Before Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow’s edgy cyberpunk fable about the dawning of an independent artificial consciousness on the Internet, there was Shirow’s less edgy Dominion Tank Police (1989). Set in post-apocalyptic 2010 Newport City, Japan (lots of social deterioration, lots of chemical and biological pollution), the original video animation’s (or OVA) blend of over-the-top violence and slapstick humor was a welcome break from all that post-Akira (1988) seriousness. In many respects, it was the anti-Akira, the anime that poked fun at the whole “world on the brink of extinction” trope.
While Akira‘s Kineda desperately tried to stop the crazed Tetsuo from destroying Neo-Tokyo, DTP‘s Leona and the rest of her crime-fighting crew gleefully plowed their police tanks through countless buildings (a signature visual in the series), causing mayhem in the pursuit of a rudimentary “justice.” The main reason to watch DTP was visceral, to see Leona roll her tank through buildings, lose yourself in risk-free destruction with a comedic spin. If Akira used metaphysics to negotiate society’s fears, DTP employed parody to create some sense of control over anxieties about nuclear-chemical-biological war, environmental mismanagement, and terrorism.
It was simple but effective stuff. New Dominion Tank Police, the six-part sequel to DTP, is now released on DVD by Manga Entertainment. The second series turns the original strategy on its head. There’s still plenty of violence and tanks careening willy-nilly through Newport. And virtually all the old characters are back, including Leona (Toni Barry), Al (Adam Henderson), Lieutenant Britain (Sean Barrett), and the cybernetic cat-girl hoodlums, Ana and Uni Puma (both voiced by Alison Dowling). Now, however, the series features a seriousness and intrigue that add little in the way of social or political commentary. The result fails to achieve either over-the-top parody or profound drama; in short, it’s neither DTP nor Akira, but a run-of-the-mill adventure story. Which begs the hard question: why watch this one rather than the 100+ other stories similar to it?
The series’ six episodes are basically riffs on the conspiracy theory narrative model. A shadowy entity, the Dai Nippon Gaiken Corporation, seemingly beyond governmental control, is conniving to do something sinister to the Newport City community. In the first two episodes, this mostly revolves around destabilizing Leona and the Tank Police’s authority, by promoting a less destructive type of police assault vehicle (a small, six-legged variant that apparently manages to do its job without having to run through buildings). Episodes three through six follow various attempts by Dai Nippon Gaiken to secure their primary revenue streams (derived from arms sales) against the Mayor of Newport’s efforts to ban weapons. This involves, at one moment, a plot to destroy the inner city, and at another, a plot to murder the Mayor.
The connections between plot arcs are oblique at best. But the series’ surface problematic is nonetheless readily apparent: it’s about legitimacy. Who has the right to enforce social control, the Tank Police or the Dai Nippon Gaiken Corporation? It’s a question at the center of science fiction texts since the 1980s. Blade Runner (1982), RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and William Gibson’s novels all imagine a social field in which corporations hold varying degrees of authority in relation to weakened governmental institutions.
New Dominion Tank Police doesn’t make this story new, and in some instances, makes it confusing (it’s a mystery how, in the third episode, destroying the center of Newport City helps Dai Nippon Gaiken). Nor is the contested social field represented with sophistication: the series relies too heavily on a simple binary between the good (Tank Police) and the bad (Dai Nippon Gaiken).
This last point indicates a shift between the politics of the original series and that of New Dominion. Whereas DTP displayed an inconsistent governmental authority (the Tank Police’s actions often undermined the Mayor’s intentions), the new series reaffirms the link between Tank Police and government by the end of the series, as the Tank Police not only save the Mayor’s life but are instrumental in supporting her. The corporate plot serves not to expose a rift in the articulation of power, so much as to reinvest the established order with renewed authority. What was once a playful representation of a justice system gone anarchic becomes, in New Dominion, more reactionary and less fun.