Time for another classic. If you’re one of those people who has only seen “modern” anime of the past decade, and are interested to see what the medium was like before the arrival of Evangelion, in the seventies and eighties (and perhaps the early nineties), then my top recommendation isn’t Gundam (at least, not until I’ve seen Zeta Gundam), but instead the very charming series of Mobile Police Patlabor.
The biggest reason for this is that while Mobile Suit Gundam caters for a specific audience, Mobile Police Patlabor seems to have something for nearly everyone: only if you need your series to have harems or slice of life (or gory horror, I guess), then you won’t find what you’re looking for. This series has mecha, it’s got drama, comedy, action, and a bit of romance and horror here and there, all packaged together quite neatly into 47 episodes.
It’s one of those very few series that tries to find a realistic use of mechas: in this series, they’re mostly used for construction and the police only use the mecha in order to solve conflicts for when these mechas go out of control. I’m surprised why I haven’t seen any newer mecha-series taking over the same idea, because it makes perfect sense. The main characters also aren’t anyone special: they’re no heroes whatsoever; they’re just a bunch of policemen who are in charge of these mechas. The epic “saving the country”-themes of the movies don’t return at all in the series, and everything is purposefully kept nice and down-to-earth.
But what really sells this series is its lovable cast of characters. Especially Captain Goto is an incredibly likable and unique character, but the rest of the crew also gets enough opportunities to shine throughout the series. The hot-headed Ota may be a strange character, but you’ll get used to him in no time. Noa, the most central character in this series, is quite likely the most stereotypical of the bunch, with her love for mechas (or labors, as they’re called in this series), great driving skills and naive nature, but she does end up being the most fleshed out and developed character of the entire cast, so she makes up for that.
Patlabor is an episodic series: every episode the crew handles a case (or does something other labor-related), where the focus is more on the characters than on the actual action, though the action itself is also very impressive. You won’t see any overpowered god-mode beams in this series, and fights are almost always based on strategies, rather than senseless bashing (although some characters in the series seem to forget this at times ^^;). The interesting thing is that this series joins Ooedo Rocket on the very short list of series whose dramatic climax isn’t at the end of the series. Instead, there’s just one arc in the series that takes up more than two episodes, with interesting villains and a tense atmosphere, and once that arc is done, the series just continues with episodic stories, and the final episodes instead go for some subtle character-development, instead of trying to end the series with a bang (but then again, with three movies and two OVAs, why should it?)
There aren’t much flaws in this series, but I’d love to have seen a bit more about division one (the division that works right next to the division of the main characters). We see hardly anything about them, with the result that the last episode hastily introduces a vital member of the division from out of nowhere, and acts like he’s been there all along. That was rather confusing.
Nevertheless, if you have the time to watch nearly fifty episodes, and have yet to see the Patlabor Movies and the television series, then I recommend going for the television-series first. The movies had their own excellent points, but it’s the series that brought the cast to life, and the movies clearly assumed that the viewer had already seen the television-series. The highlight of this series is definitely its cast of characters: it works great during the more serious moments of the series, but at the same time some the comedy-episodes are absolutely priceless. The comedy isn’t of the in-your-face type, like most slapsticks, but instead it requires proper build-up to work best. Patlabor may be nearly 20 year old, but it’s smart and it still packs a punch.