"This comes of trifling with robots."
-Tima, Metropolis (2001)
When Metropolis was released in 2001, anticipation and expectation among anime fans could not be higher. It was a dream collaboration among three of the brightest and most imaginative minds of Japanese animation and manga: the director was Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999), the screenwriter was Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), and the work he was adapting was a seminal manga by Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy). It might be understandable, then, that reaction was positive but a bit muted; other than hyperbolic praise from director James Cameron, it seemed that most critics found it to be not much more than attractive eye candy, and many anime fans only allowed themselves the epiphany that they had been won over from the Otomo school to the Miyazaki academy a long time ago. Indeed, Metropolis was released the same year as Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, and won. The charms Metropolis had to offer--spectacle, sci-fi noir, existential questioning--seemed old school, no matter how well it presented them.
Indeed, that was kind of the point. Metropolis, for all its futurism, had its gaze set firmly toward bygone eras. The classic Tezuka book upon which it was based was published in 1949, and apart from retaining the outdated look of Tezuka's characters, Rintaro and Otomo see fit to include many 40's film noir stylistic touches, even playing up the private detective angle inherent in the original book. Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You," from 1962, features prominently (and ironically) during the climax. The sleek, retro design of the city and its robots is rooted firmly in 30's serials and science fiction films such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Things to Come. And of course the 1927 cinematic milestone Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, influences the look as well as the story, and its theme of humanity vs. the mechanical. (A silent movie influence is also evident in the film's iris-in transitions, and 1920's-style jazz music permeates the score.) So with at least four decades referenced in the style of Metropolis, all incorporated into a far-future environment, you'd be excused if your head spins at the anachronisms. Yet the blender approach creates a deeply nostalgic resonance to the film, as though all of the detritus of the 20th century is piling up underneath these towering, high-tech skyscrapers and awesome, sun-altering rayguns. What's generated is a deep longing for the past, even while we're shown the spectacular panorama of the future, so that when the city finally does topple to the ground, it's a happy ending. A return to simpler things: transistor radios, grungy dives, Ray Charles records, etc.
It's also a return to human emotion, represented in the relationship between Kenichi and the female robot Tima, as well as, to a lesser extent, the sympathetic robots Pero (dressed in a trenchcoat and fedora) and Fifi (a simple-minded but brave maintenance robot). These latter robots are design to serve, but develop connections to the human world that seem to make them human by extension. Tima was designed to conquer the Earth, but she is rescued from her own destruction by young Kenichi, who introduces her to the human world as well as the notion of identity. That fragile idea is shattered when she learns of her own artificiality, and she embraces her destructive abilities as programmed by the corrupt politician Duke Red--secretly the leader of the militant Malduk Party that despises mankind's reliance upon robots. By manipulating sunspots and seating ultra-robot Tima upon his "Throne of Power," he plots to topple Metropolis, as well as all other modern civilizations upon the planet.
The robots are also despised by members of the working-class (one complains that robots take all the jobs), though they're defended by some left-wing rebels who live in hiding, and who shelter Kenichi, Tima, and Kenichi's uncle, the detective Shunsaku. Meanwhile, Rock, the adopted son of Duke Red, hunts down Tima and tries to destroy her. He seems even more committed to Duke Red's theories than Duke Red is--all robots must be destroyed--but he's actually motivated by jealousy that she'll take his place in his father's affections (she's designed to resemble Duke Red's deceased daughter). Rock is the real villain of the piece, at every turn pulling out a revolver and shooting someone in cold blood. Yet because of his motivations, he's a tragic character: an orphan who can never be truly accepted by his adopted father, and so has to destroy the man he loves. More moving, more tragic, is Tima, who is just on the cusp of learning what it means to be human when she's forced to confront her true identity and true purpose.
The ideas behind Metropolis are hardly new. Certainly Blade Runner (and, by extension, Philip K. Dick) is a big influence here, just as it's been on Ghost in the Shell and other major anime films, although any story dealing with the limits of artificial intelligence and feeling must also be compared with 2001: A Space Odyssey and the works of Isaac Asimov. These themes are part of a long, rich tradition in science fiction. At this stage, a genre fan hardly expects revelations, just a pleasurable beating upon the same old drums. At that, Metropolis excels, as Rintaro and Otomo mine the characters and situations for an effective emotional resonance. They also keep the viewer delighted by the dense cinematic compositions, often cluttering the screen with events and movement, as Otomo does in his own films (Akira, Steamboy); and the viewer is kept bombarded with the cognitive dissonance of a jazz soundtrack, unrealistic, Disney-styled cel-animated characters, and slick CG sequences. These CG scenes, seven years later, are the only elements of Metropolis that have dated a little, ironically enough. Revisiting the film in 2008, I was struck by how refreshing the cel animation of Metropolis is; these days, it's a rare art form. More than that, Metropolis features truly accomplished character animation by the best animators in Japan (well, those that weren't working on a Studio Ghibli film, anyway).
