Hollow Shells: The feminist core of Dominion Tank Police

By: Grant May 2, 20180 Comments
Leona driving Bonaparte toward a target

It’s not hard to see why someone would pre-judge Dominion Tank Police. Its component parts aren’t exactly outliers for a bubble-era OVA production.

Based on a 1986 manga of the same name written by Masamune Shirow, the Dominion Tank Police OVA was released in 1989, tells the near-future tale of tank-equipped law enforcement, and has a penchant for explosive action, goofball comedy, and detailed mechanical designs. Sprawling urban cityscapes are choked with pollution, forcing citizens to wear protective facial masks to avoid sickness. Crime is rampant, and only the rough and tough tank police can keep these villains—including android cat-girls with machine guns—at bay.

The cover of the Dominion Tank Police DVD, which has two almost naked catgirls on it

If much of this sounds familiar, that’s because of other well-known works like Bubblegum Crisis, Cyber City O-Edo, and Ghost in the Shell, which share a similar resume and affectations. Add in the fact that the OVA was a staple on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Saturday Anime block alongside works like Fist of the North Star, the legendarily low-quality M.D. Geist, and Demon City Shinjuku, and you certainly couldn’t blame anyone for making the assumption that Dominion Tank Police is just one more action-adventure outing.

Many of the anime shown in that era were meant primarily to excite and titillate, and they were advertised as such. Even many years later, the 2003 DVD release of Dominion Tank Police prominently featured the scantily clad Puma sisters on the cover—not exactly a point in the column of “subtly articulated message,” to be sure.

But it is precisely those standard trappings which help make Dominion Tank Police’s message so potent.

A smiling redhead with a bandaid on her nose holding a gun

The heroine of our story is Leona Ozaki, a newcomer to the Tank Police. She stands apart for many reasons: her status as a motorcycle officer instead of as a tank pilot, her visually distinctive bright red hair in a world with a palette of dull blues and browns, and the simple fact that she is the one and only woman on the Tank Police.

Leona walks into a literal boys’ club that is hostile to her presence and wishes her gone. The Tank Police’s leader, Captain Brenten, says as much when she walks in on the interrogation of a prisoner (a scene that’s played for comedy but is torture in all but name).

Leona doesn’t come to the Tank Police with grand designs on reforming it as an institution or overthrowing systems of power and exclusion; she is a consummate professional, seeking only to earn her place on the force. But because she is a woman, her personal strengths—ingenuity, professionalism, and technical acumen—are seen as a threat to the established order. In the eyes of Captain Brenten, Leona Ozaki is a tumor to be excised or a bother to be sent away.

A gruff mustached man reading a magazine titled "how to kill"

Captain Brenten embodies the hyper-masculine nature of the Tank Police. Sure, by its very nature a police force armed with tanks evokes traditional themes of male dominance—the impenetrability of thick armor, heavy machinery that can harm without care, and the none-too-subtle phallic imagery of the main gun. But by and large the Tank Police members we are introduced to like Specs, the Chaplain, and Al seem affable (if not terribly competent).

It is Captain Brenten who creates a culture of hostility with his overbearing personality, obsession with being seen as the best, and insistence on power over others. Brenten sets the entire force against Leona from the word go, denigrating her and questioning her competency at every turn.

Brenten’s personal tank is a monument to traditional masculine dominance. Even compared to the other tanks on the police force, it is an oversized behemoth, with dimensions more similar to a city block than a piloted vehicle. In a visual motif that is both comedic and incredibly apt, this tank is so large that it tears up the asphalt beneath its treads as it drives, destroying the city it should be protecting through the sheer absurdity of its existence. It represents everything that Captain Brenten wants the Tank Police to be and what they reflect under his leadership.

It’s also why they’re unable to accomplish anything.

The men of the Tank police dressed up in masks and standing in lines

From the very beginning, the Tank Police are universally ineffective. The criminal trio of Buaku, AnaPuma, and UniPuma outmaneuver and embarrass the city’s protectors at every turn. For all the strength and invulnerability that the tank police are supposed to possess, they are incredibly weak. Captain Brenten’s inflexibility and adherence to his own warped assumptions about what it takes to succeed ensures that the police cannot effectively handle the threat presented by Buaku and the Puma sisters.

Leona follows along with Brenten’s guidance because she’s trying to fit in with the force and be a contributing member to the team, but this ultimately leads to the destruction of the monstrous tank the Captain takes such pride in (and a fair portion of the city as well). Brenten naturally blames her for everything and threatens to kick her off the force.

Here we begin to see the unique expression of the feminist themes at the heart of the show. Leona Ozaki is no revolutionary; in many ways she is the perfect subordinate. She is highly skilled at her job, professional to a fault, and seeks acceptance to the point of obeying any order asked of her. If she were a man, Leona would be considered a model officer, an exemplary addition to the tank police. But because Brenten singles her out, making an issue of her gender in order to assuage his own insecurities about the effectiveness of his doctrine, he sets Leona’s unique talents against the flawed institution he is protecting.

