The title character of the landmark 1966 live-action Japanese TV show is technically an alien, but you wouldn’t know that based on his appearance. At a glance, the design of Ultraman looks mechanical rather than biological, with a head that looks like it belongs on a robot rather than a human being.
That’s why the show’s influence can’t be overlooked. Ultraman was one of the first major special effects series to break big in Japan, with a premise that will be familiar to fans of Pacific Rim. The show chronicles the exploits of a human Science Patrol as they defend the earth against a parade of invading alien monsters. Ultraman, meanwhile, is a benevolent alien being that fused with a member of the Science Patrol during an accident (Shin Hayata is the patrolman in question). Whenever the threats prove insurmountable, Hayata transforms into the gigantic Ultraman to continue the fight on behalf of humanity.
It’s not quite the same as stepping into a walking suit of armor, but it’s not too far removed from the basic mecha setup. Hayata is an everyday human being who becomes a passenger in a larger-than-life military vessel when the Earth needs someone to battle monstrous threats, and that narrative DNA would become a hallmark of the mecha genre.
Set in the near-future world of 1998 (OK, that part hasn’t aged well), the various Patlabor series of the late 80s and early 90s combine the technological sensibilities of the mecha genre with the story logic of a police procedural. In the show’s alternate timeline, Labors are large robots that are used to assist with construction, heavy lifting, and other industrial tasks. The Patrol Labors (the title is a mashup of the two words) are a squad of police Labors that monitor Labor activity and investigate any criminal activity involving the machines.
Though not as well known in North America, Guillermo del Toro has cited Patlabor as one of the major influences on Pacific Rim, especially as it relates to the workaday portrayal of mecha technology. Unlike most mecha, the Patrol Labors (and their pilots) were not trying to save the world. They were blue collar employees trying to complete everyday tasks with the same elbow grease as other menial laborers. They often had to maintain and repair their own machines, and that nuts-and-bolts approach to the genre grounded the series and del Toro’s subsequent film. Patlabor placed the emphasis on relatable human characters rather than fun-but-implausible robot fights, creating a modern aesthetic that belies its skewed timeline.
FROM AROUND THE WEB