Science Fiction Studies

#88 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002

Christopher Bolton

The Mecha’s Blind Spot: Patlabor 2 and the Phenomenology of Anime

In the opening sequence of Oshii Mamoru’s animated film Kidô keisatsu patoreibaa (1989,  Patlabor 1, 1995), a small army of men and machines hunts down an elusive quarry; but what they finally capture is an absence that lies at the heart of the film’s fears. The hunters are a mixed group of soldiers, tanks, and the “labors” of the film’s title—giant human-shaped robots with living pilots. Their target is a rogue labor, but when they finally capture it and open its hatch to apprehend the pilot, they find only an empty cockpit. The labor is unmanned.

The scene encapsulates the central threat in the film, which is the fear that these robotic tools will turn rogue, rising up without pilots and rampaging en masse. But it also has added significance. The more frightening threat implied in Patlabor 1 and its sequel Kidô keisatsu patoreibaa 2 (1993, Patlabor 2, 1995) is that the labors are images of us, human-machine hybrids that have lost all humanity, increasingly technologized bodies that turn out to be empty shells.

As Susan Napier has shown for similar anime, these giant mechanical puppets carrying tiny human souls are an evocative metaphor for the ways that technology magnifies the body’s reach and power, but also changes what the body is. They are “simultaneously appealing and threatening, offering power and excitement at the expense of humanity” (88). Napier’s discussion focuses on the mecha’s outward physiognomy and bodily topology, but one of the most prominent figures for this trade-off in Patlabor 2 is the trope of vision and mediated vision. The labor pilots and virtually everyone else view the world magnified and filtered by sensors, displayed on screens, enhanced and often distorted by electronics. The motif of an enhanced vision that has its own blind spots is made to reflect the trade-offs between technological amplification of bodily experience and a progressive alienation from our original bodies, threatening dehumanization. The primary goal of this paper is to trace this motif of dehumanization through Patlabor 2 with reference to Vivian Sobchack’s ideas about mediated experience and virtual reality.

The technologically-mediated experience represented by the labors is an extreme fantasy, but Oshii’s film also addresses milder examples much closer to hand—for example, the idea of the mass media as the most thorough and pervasive electronic filter for experience. The issue of the mass media is in fact much closer to the heart of the film than the crisis of a literally robotic body. Of course, this raises the question of whether Oshii’s anime, itself part of a high-tech genre and the popular media, can effectively critique the milieu from which it arises. The concluding part of this paper argues that we can see such a critique in Oshii’s work, but not without some attention to the nature of representation in anime. I will address this by taking a closer look at Sobchack’s phenomenology of electronic and cinematic experience, and applying it to Oshii’s film to examine what kind of vision might be constituted by anime.

Screening Reality. The trope of a body that is both enhanced and invaded by technology is a staple in anime. It is also an idea that has attracted the interest of literary critics, a number of whom have seen human-machine hybrids in a range of texts as figures that embody or solve the dilemmas we face in our increasingly electronic and virtual culture. Among the most influential of this work is, of course, Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminism, which suggests the cyborg as a figure whose hybrid nature—both human and machine—promises a way to overcome the enforced and ultimately limiting categories of biology, race, and gender.

It is in this context that Oshii first attracted the attention of North American critics, with his 1995 film Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku kidotai), an evocative and sophisticated visual exploration of body, gender, and technology. (See Napier 103-16, Silvio 54-72, and Orbaugh 436-52 in this issue.) Like Haraway’s theoretical cyborg, the cyborg heroine of Oshii’s film possesses a body in which technology and biology are united so intimately that she can no longer separate the human from the artificial. Her super-body boasts the exaggerated female proportions common to many anime heroines, but she regards it with carelessness or disdain, as a container or a machine. The film follows her lead, dehumanizing her form until it becomes a thing; but arguably this act of objectification also strikes a blow against the same constructed essentialisms that Haraway is trying to combat—human versus inhuman, organic versus artificial, female versus male.

The bodies in the Patlabor series belong to a different tradition of mechanical bodies in anime, the “mecha” or “mobile suits.” These towering humanoid robots piloted by human operators have occupied a place in anime for over thirty years, from Majingaa Z (Mazinger Z) in the 1970s and later staples like Gandamu (1979-, Gandamu) and Makurosu (1982-, Macross) to the recent commercial and critical phenomenon Shin seiki Evangelion (1995-98, Neon Genesis Evangelion) (see Schodt 73-90, Napier 87).


In the Patlabor series,1 the labors were originally developed to be the heavy military and construction equipment of the twenty-first century. The power of the machines made them dangerous in criminal hands, giving rise to a new category of labor-based crime. As a result, the police force has formed a “special vehicles division”—the “labor patrol” of the title—whose officers pilot labors of their own in order to fight labor-related crimes.

In particular, the human shape of the labors allows them to be regarded as extensions of the human body (figure 1) in a fantasy of bodily magnification or augmentation that is not unlike the cyborg, although in the Patlabor series, the confusion of human and machine appears less profound. The cyborg’s body incorporates and internalizes technology so thoroughly that the machinery can no longer be removed; but the mecha are vehicles that are ultimately distinct from their pilots, mobile suits that the humans can take off at the end of the day. Indeed, much of the two films revolves around the interactions of the human characters, who spend most of the story outside these machines.2

Nevertheless, one can detect in the very scarcity of labor scenes some anxiety about undue mixing, and particularly a fear that if the humans remain too long in their machines, they may not be able to leave them. In Patlabor 2, this is played out as a feeling of claustrophobia or confinement in the labor scenes that goes hand in hand with the bodily amplification and empowerment. There is a quality of sensory deprivation inside these dark, quiet machines, as if the pilots were blindfolded. Even with the labor’s advanced sensors—laser scanners, infrared imaging, radio communications, and night vision are all prominently depicted—the pilot and the film’s viewer never quite connect with what is going on outside. As the spectator and pilot have their senses and sense of self cut off, the effect is like John Perry Barlow’s famous description of early virtual reality: “It’s like having had your everything amputated.”

