I’ve been a longtime fan of delinquent anime blogosphere bad boys Colony Drop, so when they asked me to contribute to a special zine they were putting together
focused exclusively on Patlabor (the best robot anime ever made), I jumped at the chance – which is to say I procrastinated for about a year and then jumped at the chance.
In any case, the zine is now out, and the short story that closes out the zine was written by me (yes, my first ever published fiction is anime fanfiction, and I’m proud of that). You can buy it here.
The story originally came out of a series of thoughts that had been gradually brewing during a fairly intense period viewing the original TV series in its entirety over just a couple of weeks. The show is rightly praised for being progressive in its equal treatment of women (there are some caveats here perhaps for a sort of over-compensating or even patronising treatment of women as level-headed mother types and men as essentially childish), and the movies in particular convey a worldview that at least addresses progressive concerns about Japanese society. The prism through which I look at the world is a decidedly leftwing one, and the ideological assumptions that underpin science fiction in particular are always something I keep half an eye on.
So watching the Patlabor TV series with the benefit of 20-30 years hindsight, there was a lot happening in the background of those adventures that seemed very much an ideological feature of its era. Patlabor’s tale of a special police unit to deal with crime involving construction robots was a child of Japan’s bubble era construction boom with the vast Tokyo Bay construction project that lay at its core. However, it was also a child of the Berlin Wall’s fall and the Soviet Union’s collapse. It may have pre-dated Clinton, but it was a child of the same post-Soviet political world, where environmental activists were built up by security agencies as a new focus for resources that now had nowhere to go. The series treats these eco-terrorists as comical and misguided, perhaps recognising the spectral nature of their threat, but they still loom large in the show’s pantheon of antagonists.
Another key antagonist is Schaft Enterprises, an evil labor manufacturer from overseas, prone to running inexplicably destructive tests for new combat labors in civilian areas. Here, the Special Vehicles crew, one of whose members is the son of the Japanese industrialist who manufactures the labors the police use, are functioning as the de facto militia of a Japanese labor manufacturer protecting its economic turf from an aggressive foreign rival.
In other episodes, they have a happy jaunt with a Middle-Eastern prince who just loves labors, and a couple of cheerful adventures with a yakuza boss who is also a big fan of labors. The Special Vehicles crew collaborate with both these people to varying degrees, teaching them to use these massive machines with unparalleled destructive potential.
The world we live in now is not the late ‘80s and early ‘90s though. The world we live in now is the post-9/11, post-Fukushima world. How does the world of Patlabor fit into that environment? What does our present environment tell us about the world of Patlabor?
How would the child prince of a small Arabian kingdom use police labors in this world? What consequences could we expect of that, knowing what we do about the politics of the Middle-East?
How would the 2020 Olympics affect the Tokyo Bay construction projects? How would the irresistable pull of money into the capital affect the trickle of resources for the more mundane business of post-tsunami reconstruction?
When government, industry and organised crime have collaborated so shamelessly over the Fukushima nuclear disaster, what role is there left for the police to uphold the law?
My image of Patlabor in the post-Fukushima world is a pretty bleak one, and I felt the ideal central character for a story like this was the show’s overweight, world-weary detective Matsui. A minor character in the series, he often works informally with Goto of Special Vehicles to uncover mysteries and corruption. Despite clearly being very good at his job, he has this aura of a man who knows nothing he does will ever make a difference, but plods ahead anyway (as an organiser in the indie music scene, I relate to him more than perhaps any other character in the show).
The Patlabor movies happen in a different timeline to the TV series and have a very different, much bleaker atmosphere. I tried to keep my story more or less consistent with the events of the TV show, but the tone was lifted from the movies.
In the second Patlabor film, there’s a scene where Matsui cuts his way through a wire fence to break into an airship company’s offices, bemoaning all the laws he’s breaking to do so, but nonetheless well equipped and ready to break all of them. I expanded that wire fence to make it the whole Fukushima evacuation zone, and tried to import the ghostly, unnatural atmosphere of Tarkovsky’s Stalker into Matsui’s escapade.
That was an atmosphere that a lot of us here in Japan felt in the aftermath of the quake, as uncertain, contradictory news from Fukushima filtered through – an unreality creeping through the otherwise calm streets of Tokyo. It’s still there now, although we’ve learned to paper over it and push it from our minds more effectively as we go about our lives. Every night, I still look out of my apartment’s window at the view it offers me of my town, and it looks both reassuringly solid and fragile as glass. It’s there, anchoring me to a place and a community, but it’s also unreal and could be gone in a flash – if not in an earthquake, then in one of the many other, more human eruptions of compulsive destruction that Tokyo likes to wreak upon its people.
One other influence weighed on the writing of this story, which was the 1980s BBC drama Edge of Darkness. There’s a scene near the end, where the powerful players on both sides of the conflict are seen enjoying a lovely meal and drinks together, as the show’s main protagonists push themselves to destruction in order to clean up the mess. There’s nothing like that in my story, but I know something like it was happening somewhere – whatever side they seem to be on, the fuckers are all mates in the end, and it’s the little people who clean up their mess.