n the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak hundreds of millions of people have been ordered to stay home; cities have ground to a standstill as commuters and communities hunker down to prevent further spread of a virulent and vicious disease.Every time I scroll through social media or turn on the television, I’m reminded of what it means to live under quarantine during a global health crisis. Even during a pandemic, though, it’s impossible to escape the odious reach of corporate platitudes. These are “unprecedented and uncertain times…” read a litany of unread emails in my inbox.

It’s a strange feeling. Claustrophobic, sure. But exhausting. I feel the presence of screens more than ever before. All my relationships, be they personal or professional, are now filtered through telecommunication devices which, admittedly, has been beneficial. I can keep in touch with family and friends through social media. I can communicate with my students through virtual platforms. I can even maintain a vigorous podcast schedule in the absence of a studio. In some respects, I’m empowered.

Still, I feel more drained than ever. The constant hum of my computer processor has become the soundtrack of my life. Hourly I bathe in the dull light of LCDs monitors, churning out an ever-increasing stream of information, which has made the process of writing an essay on Patlabor 2 even more surreal.

Still from Patlabor 2, which features a black-haired man sitting in a cluttered office as he stares at a glowing blue screen.

Patlabor: The Movie released in July 1989, at the tail end of a period of unprecedented economic growth known as the Bubble Era. Beginning in the mid-’80s, the Japanese economy expanded rapidly, buoyed by inflated real estate speculation. It was a time of reckless consumerism and heightened wage disparity, but also stark optimism. Japan was culturally and economically ascendant. The first Patlabor film embodies this national mood, exuding a warmth and vitality that its successor largely sheds.

By the time Patlabor 2: The Movie opened in Japanese theaters four years later, much had changed. Japan was in the throes of a deepening recession, a drastic downturn that began at the turn of the decade. Stock value seemingly vanished overnight, as land prices bottomed-out at an astonishing rate, causing the economy to severely contract. Tens of thousands lost their jobs; “factories closed abruptly, investment was cut back sharply, and payrolls were slashed” (Yamaura 292). The weakening economy plunged the country into a psychological depression, which left an indelible mark. Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, which began airing in 1995, perhaps best illustrates this cultural sea change, introducing viewers to a world largely devoid of hope as humanity stood on the precipice of an apocalyptic event.

Like Anno, Oshii channels this malaise, infusing into his film a distinct cynicism and distrust. But to Oshii’s credit, his film’s scope goes beyond national boundaries (for the most part), extending its purview to the human condition at the end of the century. For all its faults, Patlabor 2 is an indisputably prescient work. Oshii uses economic stagnation as a springboard to examine the inertia and vertigo brought about by mass media, subtly criticizing the expanding reach of telecommunications.

In his review, Niels Matthijs writes, “Oshii does very little to mask the philosophical undercurrent of this film.” Brian Ruh, a fellow Oshii critic, also emphasizes Oshii’s intellectual predilections. Considering the dearth of scholarship focused on the mecha genre, Oshii’s Patlabor projects have garnered a remarkable amount of academic attention. Critics have cited Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard, two twentieth century French philosophers, as potential inspiration. But arguably no writer better compliments the second Patlabor film than Paul Virlio.

Virilio dedicated his life to exploring the contradictions that plague modernity. He argues that human development can best be measured not through ideological evolutions or demographic shifts, but in the revolutionizing of speed. He laments humanity’s insistent drive to move more quickly: faster cars, faster internet speeds, faster methods of communication. “Alongside air pollution, water pollution,” Virilio writes, “there exists the unnoticed phenomenon of pollution of the world’s dimensions that I propose to call dromospheric—from dromos: a race, running” (22). Instead of enabling individuals to lead more fulfilling lives, technology devitalizes; it dulls the senses and dilutes creativity. It is precisely this “inertia” that Oshii explores.