In the film, the labor’s blind spots become the central figure for the trade-offs of the technological body. Oshii makes the point that while these electro-mechanical projections extend human awareness, sensation, and experience into new dimensions, they also insulate us in other ways, cutting us off from more immediate sensations. Consider, for example, the first scene of Patlabor 2, and the way it contrasts with the empty labor that begins Patlabor 1. The second film opens with a United Nations military mission somewhere in southeast Asia. A group of experimental Japanese military labors is on United Nations military maneuvers under the command of Japan’s top labor engineer and tactician, Tsuge Yukihito. When Tsuge’s group is cut off and threatened by advancing enemy troops, headquarters denies Tsuge permission to attack, telling him to wait for reinforcements. But the enemy attacks first, and Tsuge must watch helplessly as his force is wiped out.

It is this disaster that twists Tsuge into the noble villain of the story, but the horror of the battle is figured largely as Tsuge’s removal from the action, or rather as the gap between the violence on the battlefield and the sensory deprivation he experiences inside his labor as he watches the fight on his monitors.

Tsuge watches the enemy troops advance toward his position on a screen whose image fills the movie screen; we never see them directly, but the animation shows an intricate computer display that paints their heat signatures

against a green background while zooming in on them in a series of complicated visual operations (figure 2). Just as we cannot see the enemy in the flesh, Tsuge’s face is concealed by his helmet visor, with two small mechanical lenses taking the place of his eyes. But when a wave of incoming enemy rockets appears on his monitor, Tsuge’s fear is signaled by the dilation of these lenses, a mechanical analog of wide-eyed shock


As the rockets strike Tsuge’s group, the bipedal labors double over and fall like human figures, more human in fact than the immobile pilots inside their cockpits. Throughout the scene, the film cuts back and forth between the noise and carnage outside, and the dark interior and cool green displays that are all that Tsuge can see. Over the radio he hears the anguished cries of his men screaming “Captain!” But the sounds are distant and distorted, filtered through layers of static.

When one panicked pilot realizes his labor is about to be destroyed and screams “I can’t eject!” he voices the fears of the whole scene and eventually the whole film: that the humans will be permanently trapped inside their mechanical shells. The opening scene of Patlabor 1 might indicate the next step, when the human pilot has become totally absorbed, leaving only an empty chair—a point at which the human-machine hybrid we have become retains no inward or outward human traces at all.

This opening scene is followed by a credits sequence that shows a labor pilot in a virtual training exercise, and the same elements are featured: the goggled pilot, the labor’s cameras, and the cockpit displays that show a flickering virtual world (figure 3). From this opening, the film goes on to become entirely dominated by these kinds of images.



Vivian Sobchack has described the fear of insulation and absorption as a defining quality of electronically mediated experience. Drawing on Don Ihde’s phenomenology of technology, Sobchack characterizes this as the inevitable disappointment of our impossible desire for a powerful but fully transparent technological body, one that projects us into new dimensions without changing the nature of bodily experience. Sobchack’s observations come in a series of articles on the now defunct cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000 and similar

rhetoric surrounding the Internet and other early virtual realities.3 On the surface, this rhetoric professes excitement at the possibility of expanding experience by freeing users from the constraints of the body; but beneath this excitement Sobchack finds a reluctance to imagine any kind of experience beyond everyday physical bodily sensations. Users want to project their bodies further and faster across the net, but they want the same kinds of experiences they are accustomed to at home. Hence the focus on fantasies of virtual sex—not on new kinds of experience, but simply old experiences accomplished by remote control. Clearly there are parallels with Oshii’s giant robots. Implausibly shaped just like human beings, they represent the same kind of technological fantasy, the desire to magnify the body yet keep it as it is.

While cybersex and fantasies of virtual reality frequently revolve around transmitting the sense of touch, Sobchack’s other work (treated in more detail below) identifies the sense of sight as uniquely implicated in constituting the sense of self; the sense of sight is also subject to the most thorough and complicated mediation in electronic culture. In Screening Space, her survey of sf cinema, Sobchack argues that the prevalence of computer readouts and computer graphics in films from Tron (1982) to Wargames (1983) expresses the threat of dehumanization. Citing Fredric Jameson’s idea of a flattened postmodern space linked to a flattened affect or a loss of psychological depth, Sobchack writes:

In these films and others, the “deep” and indexical space of cinematographic representation is deflated—punctured and punctuated by the superficial and iconic space of electronic simulation.... Indeed, only superficial beings without “psyche,” without depth, can successfully maneuver in a space that exists solely to display. (256-57)

In one sense Patlabor 2 clearly expresses a similar fear of dehumanization in its images of labor pilots who are unable to see outside except through electronic screens. But as we examine both Sobchack’s ideas and the film’s images in more detail, we will see that there are other ways of screening reality in the film that are even more frightening.

A Shooting War or a Shooting Script? Released after the 1991 Gulf War, Patlabor 2 inverts the idea of video-game war and its easy, remote-control kills. Instead of watching doomed, distant targets through the cross-hairs of long-range weapons, the characters watch their own mechanical bodies and the destruction of those bodies on screens that nevertheless render these things queerly remote. Asked why Tsuge does not ignore his orders and fire on the enemy, Oshii suggested that it is partly because he cannot feel any sense of danger from what transpires on his screens (Oshii and Miyazaki 83).

The remainder of Patlabor 2 repeats this same motif on a larger canvas: it revolves around Tsuge’s plot, three years later, to force Japanese politics to emerge from its own shell. While postwar Japan has not intervened militarily in foreign conflicts—presumably it is to preserve this policy that Tsuge is forbidden to fire in the opening scene—the country has reaped the economic and political benefits of the American wars it has supported. Patlabor 2 draws a connection between the labor pilots watching the battles on their monitors and the Japanese nation insulated from the realities of the proxy wars it prosecutes. Tsuge’s one-time accomplice Arakawa describes this national insulation using the metaphor of the display screen:

We reap the fruits of these conflicts, prosecuting the wars that rage on the other side of our monitors, forgetting that we are standing just behind the front lines. Or pretending to forget. Someday we’ll be punished for our lies.4

Tsuge upsets this complacency by staging a series of attacks that heighten political tensions—first a cruise-missile attack on the Yokohama Bay Bridge, then an invasion of Japanese airspace by a phantom plane. By playing the police, the military, and the United States against one another, Tsuge’s plan provokes a declaration of martial law that leads to the presence of troops in the streets of Tokyo and sets the stage for a new war on Tsuge’s own terms.