What prompted revisiting Metropolis was finally acquiring a copy of the original manga, published in English (and, alas, mirror-image, left-right artwork to "conform to English-language standards") by Dark Horse Comics in 2003. Metropolis, along with other early Osamu Tezuka works, helped create the prototypical manga character design: large-eyed, expressive, exaggeratedly cartoonish. Yet I instantly recognized it as conforming to the style of the Walt Disney comics of the same period, and it took me back to my childhood, when I voraciously read reprints of those comics by talented artists such as Carl Barks. With that in mind, it's amusing (and a little strange) to see Tezuka poke fun at Disney by depicting giant killer mice--resembling Mickey Mouse--attacking the populace of Metropolis. No, that's not much like the Rintaro film; it bears more in common with the punk pop art of another anime, the defiantly bizarre Tamala 2010 (2003). Tezuka's Metropolis is its own, unadaptable beast. The plot wanders unforgivingly, making plain its serialized origins. There are many unnecessary characters and sideplots. Its conclusion is a bit lecturing, and not even fully supported by the story that's unfolded. These caveats aside, it's a fascinating read, if for no other reason than to see manga in its key formative moments, figuring out what it can borrow from the West and what can remain uniquely Japanese. It is also, like the film, unique enough from the style of modern manga to feel all the more refreshing.
Tezuka is fond of populating his panels with dozens of characters, each of them shouting disparate pieces of dialogue, which calls to mind early-20th century newspaper comics, especially those of Winsor McCay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland"). Some of the pages read like storyboards for a cartoon short, such as when one character runs directly toward the viewer, approaching panel by panel until we are swallowed by his mouth. But mostly Tezuka's Metropolis is whimsical, nonsensical. Few characters survive the transition to film intact. The big-nosed Duke Red, an iconic Tezuka creation, is an antagonist in both, manipulates sunspots in both, and orders the creation of a robot in both, although in the book he is an outlaw, not a politician. The robot, Michi, is actually asexual, with a button inside the throat that allows he/she to switch genders. As in the film, the robot does not know what it is, but when it finds out, it runs riot, attempting to destroy the human race (in the film, the robot--Tima--cannot be blamed, since she has been programmed to do this). Michi also looks quite a bit like Astro Boy. Kenichi has a much smaller role in the book, although his look is very close to his design in Rintaro's film. The creator of the robot, Dr. Laughton, is in both works; the uncle detective is in both. (Yet only Tezuka's has the nerve to include Sherlock Holmes as a central character.)
Tezuka hadn't seen Metropolis when he wrote and drew the book; he was only inspired by a still of the famous robot-creation moment from Fritz Lang's film. The result is a book that has nothing to do with the movie, other than the fact that it has a robot in it. When assigned to adapt this somewhat ludicrous (though oddly entertaining) manga, Otomo clearly decided to wed Tezuka's book more strongly to its inspiration. He incorporated the vertical social stratification of the 1927 Metropolis into the 2001 version; once again, the lower-class are literally lower than the upper-class, and once again, there is a subterranean, industrial, almost uninhabitable world beneath the glamour of the upper levels. The working class vs. the bourgeoisie conflict is carried over, as are the riots and rebellions. The Tower of Babel sequence from Lang's is here established by giving Duke Red a tower called the "Ziggurat"--and if you didn't get the reference, Otomo has one of his characters define the word as a Babylonian tower, "like the Tower of Babel." It helps to underline one of Otomo's chief concerns, ever present in his work: the apocalyptic ends of civilization when it grows to its utmost extremes--and the cyclical nature of society, as it picks up and rebuilds, reborn. Perhaps most obviously, Otomo settles the robot's gender as female and blonde, like Brigitte Helm's Maria, transformed into a machine in the original.
So is 2001's Metropolis an homage, and if so, to what? It seems to exist as part mirror, part prism, reflecting and refracting light, or common pop cultural strains in both science fiction cinema and Japanese manga. It's something to visit for pleasure, not intellectual enlightenment. It's a film about science fiction, about animation, for fans of both. Indulgent? As animation seems to retreat further into the darkness, the only torches held by Pixar and Studio Ghibli, Metropolis seems like one of the brighter flames that is now set to recede, recede, recede, until we look at it with a nostalgia similar to its creators' nostalgia for lost worlds of the past.