’” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 55, 2006, pp. 179–198.

Kristen L. Abbey. “‘See with Eyes Unclouded’: Mononoke-Hime as the Tragedy of Modernity.”

Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 2, no. 3, 2015, pp. 113–119.

Update, 5/3/2022, 11:42AM EDT: Fixed pronouns for Dani Cavallaro

About the author

Stephen Hero

When Stephen Hero isn’t grading a stack of English papers or soaking up the atmosphere in some dope video game, he’s busy taking notes for Mechinations, his mecha-themed podcast that he cohosts every week.

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