What are the terms of Tsuge’s war? Arakawa describes the plan as an effort to strip away Japan’s insulation and bring the Japanese close to conflicts that they are accustomed to seeing only on television, if at all. Tsuge, he says, will start “a genuine war that will make up for this passive, empty peace.”

Some critics have taken Arakawa’s words as the heart of the film, and have seen in Tsuge’s plot a decisive, if violent, act that pierces the veil of illusion and mediation, in Ihiroi Takashi’s words, an act that finally “closes the distance” between the formerly insulated self and the world (165). Writing in an earlier issue of Science Fiction Studies, Michael Fisch treats Tsuge’s operation as a real war (and at the same time a replay of World War II) that shatters Japan’s political illusions, awakening it to the real possibility of its own destruction and pushing the film’s characters and viewers toward a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy, justified as self-protection. Fisch treats Oshii’s fantasy as a vehicle for speculation, but he chooses not to deal with questions of mediation and representation in the film, instead relating it directly to the Japanese political situation in 1993, and particularly the controversy over participation of Japanese troops in such UN military operations as the Gulf War.

In Fisch’s article, the relevance of the film is located in its relationship to real-world events, and the film itself is said to emphasize the realities of war and geopolitics. This political background is useful, and along the way Fisch gives some illuminating readings of Oshii’s portrayal of America. But this kind of reading is somewhat unsatisfying in its efforts to see the film as a more or less straightforward media representation of an outside political reality, without any attention to the issues of representation and mediation itself, issues that the film raises over and over in its imagery and plot.

Noda Makoto gives more attention to the radically mediated and virtual quality of experience and perception in Patlabor 2, seeing these features in all of Oshii’s early films. He acknowledges “Tokyo’s condition of isolation, as a city unable to escape the chains of media and technology” (77). But even Noda sides with the Arakawa character in seeing Tsuge as a figure whose commitment is able to punch through this fiction in the end. In fact, Noda views Patlabor 2 as a turning point in Oshii’s work because, he says, its characters are actually able to escape the shells of their individual virtual realities and join with others in a real world (76-89).

I would argue that neither of these readings is very helpful in seeing the real (or rather unreal) nature of Tsuge’s plot, in particular the way Tsuge wages his war against the media itself. This is not the shooting war that Arakawa and Fisch posit, but a kind of scripted action, an illusory war conducted in and on the media, discourses that only indirectly reflect what is occurring “on the other side of our monitors.” By relating the sensory deprivation inside the labors and the idea of a war that does not register on the screens of everyday life, Oshii takes aim at a broader target, the way that electronic sensation and communication distance us from reality, whether in the labor or in modern society. As Arakawa says in a more revealing moment, when asked what god will dole out the “punishment for our lies”: “In this city everyone is like a god. Omniscient, all seeing, but unable to touch any of it from where they sit—gods who never lift a finger.”

However, since Tsuge’s attack on virtual reality is itself virtual (in ways that we will see), it raises the question of how effectively representation can critique representation, or mass media critique itself. While these are slippery questions, I believe that they are among the most interesting and important ones the film raises, because they also relate to the issue of how an animated film, a product of the mass media itself, can stage a media or political critique. At its heart, this is the question of how this medium is experienced—the phenomenology of watching anime—as well as of whether and how it can be read: as an intentional or unintentional political statement, a reflection of cultural anxieties, or any of the other cultural phenomena that critics have taken it to be. Certainly one might raise similar questions for any of the pop culture texts that cultural studies has taken up. But since animation’s mode of representation is qualitatively different from that of the written texts and live-action films we are accustomed to dealing with, these queries have a particular urgency.

Tsuge’s war is virtual in the sense that it is conducted almost entirely in and on language—an action designed to co-opt and then disrupt the media and mediation that make discourses of war and peace possible. His plot proceeds as follows: after a few carefully staged violent incidents have raised tensions and provoked a domestic power struggle, martial law is declared, and Tokyo waits tensely for an all-out conflict. At this point Tsuge’s forces lead a series of surgical strikes on the city’s bridges and communication facilities. While the communication grid goes down, powerful jamming disrupts radio communication, figured in the film by an evocative sound track, which features static interspersed with garbled bits of speech. At the same time, Tsuge launches a series of doomsday weapons, in the form of giant unmanned blimps that function by remote control. When the authorities try to disable one of these airships, it crash lands and releases a cloud of yellow gas that envelops several blocks of downtown. After an initial panic, the gas is revealed to be harmless, but the authorities learn that the blimps are capable of releasing real toxins as well, and they realize that Tsuge now holds the city hostage.


Each of these strategies—the feints, the jamming, the gas scare—is designed not to wreak physical destruction but to create the appearance and the perception of war. Tsuge’s operations are rhetorical, both in the sense of being symbolic acts of destruction and in the sense of acting mainly through language and image. So even before the blimps rise into the air above Tokyo, the image of war has been created. In fact, the declaration of martial law midway through the film is Tsuge’s real victory, for he has achieved a state of war without an actual war. The long, mournful montage of troops taking up their positions is the visual and emotional center of the film, and the role of media representation is highlighted by the way the troops are shown reflected in various other media. We witness the maneuvers on televisions in a store window; we hear reports on a series of radios; we see troops and tanks in a bystander’s snapshot, or elaborately reflected in the glass windows of Tokyo’s skyscrapers (figure 4). At this point the viewer knows that whatever comes later, Tsuge has already won the war of words—and images.

Gotô, the labor-squad police captain who is battling to foil Tsuge, says that Tsuge’s plot is about “constructing a state of war. Or rather, producing a ‘wartime’ on the stage of Tokyo.” Answering Arakawa’s theory about a real war to expose the fake peace, Gotô counters:

Arakawa-san,what you said about fraudulent peace and real war was interesting. But if you’re right that this city’s peace is a lie, the war Tsuge has created is a lie as well.

