There are many anime that look spectacular, and many that exude great emotional power. And then there are a blessed few that accomplish both of those things, without compromising either one. Metropolis starts off in the first category, but moves into the second, and ends by unifying them. It's good that it's lavish and exhilarating to look at, but even better that it has charm and ultimately heart. Fifteen-plus years after it first appeared, it's been reissued on Blu-ray, and I find myself moved by it as least as much as I was dazzled.
Metropolis, released in 2001, sports a production team that reads like a Who's Who of anime greats. The director is Rin Taro, of Harmagedon and the lamentably unreissued Dagger of Kamui; the writer is Katsuhiro Ōtomo, of AKIRA; and the original story was by Osamu Tezuka, whose voluminous credits would bump any dozen other creators. Each of them delivers their own specialty. Taro fills the screen from edge to edge with spectacle; Otomo's script deals with the same kind of conspiracies of power and images of apocalyptic devastation that AKIRA did; and Tezuka's story is about individuals seeking their own humanity in an increasingly inhuman world — whether or not those individuals were even human to begin with.
Word has it that when Tezuka created the manga Metropolis was derived from, he hadn't seen the Fritz Lang film of the same name; all he'd seen was a single still from the movie, and his imagination took it from there. Tezuka's story opens in roughly the same setting, a mega-urb with buildings fingering the sky like so much abstract sculpture, while in the subterranean levels below, the proletariat wrestle with each other in shantytowns and recycling robots scrub the streets clean.
Into this city come two visitors, the young Kenichi and his uncle, a renowned Japanese detective. Their mission is to find the missing Dr. Lawton, a mad scientist, but the city's administrators are unwilling to lend much of a hand. They eventually pair Kenichi and company with a robot detective, a stolid but devoted fellow whose presence becomes an object lesson in how little humanity thinks of robots.
Like any self-respecting mad scientist, Lawton has been busy building things that go against both god and man. His most recent creation is an android, Tima, a recreation of the dead daughter of his employer, the wealthy and powerful Duke Red. (Fans of Astro-Boy will recognize a common origin here.) Red has just unveiled another project to the world — the "Ziggurat", a massive tower that to the uninitiated looks like an architectural marvel, but spits out discharges that allow Duke Red to control the sun.
Red has an adopted son, Rock — a smirking, insufferable creature, one of a set of recurring characters Tezuka uses between different works. Rock has nothing but contempt for robotkind; in the opening scenes, he blows the legs off a robot that dares to disturb the ceremonial unveiling of the Ziggurat. Aside from himself, the only thing he cares about is currying the absolute favor of his "father", and to accomplish that he tries to destroy Tima before Lawton can give her life. Kenichi and his uncle stumble across the ensuing chaos, and Tima and Kenichi disappear together into the bowels of the city, pursued by all and sundry.
Homo ex machina
Tima embodies the central question of the movie: If something calls itself human, believes itself to be human, and has many of the qualities we would associate with being human, is it in fact human? When Kenichi first rescues Tima, he isn't thinking about those kinds of questions yet — he's more puzzled by how quickly she evolves from a creature that can do little more than parrot back other peoples' words to a being with autonomy, imagination, and desire. Kenichi himself is something of a naïve sort, a shōnen-hero type who wants only to see the best in others, who sees in Tima something to be defended at all costs from Rock's gun-toting goons, and is either courageous or crazy enough to flee along with Tima through the hardscrabble lower levels of the city. (Said chase provides us with one of many grand opportunities for the production team to show off the movie's splendid production design.)
Tima does not see herself as anything but human, as any other possibility would be unthinkable. Red doesn't so much see Tima as inhuman as see everyone, her included, as one extension of his ego or another. What Red ultimately wants for Tima — what Rock wants to destroy her for, and what Kenichi ends up trying to save her from — is to have her plug into the giant throne at the apex of the Ziggurat, and to command its power for his own sake. The worst thing about this is not merely that it would make Tima into Duke Red's puppet, but that it would expose her true nature to herself: that she is not in fact a human being like her new friends, but a synthetic creation. It's not that she feels contempt for other robots, either; one of the trash-recycling droids in the undercity becomes a good ally to both her and Kenichi, and she returns the favor as best she can. It's that other humans will no longer see her in the same light — that yes, even someone as open-hearted and stalwart an ally as Kenichi himself might turn away from her.