Leona steering a tank from the inside

As mentioned, Leona is incredibly resourceful and adaptable. It is off-handedly remarked that she was a motorcycle cop beforehand and is used to piloting much smaller and more nimble vehicles than the lumbering war machines the tank police use. So, in the fallout from the disaster with the Captain’s tank, Leona happens upon an idea to get back in the good graces of the force while also solving the problem it faces.

Using the parts and armor of the destroyed tank, Leona builds a smaller tank, which she dubs Bonaparte. It is a fusion of her current role as a tank officer with her prior experience with motorcycles, a much more lithe and nimble tank designed for quick maneuver rather than show of force. Though her gender resulted in her being ostracized, her skillset allows her to flourish in spite of this. While professionalism and ingenuity are not inherently feminine traits, her femininity codes her as both an outsider and voice of reason and keeps her from absorbing the limited mindset of the work culture of the tank police.

Leona’s impressive innovation is immediately apparent. In the least subtle scene of a remarkably unsubtle OVA, the tank police are chasing the Buaku gang yet again through the streets when the Puma sisters unveil a secret weapon. They release large, garishly-colored landmines that scatter across the street behind them. When the police tanks’ treads make contact with the mines, they don’t explode as expected but instead immediately inflate into literal penises.

Tanks running into large inflatable phallus blockades

The tanks are launched into the air to crash through buildings and flip end over end—hoisted by their own, uh, petards if you will. Chest-beating, invincible, bull-headed masculinity causes the tank police to quite literally stumble over phallic barriers, unable to perform their most basic duties.

Leona drives right past them.

Bonaparte is so agile that Leona avoids the mines and maintains the pursuit. Her creation is far more moderately proportioned, unlike the massive tank that was Brenten’s pride and joy or even the standard tanks of the rest of the police. Instead of being a hulking juggernaut that crushes city streets or brandishes an enormous gun, Bonaparte is practically petite. At face value, it evokes none of the power imagery that the others do, and instead looks comically small or cute by comparison. But, as with everything else, this surface-level reading belies the incredible capability of Leona’s work.

The tiny tank with a powerful gun, Bonaparte

The “little toy tank” that Leona devised is quickly shown to be the most potent weapon on the force. Leona’s unique skills, problem-solving abilities, and drive to succeed are all embodied in Bonaparte. She’s able to keep chasing the criminals and best them in a one-on-one duel with a machine of her own devising.

She even allows them to escape so they can be caught alongside their real boss later, ensuring that she not only stopped the physical threat but helped crack the case as well. Leona’s ingenuity and dedication save the day. She brilliantly merged prior experience with the new context she found herself in to not only do her job well but to do everyone’s job by the end. She earns her place on the force and Brenten’s respect, achieving the goal she set out to accomplish through her own merits and gumption.

Leona driving Bonaparte toward a target

In Dominion Tank Police, we see how traditional power structures are so often failed by poor leadership that is hostile to women. Leona was destined to fail because she never was given a chance to begin with, but the people around her see her inability to succeed as her inadequacy as an individual—and more specifically, as a woman.

Leona’s initial failure is viewed as a symptom of womanhood, when the reality is that the organization’s obsession with a narrow view of masculinity was dooming everyone to failure. Leona’s gender is a scapegoat that Brenten uses to dodge criticism from the moment she walks through the doors.

It’s no accident that Bonaparte is crafted from the literal wreckage of Brenten’s tank—Leona salvaged a failed institution that could not execute its assigned task and made it into something that actually functions. Under Captain Brenten’s leadership, the tank police could not protect the public nor stop crime, and in fact actively created destruction and mayhem at every turn.

The obsession with traditional masculine values of impenetrability, intolerance for weakness, and domination through overwhelming force achieved nothing; more often than not, they caused more harm than the criminals they were attempting to stop. Leona walked into a workplace that was immediately hostile to her purely because of her gender and still attempted to cooperate in good faith, but that organization’s intransigence made it so that she could not succeed—nor could anyone else.

The cast of the Tank Police stood around a tank

The beauty of it all is how Leona’s success is ultimately a path to redemption for everyone involved. In teaching the tank police to accept her and to discard their limited viewpoint on masculinity, she allows the organization and its individual parts to function more fully. Even Brenten, who is essentially the source of her constant antagonism, eventually accepts a more merit-based approach and works alongside Leona. This is not a scorched earth approach which seeks to unmake institutions and individuals, but rather adjust them so they operate in the way they were supposed to in the first place.

Leona’s dogged determination, her professional experience, and her mechanical aptitude saves the very idea of the tank police. She wins the day and finds recognition among her peers, all while up against every obstacle the police and the criminal world could throw at her.

By trusting in herself, she inadvertently revitalizes an institution so it can perform its stated tasks and achieve its desired goals. An organization completely hostile to even the notion of female membership learns that it actually cannot function without it. For “just another ‘80s OVA,” that’s a pretty heady lesson buried beneath Dominion Tank Police’s goofball comedy and action trappings.

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