Ueno Toshiya is one critic who has analyzed the film with attention to these issues of representation and media, as well as to the issues of bodily alienation and dehumanization with which we began. Ueno’s increasingly canonical book on mecha anime, Kurenai no metaru sûtsu (1998, Metalsuits in Red: Wars in Animation), contains a memorable formulation for comparison between the labors and the larger situation in society: both the city and its residents, he says, are suited up. As labor-assisted construction projects refit Tokyo, weaving it a new networked skin, the city is also a suit that its residents put on:

This invisible city is becoming a suit or a machine itself. The city is a suit that its residents get into; a “media suit” that makes communication (im)possible. This is the expansion of the invisible domain. (38)

“Invisibility” is Ueno’s term for the insidious confusion of media society and its multiple images, a confusion the Tsuge exacerbates and exploits. One kind of invisibility results from the profusion of images in electronics and the media, to the point where the distinction between reality and simulation becomes meaningless. (And here Ueno lists many of the same examples of screens and images already given above.) The political situation in the film is analogous, with the reversible discourses of vision and power, as well as the shifting circumstances of politics, producing a battlefield on which the enemy is always invisible or unknown, and the good guys are indistinguishable from the villains. Hence the film’s confusing plot, in which the identities of Tsuge’s plotters are never really certain, even at the end (Ueno 41-45, 50-57).

For Ueno, neither reality nor simulation emerges as dominant in Patlabor 2. The film is not a critique of the way the media undermines and alters a stable reality, nor is it a celebration of the simulacrum that sweeps reality under the rug. Material reality emerges, but only “from within the folds of multi-dimensional fiction” (44). The film can only force us to reflect on the ways that technology changes our perceptions and our society, even if we cannot escape those changes. The film’s characters battle to bring these changes to our attention, Tsuge by accelerating them and Gotô by arresting them. But both characters are fighting a losing “rear-guard action” (64), because they themselves are caught up in the networks of data and of power that facilitate these changes (40-45, 55-64).

Ueno’s interpretation is helpful in foregrounding the issue of representation in the film, and his conclusion is a safely familiar one in media theory, at least for works such as Oshii’s that seem to reflect on their own methods of representation. But I would contend that Patlabor 2 is not as relativist as Ueno suggests. The film still maintains a strong dichotomy between insides and outsides, the claustrophobia of the labor clearly juxtaposed with less mediated kinds of views. And the film does hold out a conservative hope for a more authentic or less mediated kind of experience than Ueno admits, even though Tsuge never entirely conquers the virtual, as Noda suggests. The way the film balances the real and the mediated allows for a more direct and nuanced critique of the mass media than either critic admits.

My reading of the film declines Ueno’s “invisibility” and its associations with the epistemologically undecidable or unknowable, opting instead for the metaphor of an obstacle to vision that insulates us from an outside reality without rendering that reality irrelevant, an obstacle that can be partially if never totally overcome. It is not a blindfold that Tsuge can rip off us (as Noda might argue), but more like a blind spot: a hidden point in a view that is otherwise unimpaired. It may be large or small. It may be consciously sensed (like the area outside the range of our rear-view mirrors) or unconsciously missed (the rodless, coneless region on our retina that invisibly swallows up details). It moves. Sometimes it can be overcome by looking in a different direction, and sometimes not. Like the space “on the other side of our monitors,” it is a shifting area that always is in our view, but that we do not notice or cannot see.

The Machine’s Blind Spot. To understand how Tsuge and Oshii direct our attention to our own blind spots, consider an incident that begins when Japanese defense radar picks up an unidentified warplane moving on an attack course toward Tokyo—a plane that turns out to be a computer ghost the plotters create by hacking into the defense net. The fact that the intruding plane is an electronic hallucination that will never really be found emphasizes the idea that all these augmented senses have blind spots of their own, and that they sometimes conceal more of the world than they reveal.

The action alternates between the air over Tokyo, where the pilots of the intercept fighters search fruitlessly for the intruder, and various defense control centers, where operators in darkened rooms plot the course of the phantom plane on a series of computerized displays. Screens dominate the latter: we see technicians standing in front of monitors or silhouetted against them, their faces reflected in the glass or lit from below by readouts, their eyeglasses flashing in the screens’ reflected light (figure 5).

The audio in the scene portrays the humans as buried under layers of technology. This is emphasized by the static-laden radio dialogue between the pilots and their controllers, so garbled that it requires subtitles.5 As in the southeast Asian scene, the communications become more frantic as the situation escalates, but the static renders it remote.


In one of the interceptor planes, we watch the outside world from the pilot’s point of view, through the heads-up display (HUD) in the plane’s cockpit. The HUD is a device in use on real fighters today, a clear pane of glass in front of the pilot on which luminous instrumental readings are projected. A high-tech gun sight and more, it allows the pilot to see the sky in front of the plane through the glass, but with an overlay of digital information about the plane’s course, speed, and weapons. This technology is duplicated in the labors by the graphic overlays that appear in the pilots’ helmet visors. It is the literal incarnation of what Sobchack and Ihde identify as the sought-after “transparent” technology, one that allows us to see in the same way, only more.

But the fact that this technology does transform its users is symbolically indicated by shots of one pilot from a viewpoint outside his plane; we must look back through the HUD so that the digital readouts now appear superimposed (in mirror image) on the pilot’s face (figure 6). The same shot is used in the controlroom sequence, where we gaze down at the operators from a position behind the wall-mounted display screens. The screens appear partly transparent to us, allowing us to see the operators, who appear behind the reversed readouts. This kind of shot is repeated throughout the film; again and again we see the characters through semi-transparent display screens, visors, and eyeglasses that flash with digital information. These shots force the spectator to look through this technology just as the characters do, and also become a central image in the film supporting the idea that, however transparent the technology, however subtle its mediation, it nevertheless alters us and our view


The clear sense in these scenes—of technology interposing itself between humans and an external world—argues against Ueno’s characterization of “simulacra generated kaleidoscopically … with each successive repetition having a material reality” of its own (44). So too does Tsuge’s final solution, which is not to multiply depictions further, but to cut off communication altogether.