This sense of stasis can be felt immediately at the start of Patlabor 2, which opens deep in a Cambodian rainforest. There, a squadron of Japanese soldiers, part of a United Nations PKO mission, encounter hostile forces. The squad urgently contacts their commander, requesting permission to engage, but are emphatically denied. “Repeat, do not engage.” The pilots are wracked by indecision until, one-by-one, each unit is eliminated. Yukihito Tsuge, the last surviving soldier and the film’s “villain,” watches helplessly as a missile collides with his tank. Oshii uses the “image of a cockpit…filled with monitors” to highlight an acute numbness brought about by technology. “Can you really feel that your life is actually in danger,” Oshii pondered in a later interview, “in a situation where you are surrounded by such secondary information[?]”

Still from Patlabor 2, which features three robots standing amind a flurry of chaff and smoke trails

Before that question can linger, the film jumps three years into the future. Noa Izumi and Asuma Shinohara, two officers of the SV2 police unit who previously helped avert a city-wide disaster, have since transferred to an R&D division. No longer in the field, they spend their time testing new Labor models and fine-tuning L.O.S, a proprietary Labor operating system that is nearly out of beta.

Oshii reintroduces the couple working in close quarters: Noa, ensconced within a functioning prototype, controls a stationary Labor, while Asuma, surrounded by monitors, reviews the data. All the while, an eerie sense of unreality and claustrophobia permeates the scene. In order to properly mimic actual movement Noa must interact with a virtual reality interface, and in so doing tours a computer-generated duplication of Tokyo, complete with pixelated commuters and office buildings. But for as liberating as technology can be, Noa remains unable to affect actual change. In a sense, this could be perceived as a step backward for the formerly energetic pilot, now relegated to a quasi-passive state. Similarly, the digital readouts of Asuma’s computer screens exert an almost hypnotic influence. Like the battle-scarred Tsuge, these two companions become desensitized to the outside world, cocooned within the comforting embrace of a computerized illusion.

Still from Patlabor 2, which features a close-up of someone's eyes as they stare at a floating screen

Virilo, unnerved with the perceived progress unfolding around him, laments that “human vision is being confiscated by technologies in which man is controlled by the machine” (93). Most of Virilio’s books focus on technology’s more pernicious qualities, but he is arguably at his most insightful in Open Sky, in which he tackles the “perceptual disorder now afflicting our society” (35). While his prose does occasionally suffer from the pseudo-intellectual tendencies that so often alienate readers from academic writing, he has a point. Technology, despite its intended benefits, has radically altered human existence.

Using the language of a simple excursion, Virillio attempts to make his point as clearly as possible. In the distant past, to get somewhere one had to walk. These journeys took time, but were meaningful — they spurred creative growth and cemented a sense of personal accomplishment. Indeed, his argument can partly be reduced to the timeworn adage: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

But being a cliché makes it no less true.

Of course, humanity was never content with walking. History is a series of progressive leaps into the unknown. With such industrial innovations as the steam powered locomotive — trailed later by the automobile and airplane — people were able to move greater distances at faster speeds. On the surface, this seems like a net positive. But Virillio mourns the prioritization of “departure” and “arrival” at the expense of the “journey” and its effects on the collective psyche. “With the instantaneous transmission revolution,” Virilio writes, “it is the departure that gets wiped out and arrival that gets promoted” (56).

Today, telecommunication substructures span the globe: deep-sea cables line ocean beds, telephone wires crisscross skylines, and radio signals zip through space. A host of competing infrastructures exist for the sole purpose of eliminating distances and making our lives “easier.” People have the world at their fingertips; at a keystroke, an infinite number of possibilities await any would-be explorer. Housing an abundance of information, the internet chronicles what seems like the entirety of human existence and connects individuals over immense distances. The shared tonnage of data shared digitally in one hour’s time dwarfs the capability of a single adult to consume that data within their own lifetime.

But this accessibility comes at a significant cost, through the “unperceived pollution of distances” (40). Humanity is now beholden to the “image,” augmented tenfold on television screens and social media platforms. It has become more than a distraction — it is a hindrance. The constant stream of information produced and then reproduced on 24-hour news networks, Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, Twitch chats, Zoom conferences, text message chains, email threads, and forum posts generates a multiplying amount of anxiety. Virilio calls this phenomenon the “perpetual present of real-time technologies,” when communication tools inflate the present moment — often replayed ad infinitum on screens — to the physical and mental detriment of viewers.

