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Metropolis cover

Enter the glittering Metropolis, through the eyes of another outsider: detective Shusaku Ban. On the trail of mad scientist Dr. Laughton, Ban and his young nephew Kenichi marvel at the surface splendor of the sky-choking megalopolis. But when they find Laughton in the midst of an arsonous blaze, Kenichi flees into the grimy depths of the city with a waiflike girl at his side and a cold-blooded adversary at his heels. Sometimes following Kenichi, sometimes following the ruthless antagonist Rock, the animated film Metropolis tells the tale of an innocent robot child, a corrupt city, and the current that runs between them.

Laughton's final project is Tima, a robot built for politician Duke Red in the image of Red's dearly departed daughter. Activated during the fire, Tima carries no memories and immediately imprints on Kenichi, the first person she sees. Tima's form may be dictated by paternal love, but her so-called father's purpose for her has to do with power: Red plans to put Tima on a throne to rule Metropolis. Rock, Red's foster son and fierce lieutenant, resents Red's choice, and mounts a manhunt for Tima.

Metropolis itself, however, may not want anyone's rule. Red's newly-built skyscraper, Ziggurat, looms menacingly over the cityscape, prompting his adversaries to wonder if it might be a weapon. Below the city's glistening surface, the working-class humans who built Metropolis have lost their jobs to cheaper robot labor. Despite evidence of thought and emotion, the robots are treated as machines, not thinking beings. Ban, aided only by the police robot Pero, strikes out to find Kenichi before the political unrest in the severely stratified city brings the walls tumbling down.

Metropolis carries a substantial pedigree at every level of its creation. Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka wrote the Metropolis graphic novel from 1949 to 1951. Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Domu) retooled the manga into a screenplay, and veteran anime director Rintaro (X, Galaxy Express 999) fused the script, Tezuka's distinctive art style, computer animation, and a Dixieland soundtrack to make a high-tech movie with a delightful retro-futuristic feel.

The figures, drawn in Tezuka's characteristic big-eyed, round-nosed, style, call to mind the days of Tin Tin and Little Nemo. Although Tima's cherubic design was created specifically for the movie, she blends in well with the original characters. Only Rock, also a new character, looks out of place, sporting chunky 80's shades. Rintaro thought of Manhattan when designing the close quarters and lofty buildings of Metropolis. He chose traditional cel painting for the underground backgrounds, but deliberately used computer rendering for the above-ground backgrounds, the better to take advantage of the slick, sometimes sterile feel of the medium. Although this makes the matting in some of the above-ground scenes a little unnatural, most of the time the juxtaposition of cartoony characters and realistic backgrounds works very well. Both the computer-and the cel-animation are superb, and Metropolis is, overall, very attractive.

The high production values extend beyond the visual. The cinematic release used the nicely-acted original Japanese language track, accompanied by vividly written and blessedly legible English subtitles. The high point of the movie's aural aspect is the charming Dixieland soundtrack, which contributes nearly as much to the retro-future setting as the improbable antique architecture.

If one must find a flaw in Metropolis, it's the trouble in identifying with the characters. Kenichi stands as more of a witness than a protagonist, Shusaku Ban gets little screentime, and the most dynamic character, the angelic Tima, lacks verbal skills or a fully-developed personality. Although Rock's motives make him almost uncomfortably human and understandable, he still comes across as a right bastard -- not a character to root for. Due to this emphasis on plot over character, Metropolis tends towards the thought-provoking and away from the emotional.

In the sixties, Rintaro directed several episodes of another Tezuka adaptation, Tetsuwan Atom (known in the US as Astro Boy), and his familiarity with, and affection for, Tezuka's work shine through in Metropolis. Ask a Tezuka fan what they liked about Metropolis, and you'll be treated to a litany of in-jokes and cameos that slipped by you unawares. Small wonder, then, that Rintaro named the feature not just Metropolis, but Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis.

The title changed to just Metropolis for U.S. distribution because until recently, Tezuka's work has gone largely unknown here. Astro Boy, Black Jack, and Adolf spark some name recognition, but many of his works remain unavailable in English. Many fans -- not to mention a number of manga and anime artists -- assert the influence of Tezuka's work in America is best seen in Disney's The Lion King, which bears many similarities to Tezuka's Jungle Emperor, aired in syndication in the sixties as Kimba the White Lion "in magnificent, animated color."

Given the general lack of recognition for Tezuka's work, it's no surprise that Rintaro's Metropolis often bears the modifiers "based on," "inspired by," or even "the animated version of" Fritz Lang's 1927 film of the same name. In fact, Tezuka drew his inspiration from a still image from Lang's Metropolis, and claimed never to have watched the silent classic. Rintaro hails the Lang film as a personal favorite, but made no conscious homage to it.

A few obvious parallels exist between the two movies. In distance shots, the cities appear strikingly similar. Tezuka's Metropolis, like Lang's, houses the rich humans in heavenly eyries and the poor humans in hellish caves, but Tezuka adds a layer to Lang's simple have/have-not society: the robot slaves. Rintaro remarks that it would be difficult to make a retro-futuristic movie about robots and a big city without mirroring some aspect of the Lang's classic, but the plots and characters of the two Metropolis films stand on their own without reference to one another. Villainous Duke Red comes across as more of a megalomaniac than Lang's cold, but not irredeemable, Fredersen. Rintaro's robot girl existed in the manga not as a daughter, but as a son named Michi, and became Tima only in Otomo's screenplay. Unlike Lang's witchy and willing Pandora-like Maria, Rintaro's childlike Tima refuses to believe that she is a robot -- and when Tima unleashes her powers, it's through anger, not calculation. Aside from stock mad scientists, none of the other characters bear any resemblance to one another.

The main similarity lies in the mutual theme of social responsibility. In Lang's Metropolis, Maria preaches that the head and the hands cannot work together without the heart acting as a mediator. In Rintaro's Metropolis, Kenichi sees the disconnect between the ruling-class humans, the robot slaves, and the working-class humans whose work has been given to the robots. In both films, a messianic female must bridge the communications gap and give the disparate groups a reason to pull together. In both, the citizens require dramatic evidence of the rifts in society before they can admit that anything is amiss. Above all, ringing through both films is the melioristic message that there is hope for those who strive to better themselves. Although the two cities tell two different tales, it's a fair guess that a fan of the Lang film will find the Rintaro worth at least a look.

Long after the first viewing, the magnificently animated Metropolis lingers in the mind's eye. The beautiful, but troubled, city of Metropolis -- as diverse and divided as a real-life city -- haunts the thoughts. Yet the heart of Metropolis lies within Tima and her story, a story that can end in destruction and madness, or in strength and hope --whichever the citizens of Metropolis choose to create for, and of, themselves.

Note: The advertised DVD extras for the "pocket DVD" two-disc set include production notes, a special called "The Making of Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis," a director interview, the history of the Metropolis manga, production notes, theatrical trailers, a biography of Osamu Tezuka, and special fold-out packaging with outer sleeve. Language tracks include Japanese, English, and French with subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. Metropolis runs 106 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence and images of destruction.


Reader Comments

Laura Blackwell lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she takes advantage of as many big-screen anime screenings as she can. Aside from Epinions, her work has been printed only in publications with the word "strange" in the title. She would like to offer special thanks to Craig Andersen of the Kimba the White Lion Preservation Society, and to Dennis Hwang.

Laura Blackwell is a writer, editor, and journalist. Her fiction has most recently appeared in The Lorelei Signal. Some of her previous reviews at Strange Horizons have been honored with Reader's Choice Awards. She lives in Northern California.
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