Tsuge accomplishes this with radio jamming and a series of pinpoint attacks carried out by saboteurs and helicopter gunships, attacks that destroy the city’s bridges, communication lines, antennae arrays, and command centers but leave everything else untouched. There is considerable footage of exploding targets, but the only casualty is communication. We never see a human injured, but there are pointed scenes of TVs and radios helplessly bleeding static into the air. As Gotô surmises when the jamming begins, “Cutting off information, causing confusion—that’s not the means, but the end.” Tsuge puts all of Tokyo in the situation he experienced inside his labor, blind and cut off, and so urges citizens to shed their electronic shells, just as he must emerge from his ruined labor after the battle in the opening scene.

Tsuge is opposed by Gotô and other members of the police force’s special vehicles division, including his coldly beautiful co-captain, Nagumo, who is also Tsuge’s ex-lover. Gotô and Nagumo eventually foil Tsuge’s plans, but in failing, Tsuge succeeds. In order to triumph, the good guys must essentially heed Tsuge’s warning, opening their eyes and reclaiming their own senses from the machines; in the end, they too must emerge from their suits in order to defeat him. Ironically though, their victory lifts the jamming and reinstates the very mediated communication that Tsuge had momentarily suspended and that they had momentarily been forced to surrender.

Tsuge’s defeat is staged as a climactic battle between good and bad labors that makes the sensory shortcomings of both sides apparent. Gotô and Nagumo have tracked Tsuge to a spot of reclaimed land in Tokyo harbor, where he is controlling the blimps and the jamming. The only path of attack is through a narrow underwater tunnel guarded by Tsuge’s own labors, a pair of advanced “Ekstor” models. The Ekstors represent the apex of mediated experience in that they are unmanned, controlled by remote operators via radio and cable. Their automation and inhumanity are signaled not only by their inhuman, crab-like shape, but by their eyes, glowing red sensors that wink mechanically on and off.

The Ekstors are eventually defeated by cutting their remote control cables and then blocking the radio signals from their human operators, in effect turning Tsuge’s jamming strategy against his own machines. In order for the police forces to see through their own electronic countermeasures, they must abandon their labors’ special sensors and use their naked eyes. When Nagumo activates the jamming, her labor’s electronic displays dissolve into static, while her face, hidden until now, is revealed. She turns off her now useless data-visor, and her pilot’s chair rises on elevators out of the labor’s stomach cockpit so that she can see outside. As she joins the battle, her face is framed in the window of the machine’s giant head, stressing the human heart or soul at the core of the good labors, in contrast to Tsuge’s soulless Ekstors and unmanned airships.

The Ekstors are only narrowly defeated, and when Nagumo’s labor rises to the surface of the reclaimed island on a freight elevator, it is a ruined hulk, hunched and still. Nagumo ejects in a mechanically intricate operation in which the labor’s abdomen blows off explosively and she jumps out from between its legs in a cloud of smoke—as if the labor is giving birth to the human. Her arrival startles a group of seagulls on the island into flight, one scene among several in which animals (particularly dogs and birds) are shown to possess the acute, unmediated senses that humans lack. Having shed her steel skin, Nagumo now enters that unmediated world. She dramatically doffs her visor and helmet, and goes to meet Tsuge face to face.

For most of the film, Tsuge has remained unseen. Like the incidents he stages, he is a ghost onto which other characters map their fears and expectations. Now Nagumo finds him staring at the city across the bay through binoculars. For the first time, he speaks at length:

From here the city looks just like a mirage, doesn’t it? … Three years ago when I returned to Tokyo, I lived in the midst of that illusion. And I tried to tell people it was an illusion. In the end, no one noticed until the first shot rang out. Even now, maybe they don’t.

We then see the city, shimmering in the distance. To this point the film has taken every opportunity to look through instruments like the binoculars, forcing mediated views on the spectator. But now for the first time it refuses us this augmented vision, and we see the city as Nagumo sees it, with her naked eyes. She presses her physical reality upon Tsuge:

Even if it is an illusion, there are people there living it as real life. Or are those people ghosts to you too? … The woman standing in front of you now is no phantom.

As Nagumo places the cuffs on her former lover, a lingering close-up shows them clasping hands in a briefly intimate gesture. She has not only opened her eyes and shed her metal skin, but forced Tsuge to accept the real world outside simulation. In the final scene, when a policeman asks Tsuge why he allowed himself to be captured alive, Tsuge takes off his glasses (a last layer of mediation) and admits that he wants to stay and “see a little more” of the city’s future. Apparently the real, physical world of humanity has triumphed over the mechanical, mediated existence. At least this is the conclusion of such critics as Noda, who sees in the final scene a human connection that penetrates the layers of technological mediation and human alienation (88-89, 100-01)

But is this reading right? With Tsuge’s arrest, the police are able to shut down the jamming. Communications have been restored, but it is only briefly the handclasp of direct human contact. More permanently, it is the mediated language of these electronic communications, with all the problems they entail. So while Tsuge’s arrest at first seems to be a victory for unmediated experience, it actually restores the mediation that he had interrupted.

Ueno finds evidence of a postmodern relativism in the film’s ambiguous ending, which seems to provide no real victor in the contest between image and reality, or between the anti-hero Tsuge and the hero Gotô. But I would argue that the film’s pessimistic conclusion accents, rather than abandons, its media critique. It depicts, if only briefly, a dream of stepping outside our “media suits” and then frowns on the failure of that revolution. There is a salient detail that Ueno passes over, that gives the cessation of the jamming a chilling edge. After Tsuge’s arrest, Nagumo’s comrades emerge battle-torn from the tunnel where they fought the Ekstors, and hear the voice of Captain Gotô on the radio. As they realize that the jamming has been lifted and yell their enthusiasm to Gotô, their distant, excited cries (“Captain! Captain!”) exactly echo the anguished cries of Captain Tsuge’s dying men, who scream the same words over the radio in the film’s opening scene. We are returned to the tragedy and the critique that opened the film.