Still from Patlabor 2, which features a red-haired newscaster staring at the camera. The words "Bay Bridge Bombed?" are projected to the left of her.

It is this “eternal present” that Yukihito Tsuge manipulates to send a message to Japan. Like Eiichi Hoba, his prophetic predecessor, Tsuge is deeply uneasy with his country in the new millennium. Tsgue manipulates news broadcasts and surveillance systems to orchestrate a campaign of misinformation. He pits the JDSF, the police force, and the American military against each other to create “a staged military spectacle.”

In effect, Tsgue wants to shatter the illusion of peace within postwar Japan. Like many Western countries in the latter half of the twentieth century, Japan benefited immensely from globalization. Products and information, on an unprecedented scale, began to circumnavigate the globe at unheard of speeds. National corporations and international conglomerates exploited the labor of the Global South to churn out computer processors, cell phones, and electronic devices, luxuries that mask the original sin of their creation.

Despite the veneer of peace, global prosperity relies on violence and exploitation. Shigeki Arakawa, an intelligence agent who is trying to thwart Tsgue’s ambitions, puts his finger on the pulse: “Our economic prosperity is based on demand created by those wars… that’s the stuff our peace is made of.” This “unjust peace” would not be possible without the distracting and numbing influence of televisions, computers, phones, etc. We, the beneficiaries of global trade, are inundated and comforted by news reports and commercials that peddle a vision of an equitable and peaceful world. “We banish war to a realm beyond the TV screen,” Arakawa points out, “forgetting that…we ourselves are on the rear lines of battle.”

In arguably the film’s most iconic scene, as troops spill into the streets of Tokyo, martial law takes effect. Despite this, normalcy soon resumes. Oshii juxtaposes images of rolling tanks with coffee-fueled commuters; stone-faced infantry men with ecstatic schoolchildren. The daily routines of commerce and consumption blend troublingly well with military force. But that’s the point. Through this dichotomy, Oshii highlights the cycles of violence that prop up the material excesses we take for granted. Like Virilio warns, there’s a clear “split in the representation of the World and…reality” (44).

Still from Patlabor 2, which features a class of grade schoolers who watch a massive mobile tank.

But despite occasional genius, Oshii doesn’t completely stick the landing.

To its detriment, Patlabor 2 advances an oddly nationalistic message. Tsgue upends the status quo to reawaken Japan from its postwar slumber and revitalize a stagnant military. Michael Fisch notes that “the film’s manner of presenting its critique slides all too easily into a rhetorical framework of fervent nationalism” (66). This unfortunately blunts its philosophical critique. The film excels in the general abstraction of human life at the dawn of a new age, but debases itself by commenting on more local concerns. Critics disagree as to the weight viewers should attach to this potentially jingoistic messaging, whether it functions as window-dressing or if it represents more baked-in ideals. Nonetheless, it’s dissonant.

Even with this mixed messaging, Oshii’s final Patlabor film remains deeply relevant. With humanity’s increasing reliance on technology to facilitate communication, desensitizing individuals from the world around them, it’s themes are potentially evergreen. Living on the precipice of ecological catastrophe, Oshii—and Virilio—reminds us to take a walk, and maybe put down your phone.

Works Cited

  • Yamamura, Kozo. “The Japanese Political Economy after the ‘Bubble’: Plus Ca Change?” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1997, pp. 291–331.
  • Matthijs, Niels. “PATLABOR 2 (Personal Favorites) Review.” ScreenAnarchy, 28 Sept. 2011, screenanarchy.com/2011/09/patlabor-2-personal-favorites-review.html.
  • Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Translated by Julie Rose. London: Verso, 1997
  • Oshii, Mamoru. “Around the Movie Patlabor 2: To Put an End to the Era.” Translated by Ryoko Toyama. Armitage, vol. 184; October, 1993.
  • Fisch, Michael. “Nation, War, and Japan’s Future in the Science Fiction ‘Anime’ Film ‘Patlabor II.’” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 2000, pp. 49–68.