It's something of the fate of any great-looking movie to be powered largely by spectacle. You can't put a city this huge on the screen and not feel obliged to gawk at it in most every shot, and there are countless times when Metropolis more than lives up to its namesake to do just that, with the characters at bottom center or off to the side, shadowed and diminished by neo-Modernist walls of glass and aluminum. But the story's construction, its focus on the bond between Tima and Kenichi, and on all the ways Tima is perceived by the world around her, keep it from drowning in art-directed bliss. That said, I adored many of the movie's design touches, as when Tima and Kenichi's uncle hide out in a hotel made out of repurposed railway cars. Said scene also features another snazzy visual, Tima hacking into the city's networks via phone a la either David Cronenberg's Scanners or The Matrix — but for me any homage was second to how this brings Tima all the closer to realizing she's not what she thinks she is.
Art forms can have surprising ways of embodying their stated ideals. One aspect of the story that I saw reflected in its own design decisions is how Tezuka's characters — rounded, self-consciously Disney-esque, even when they're used to depict sneering villains — are deliberately offset by all that hulking, impersonal grandeur around them. Even the villains, in their cartoonishness, have a frailty to them, one shown up all the more when they are consumed by a variety of the mayhem Ōtomo also unleashed at the climax of AKIRA. That said, characters and setting clearly belong in the same movie: the characters and their surroundings share common color schemes, and the mix of hand-drawn (character) and digital (background) animation is undistracting. And rather than go with a bombastic orchestra or icy synthesized music a la Blade Runner, the soundtrack goes the wholly humanistic route, with Dixieland jazz and swing for the movie's score, and Ray Charles's "I Can't Stop Loving You" used to devastating effect near the end.
The heart of a droid
Over the last couple of decades, a great deal of Osamu Tezuka's work was published in English for the first time. The sheer breadth and vigor of his body of work is likely to be invigorating to anyone with a curiosity about comics, but I imagined it would be doubly startling to those who only knew him by way of works like Astro-Boy. Then again, there was nothing "only" about Astro-Boy, certainly in the sense that it hardly lacks for a crucial theme he would return to time and again across the whole body of his work: If humanity creates new things in its own image, how can we call those things less than human? Especially if those very things see themselves as human, too? The least we owe them is our compassion, if only for our own sakes.
Metropolis, the original manga, was one of Tezuka's titles that did make the leap across the language barrier. I read it some time ago, and if memory serves the movie makes no attempt to adapt it directly — it cherry-picks a couple of ideas from the original story, and deposits them in a new, far more streamlined plot. To my mind this wasn't a mark against the film; many of of Tezuka's earlier works (this one dates from 1949) are clunky and overcrowded, and the elements at the heart of this story benefited from being liberated from the surrounding clutter.
What came through even in the original, rather overloaded story, was Tezuka's desire to engage with big themes and not look away. Sometimes he did that with wide-gauge spectacle (Buddha, Phoenix); sometimes he did it in the context of a story that someone of most any age could read, but which could be revisited as you grew up and discover new things in (again, Astro-Boy, and also works like Princess Knight). Metropolis, in its movie version, is a bit of each: it has the grandeur and sweep of Tezuka's most ambitious projects, but at its heart is the sincerity and directness of a children's story.
When I first reviewed Metropolis, I mentioned, if only obliquely, a question a number of people had asked then and have asked since: What is it about animation — hand-drawn or non-forensic CGI — that confers onto a story something that seems inaccessible to live action? The term I came up with since then to explain this phenomenon was "pre-suspension of disbelief". An animated film, by dint of being animated, puts your mind into a different, more accepting space than anything putatively live-action does. When applied to Metropolis, it makes for something a little less like science fiction or a generic action movie, and something more akin to mythmaking or fable-spinning — something, in short, a good deal closer to what Tezuka himself was trying to conjure up.