This returns us to the question of whether anime really can or should mount any such critique. We have raised the question in general terms, of whether a product of popular media like anime can conduct such a critique from the inside out, or do these issues effectively fall in its own blind spot—an area the text (as part of the popular media itself) cannot detect or represent. Now we are prepared to phrase this question or objection in more specifically visual terms. To wit, can the critique of the electronic body and mediated experience that is suggested above really be undertaken in a medium that substitutes animated representation and often computer animation for real bodies and real landscapes? The discussion up to this point has contrasted mediated with unmediated vision in the film, opposing what the characters see with their eyes to what they see on their monitors. But can a stylized medium like animation—one that is today often produced by computer—effectively represent the difference between a mediated and unmediated view?

For example, it is often at moments when the film image is depicting computer screens that it appears most realistic, since the animation is able to mimic these essentially digital displays with a high degree of visual accuracy. Conversely, the ostensibly unmediated views of human faces must remain cartoonish or stylized. Are there extra layers of representation at work when we are viewing animated versions of live figures, or is it meaningless and even naive to distinguish between arbitrary versus illusionistic simulation?

Sobchack’s work offers a considered framework for looking at explorations of mediated experience in contexts (like film) that are already more or less mediated themselves. So far we have used her observations about techno-logically-augmented experience. And we mentioned that among the different kinds of experience that technology augments, sight possesses a singular importance in Sobchack’s scheme. These two ideas come together in Sobchack’s larger phenomenology of film experience, a theory that speaks directly to the differences between electronic and cinematic presence, and by extension to the differences between the experience of animation versus live-action cinema.

Anime’s Body: Medium or Mechanism? In her article “Toward a Pheno-menology of Cinematic and Electronic Presence: The Scene of the Screen,” Sobchack applies her observations about technologically-mediated experience and alienation to the experience of watching film. She traces the development of film from still photography to cinema to electronics, arguing that while still photography fixes events in a way that prevents us from entering back into them, motion pictures record not just a frozen experience or perception, but the ongoing act and process of looking. Cinema “makes visible not just the objective world, but the very structure and process of subjective, embodied vision” (54). For Sobchack, this gives rise to a sense of cinematic film as a kind of perceiving subject that orders space and time for itself

But with the advent of electronic technology, from videotape on, cinema’s ordering of space and time gives way to dispersal and discontinuity, “an alternative and absolute world that uniquely incorporates the spectator/user in a spatially decentered, weakly temporalized, and quasi-disembodied state” (56). This is figured in terms of discontinuous methods of representation, trans-mission, and experience in electronic film: from the pixels, bits, and packets of video and computer graphics to the frantic pace of the images in the dominant video aesthetic, a style that Sobchack says produces a sequence of intense, present instants rather than generating a coherent narrative. The result for the spectator is a “dizzying sense of bodily freedom” and disconnection not unlike that of the virtual reality she describes in her critiques of Mondo 2000 (58).

So while cinematic film and electronic film are both kinds of virtual sensation, cinematic film reinforces the significance of human bodily experience, while electronic film undermines the sense of the body. Where does anime fit on this spectrum? I have argued that Patlabor 2 portrays the increasing mediation of electronics in our experience, with images of screens that get between the characters and the world. But is the film itself one more such screen, refracting or distorting the world for us in a way that other film does not? In other words, do Patlabor 2 and similar works belong to the realm of the electronic or the cinematic?

It is true that Patlabor 2 makes heavy use of computer graphics in combin-ation with conventional cel animation (Oshii and Miyazaki 82). And anime’s physical medium is more likely to be video than film: while the two Patlabor movies had theatrical releases, much of the other work in the series was produced for television or direct-to-video (OVA) release. Finally, there is a common perception of anime that matches Sobchack’s description of intensely present but disconnected images, an impression reinforced by the widely-reported incident in December 1997, in which the strobing images of a Pokémon TV episode reportedly induced epilepsy-like seizures in hundreds of Japanese children. Most tempting, of course, is the comparison between Jameson’s aesthetic flattening, the flattened screen space Sobchack sees in such films as Tron, and the two-dimensional quality of anime.

But while Patlabor 2 fits the description of an electronic medium in terms of its production and surface features, it also contains elements of the cinematic, and it is ultimately the mixture of the two that defines the film. We have already noted that, in contrast to Sobchack’s ideas about flattened psychologies, the Patlabor films dwell obsessively on human characters. Napier notes that in many mecha anime, “the narratives themselves often focus to a surprising extent on the human inside the machinery,” and in contrast with some body/technology critics’ “visions of the armored body as lacking interiority … the protagonists in mecha anime often have a surprising amount of interiority” (87, 90). Furthermore, while many anime fit the stereotype of frantic visual activity, Patlabor 1 and Patlabor 2 do not. Their pacing can be glacial, both in terms of the movement of the plot and the physical movements of the figures, which are often depicted in lingering close-ups and static tableaux.6 The lengthy political and philosophical monologues that accompany these scenes, if not always exactly profound, are also far from two-dimensional.

Fortunately, Sobchack’s phenomenology of film experience allows us to go beyond these accidents of the film’s production and stereotypes about animation. It does so by developing the notion of the coherence of visual experience in an extensive and rigorous way, using the idea of embodiment. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience expands on “The Scene of the Screen” by elaborating upon the relationships among bodies, vision, and visual language in the cinematic regime. By seeing how much of this applies to Oshii’s film, we can address the question of whether Patlabor 2 is more electronic than cinematic, and begin to draw some conclusions about whether the film represents technology’s breaking apart of the subject and bodily boundaries, or whether it tries to conserve some notion of human experience and particular bodily experience even as experience is altered by technology.

The Address of the Eye combines the issue of embodied versus transparent technology and the issue of film experience by developing a theory of the “film’s body.” Drawing on an existential phenomenology that grounds the subject in bodily experience, Sobchack describes how “the act of seeing is entwined intimately with the act of being, how seeing incarnates being” (51). And since cinema is not only a seen object but a representation of the experience of vision (in some senses a subject in its own right), it also has a body, which consists in part of the material and technology that make up the film and in part of an imagined body that the spectator assigns it. In film, Sobchack says,

discontiguous spaces and discontinuous times (“shots”) are gathered together in a coherence (“scenes”) whose reflection and signification constitute the significance of what can be called conscious experience. And (as with the spectator) that coherence is accomplished by the lived body. The camera its perceptive organ, the projector its expressive organ, the screen its discrete and material occupation of worldly space, the cinema exists as a visible performance of the perceptive and expressive structure of lived-body experience. (299)

Acknowledging that no technology is fully transparent, Sobchack draws on Don Ihde’s distinction between “embodied technologies,” which act as relatively transparent extensions of our sensory organs, and “hermeneutic technologies,” which represent the world to us in abstract signs that must be read or interpreted. A microscope would be an example of the former; a thermometer or other gauge would represent the latter.

