I’m a great fan of the 2001 anime Metropolis. This movie arrived in American theaters in August, 2001, and was not only a thrilling, dazzling spectacle, it eerily prophesied the terrorist attacks of September 11. The films images of the towering Ziggurat in ruins, the very symbol of modern human civilization, cut a little too close to the bone.
We are reminded of the urban apocalypse of Akira, the landmark 1988 anime film written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and its depictions of urban corruption and decay. This is no small coincidence, as Otomo wrote the script for this new Metropolis, which was directed by the skilled veteran Rintaro, an old Toei Doga alum who gave us such hits as Galaxy Express 999, Harmagedon and X. A freelance director by trade, Rintaro specialized in dystopian science-fiction, and added with his animation experience working on Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), makes him a perfect choice to helm Metropolis.
What makes this Metropolis so compelling is how freely it mashes together its varied influences, creating something new in the alchemical furnace. It’s original inspiration, of course, lies in the 1927 Fritz Lang masterpiece, not only with the Ziggurat and the main characters, but the underlying political and social themes. When Tezuka created his manga comic adaptation, he famously claimed to take nothing from Lang’s work but the image on the movie poster. That is a slight exaggeration, but fairly close to the mark. Rintaro fuses these two sources together nicely, giving us the thick, rounded character designs with a gritty urban environment, combining story and character elements and adding new influences and ideas to the recipe.
The movie’s strong cyberpunk design owes much to Akira, and we can spot how seamlessly Otomo’s world integrates with the Lang-Tezuka-Rintaro mashup. We almost expect to find motorcycle gangs lurking around the underground stations, although a thrilling chase scene involving rickshaws fills the void.
In the world of Metropolis, the disgruntled masses inhabit several layers of cities underneath the streets, living in state of tension and barely-contained rage. Protesters march through the streets against not only the repressive ruling class on top, but the robot workers who have taken their blue-color jobs. We can read these elements as a commentary on race and immigration relations very easily. You almost expect to find John Lennon or Bob Marley in the streets. A group of rebels is clearly inspired by Che Guevara and various 20th Century revolutionaries. Citizens love in fear of repressed robots who could rise up and stage a revolution. Society is held together at the barrel of a gun.
The towering Ziggurat represents the glory of the civilized world, or perhaps a symbol of America or Rome or number of empires come and gone. The opulence of the upper classes is completely alien to the world below, whose inhabitants can only witness through steel bars and sewer gratings, while Dixieland jazz plays in the background. It’s like a sci-fi Harlem painted in lush watercolors.
Like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the ruler of this world, here named Duke Red, employs a mad scientist who fashions a robot double for his dead daughter. This Maria, a doll-like girl named Tima, is intended to sit on the tower’s throne, integrating her with the computer circuitry and giving her enormous powers. The father hopes to use her for his own ends, but she escapes into the outer world, where she is exposed to the outer world and all its beauty and corruption. She is also not aware that she is a robot, which as we all know is a recipe for disaster. This will not end well.
Tima also serves as a female caught in an unusual love triangle of sorts. She is rescued and befriended by a boy named Kenichi, the nephew of a gumshoe detective who is pursuing the criminal scientist. They are the audience’s eyes in this alien nation, and Kenichi becomes smitten with the girl as he tries to keep her free from Duke Red, who pursues her obsessively.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The ruler’s adoptive son Rock, the head of the political party that doubles as the secret police, is fiercely jealous of Tima. Emotionally dismissed by his father (who refuses to return the boy’s affection), and deeply prejudiced against the machines, Rock becomes obsessed with destroying her at any cost.
Is this movie really a love story between these two characters, Rock and Tima? That’s a good question. We obviously think of the boy, Kenichi, as the romantic hero. But be honest. Isn’t he a bit of a drip? He’s really too bashful to do anything. His relationship with Tima is surprisingly passive. If he wasn’t chasing around everywhere with the girl in tow, I really don’t know what he’d be doing with her.
Rock, on the other hands…now, Rock has passion. His drive stems from his feelings of rejection by his adoptive father, so he sees Tima as a rival instead of a lover. But at least he feels something, and acts upon those feelings, ruthlessly, without fear of consequence. Rock possesses the animal heart that Tima only imagines she had. They’re the true couple of this picture.
Frankly, I would have been preferred seeing that wimpy wet blanket Kenichi hop on the plane with his detective uncle. He’s the Paul Henreid of this movie, and, as always, I’m rooting for the girl to run off with Bogey instead.
Metropolis looks absolutely fantastic, clearly a landmark for anime feature films. We hardly ever see lush visual spectacles like this anymore (even Studio Ghibli cannot afford these expensive productions anymore, surely a sign of the coming apocalypse). Color designs range from clinical and pristine to colorful and gritty. The use of CG animation integrates nicely, limited mostly to the enormous tower and its machinery. This approach is a bit different from the way Ghibli integrates CGI and hand-drawn animation, and it probably dates the film, but I don’t mind.
Sony released Metropolis on DVD in 2002, and it’s an excellent package, and even includes a miniature disc which includes the bonus material. The Blu-Ray version, released in Japan in 2008, has never been released in the West. I have no idea why this is. This isn’t the first time Sony dropped the ball; Satoshi Kon’s masterful anime feature Tokyo Godfathers was released on Blu-Ray in Japan but not here. Worse, neither BD includes English-language subtitles, making importing a useless gesture. Your only option is to download a fan-translated copy online. But this option means watching with a highly compressed and pixelated picture (as the download file is only a fraction of the BD size), and omitting bonus features entirely. This is absurd. Metropolis is a fantastic movie that deserves to be seen, and deserves to be seen in the best possible condition. There is no excuse. Sony should either release the BD in the United States or allow another publisher to pick up the rights. But don’t sit on it. You’d think these guys had some unresolved Daddy Complex and decided to take it out on us instead.