Patlabor 2 and The Graf Zeppelin

Mamoru Oshii’s films are some of the most dissected works among foreign anime fans, his presence in animation loomed large as anime began gaining arthouse traction during the 1990s. Ghost in the Shell [1995] may have been the capstone to Oshii’s notoriety in the West, but it was the film he directed before that, Patlabor 2 [1993] that has risen in notoriety in recent decades. A slow-paced political thriller, Patlabor 2 drew heavily from post-war and pre-war Japanese military tension and particularly events like the 226 Incident.

In a similar vein but not something I’ve seen discussed previously was the inspiration Patlabor 2 may have drawn from another pre-war event: the visit of the Graf Zeppelin to Japan in 1929. After World War I, Zeppelin airships were an iconic representation of Germany’s revitalization and its resurgence as a technological leader. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin undertook a globe-spanning trip but that touched down in only three countries–Germany, the United States, and Japan.

Graf Zeppelin over Tokyo in 1929.

Photos from the visit look like they could have been storyboards for the airships ominously floating above Tokyo during Patlabor 2’s climax. Given Patlabor 2’s themes of war and peace, it’s also hard not to consider what the visit of the Graf Zeppelin meant to Japanese-German relations in the decades leading to World War II.

According to Ricky W. Law in Transnational Nazism: Ideology and Culture in German-Japanese Relations, “In the early 1920s, Japan had to observe Germany from afar and take German ability on faith. But, in 1929, the Graf Zeppelin delivered evidence of what Germany could mean concretely for Japan. Many Japanese saw Germans and heard German for the first time during the zeppelin’s visit. Even those with no interest in Germany could not escape the saturation coverage in the press.”

Oshii was also no stranger to using airships in his work, as ehoba pointed out in my original twitter thread on this subject in 2020. Oshii’s manga In the End…, a collaboration with Yuji Moriyama, featured a similar airship. The Oshii-direct Gosenzo-Sama [1989] also featured a yellow airship similar to the ones found in Patlabor 2.

Yellow Kodak airships from Gosenzo-sama.

Further Reading