Sobchack argues that cinema is a variant of embodied technology because it portrays an act of vision that the spectator experiences as if from within another body—the body of the film itself.7 The film’s body is not directly visible, but the spectator can posit it or fill it in by comparing the film’s vision with his or her own and extrapolating a body that belongs to that filmed vision. For this to happen, however, the way in which the film views the world must have a coherence that allows us to relate its vision to our own. This is not a matter of realism in a naive sense: the film need not mimic a human being’s vision optically. Indeed it should not, since its own body is never identical to a human body in shape or function. But it must have some kind of coherence that allows us to relate it to our own visual experience.

In the electronic (as opposed to cinematic) regime, the film’s act of seeing loses this coherence, and we become unable to imagine a coherent viewing subject with a coherent body to accompany it. In concrete terms, this can result from the images losing a sense of unity as they become subject to all the subdivision and manipulation possible with videotape and digital media. Divided into channels, frames, and pixels, images are rewound, replayed and redacted, slowed down and speeded up. Extrapolating from Sobchack, we might say that if this electronic vision does have a body, it is a networked (not even mechanical) body that we can no longer relate to our human one.

In Sobchack’s scheme, then, the technologized body portrayed in the plot of mecha animemight indeed be doubled in our own experience of watching these films, an experience which might alienate us from our normal senses. But what of Patlabor 2 specifically? The answer to whether Oshii’s film is electronic or cinematic (and to our earlier question about whether any anime can mount a critique of media) boils down to the question of whether the film’s body has coherence. This in turn is a question of how it looks—how it watches and how it appears—and of how close that is to the way we look. In Ihde’s language, the issue is whether the film looks (as a person does), or merely displays (like a gauge). It is the question of whether we experience the electronic/mechan-ical/visual layer of anime as transparent or opaque.

Asking these phenomenological questions of Patlabor 2 yields an interesting result: Oshii’s film does try to display the dismemberment of the electronic body (the labors, the media, Tsuge’s war). But to do that it must also try to shed its own electronic skin. To this end, the film imitates or simulates both the unified cinematic body and its electronic dissolution, resulting in an oscillation between cinematic and electronic vision.

Just as there is more to embodied vision than naive realism, Sobchack makes it clear that there is more to locating the film’s body than simply considering the camera’s point of view. But viewpoint is still a key point. Sobchack’s ideas suggest why Oshii’s film uses screens and displays as it does—not simply as background, but in a way that forces us to look into them or through them, to experience the events of the film filtered by these electronic aids and impediments. We see events unfold on monitors, in viewfinders, through goggles that we are forced to don. The visors, HUDs, and other see-through displays literally realize Ihde’s metaphor of transparent versus opaque technology. And through the process Sobchack describes, viewers try to posit a body that sees things in this way.]

Frequently we can. The technologically-mediated views we see are not the disembodied torrent of images Sobchack identifies with the electronic. They are essentially human visions, partly transformed. This vision is analogous to the bodies of the labors themselves: with their massive hydraulics and solid state electronics, the labors’ bodies are suspended between the mechanical and computer ages, ages that Sobchack associates with the cinematic and electronic respectively. The film at these points has a similar kind of body: neither wholly electronic nor wholly cinematic; vaguely human, even charmingly old- fashioned, yet also tangibly different.

At other points in Patlabor 2, however, the film’s body approaches a less localized, more distributed body that resembles Sobchack’s electronic regime. These are the moments when Oshii portrays the view not through the eyes of the electromechanical labors, but through the wholly electronic lens of the mass media, a networked electronic body with sensors everywhere. For example, the aftermath of Tsuge’s attack on the Yokohama Bay Bridge is revealed as a series of television news reports on different international networks (figures 4 and 7), including a flickering videotape of the incident in which key frames are blown up and rerun endlessly, a tape loop repeated again and again until it becomes unreal. (And in fact, as the story unfolds, the tape is revealed to be a fake, no more reliable than the many other mediated sensations portrayed in the film.) It is a channel-flipping sequence that suggests Sobchack’s disconnected, present instants. So it is actually when the mediated view departs from the fictional scenario of the giant robots and approaches our own everyday bodily experience of watching television that the film’s body begins to lose coherence.


Other shots through the media’s eyes are accomplished not by showing spectators a television screen, but by placing them in the position of the screens themselves. When martial law is declared, there are several shots of rapt viewers watching the announcement on television; only gradually does it dawn on us that we are watching these people from the television’s perspective. These shots recall Baudrillard’s catchphrase for the influence of media and the equivalence of the worlds inside and outside the set: “you are the screen, and the TV watches you” (51).

These are the scenes that associate the film most clearly with the electronic. By forcing us to look from the perspective of the monitor, or the media itself, they suggest a viewing body that is radically different from the human, not only in its optics but in its interests, its logic, and its concerns.

The question remains: what does the film have to contrast with these electronic views? Is it possible to generate a more natural view to accentuate the artificiality of the various mediated ones? Sobchack points out that, in American science-fiction films, the electronics and screens have often been foils for the human characters and their stories, which represent a world of authentic experience (Screening 255-62). In some respects Patlabor 2 follows this pattern: the plot’s heavy human-interest element throws into relief the artificial quality of the labors and the media.

But artistically, the humans remain the least real-looking element in the frame, making it difficult to create a distinction between mediated and unmediated views of the human body. In visual terms, the contrast with the film’s many monitors is provided not by human faces and bodies, but by exterior landscapes and cityscapes that are rendered with a startling level of detail. This hyperrealism (as opposed to photorealism) is a style Oshii developed further in Ghost in the Shell, where the intent is evidently to reproduce the effects of low light and reflected light that are visible to the eye but difficult to capture in a live-action film: complex multiple reflections at night, for example, or the glowing quality of snow falling in the dark. These provide the ground against which the other scenes become apparent as mediated or virtual.

Oshii also has a complementary strategy: he makes the video screens appear less realistic than they might. A small but telling detail is the slight flickering that accompanies TV news footage of the damaged Bay Bridge. It is one of many scenes of video screens and televisions in which the screens flicker or show banding (figure 7). This flickering and banding typically shows up in live- action films when a television appears on screen because the screen refreshes its image at a rate different from that at which the camera captures successive frames on film. The phenomenon is called “aliasing,” and has a more familiar variant in the famous wagon wheel effect, where spinning wheels appear to turn slowly or backwards on film because the frame rate is close to their rate of rotation.

But in animated film, there is no reason for these effects to occur. Since the television monitor in the frame is animated as well, it can appear any way Oshii wants. In fact, Oshii has introduced these effects to make the screens in the film appear to have come from a conventional motion-picture camera.8 This virtual aliasing is an effort to trick us into going back in our minds to an earlier technology. It is another way in which Oshii simulates the cinematic perspective in order to critique the electronic.

A related strategy is to simulate lens distortion in the animated image, for example in figure 7, where he blurs a wall of monitors in the background in order to duplicate a television news camera’s shallow depth of field, or in several shots where he introduces a fish-eye effect. The latter is one of the director’s trademark shots. Oshii says only that the effect represents “the world from a different viewpoint” (Interview with Horn 136). But more than once in Patlabor 2, it seems to be associated with scenes in which the spectator is made to assume the viewpoint of a screen or camera. At these points when the critique of the digital emerges most forcefully, Oshii simulates the older optical cinematic regime in order to assert or simulate a coherent body and gain a perspective from which to mount that attack.

The difficulty of course is that if this cinematic regime and body are themselves partly simulated, one might reasonably ask if the critique itself is not merely a virtual one. This is clearly one of the compromises the film must make as it oscillates between the human and the robotic, the cinematic and the electronic, the virtual and the real. Ghost in the Shell, the film that followed Patlabor 2, shows the same kind of oscillation in its treatment of its cyborg heroine, who is alternately superhuman and non-human, with a glorified, objectified body to match. I have argued elsewhere that this film’s style also alternates realism or hyperrealism with a self-consciously theatrical mode that recalls the Japanese puppet theater. It is an oscillation that has left critics uncertain whether to see the film as serious or full of play, as a male fantasy or a feminist critique (see Silvio 54-72).

Some of Oshii’s films before and after Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell avoid this pitfall by foregoing this kind of oscillation and veering instead to one or the other extreme. Oshii’s comic romp Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984) also treats the theme of shifting identities in virtual worlds, but remains an unbridled fantasy with no intrusion of seriousness. On the other hand, Oshii’s script for Jin rô (directed by Okiura Hiroyuki, 2000, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade), treats the same themes with few fantasy elements and no humor, in the mode of a grimly realistic political thriller.

I would suggest that this oscillation between the real and the represented means that Patlabor 2 will disappoint critics on both sides of the fence. It seems likely that Michael Fisch chooses not to deal with representation in the film because he sees the film’s merits in its reflection of real-world politics, though I have argued that the complex treatment of transmission and reflection in the film urges caution in any discussion about what it is in the real world that the film reflects. Ueno Toshiya seems to have a different and more conflicted perspective: a desire for Oshii’s work to be politically relevant, but also a hope that before it ends, this film will have given up its nostalgic dreams of authentic unmediated experience and will have discarded what postmodernism might regard as a naive media critique. It may be this hope that causes Ueno to miss the ways in which the film does cling to a reality outside representation.

In a 1996 interview with Oshii, Carl Gustav Horn compared the release of the fake poison gas in Patlabor 2 with the real nerve gas attack that occurred in the Tokyo subway two years after the film’s release. Watching Patlabor 2 today, it is impossible to escape parallels with the events of 9/11. In both of these tragedies, the scale and proximity of the destruction seem to draw a clear line between reality and simulation, but at the same time the role of the media in seeing and shaping events was undeniable, something that will require a sustained and concerted effort to understand. In this situation, Oshii’s films hold interest precisely because they address both the oppressive realities and the oppressive unrealities with which we are faced.

Images used in this article were captured from the subtitled Patlabor 2 DVD and are ©1989 Headgear/Emotion/TFC and ©1995 Tôhokushinsha Corporation. They are reproduced here by permission of Manga Entertainment.
                1. As with many anime titles, the amount of Patlabor material is extensive. The two feature-length theater releases Patlabor 1 and Patlabor 2 are part of a franchise that includes a television series, video features, comic books, and merchandise. The works directed by Oshii are the two films and Patlabor: Original Series, a 1988 OVA (direct-to-video) series that includes an episode upon which the plot of Patlabor 2 is based. For Oshii’s detailed filmography, see Haraguchi.
                2. For a discussion of this human focus in other mecha series, see Napier, especially 87 and 100-02.
                3. The articles are “Democratic Franchise and the Electronic Frontier” (731-32) and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Hackers: Reading Mondo 2000” (577-79). See also the precusor to these articles, “What in the World.”
                4. The subtitled version of Patlabor 2 from Manga Entertainment provides good translations, but the translations in this article are my own.
                5. Part of the distancing effect is that the pilots’ radio code phrases are in English. The film has Japanese subtitles here, but the sound is so garbled that the American video release required a second set of subtitles transcribing the English.
                6. Many anime limit motion in order to reduce animation costs. Though this seems to render some anime films even flatter, Oshii is able to match the pace of the film and the pace of the images in a way that takes advantage of this motionlessness.
                7. The embodied quality of cinema is Sobchack’s most important point in distinguishing the cinematic from the electronic, but it is only one part of her full thesis, which is that the technology of cinema constitutes a complex combination of the embodied and the hermeneutic
                8. Ironically, computer animation is now used in live film to erase screen flicker, by digitally drawing in the screens later rather than filming them directly with a camera.

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