Osamu Tezuka was so taken with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that he had to create his own version. In 1949, Tezuka was one of Japan’s favorite young cartoonists. His New Treasure Island series had been a big hit, and subsequent stories using many of the same cartoon “actors” had only increased his popularity. His work had turned more to science fiction by then, and he’d recently completed his own comic version of The Lost World. Within a few years, Tezuka would be the most successful cartoonist since Disney.
Metropolis is one of his minor works, considering he would create Astro Boy – based on some of the same concepts – two years later. The film adaptation of his manga was one of the last projects of his life. It’s only right that Rintaro, who had started working with Tezuka on the Astro Boy TV series, be the one to continue Tezuka’s work in feature animation. And it’s only fitting that Katsuhiro Otomo, who created such an enduring Metropolis of his own in Akira, write the script for the feature.
The mayor of the giant city has just declared a week-long celebration in honor of the opening of the Ziggurat, the largest building ever constructed. But for Duke Red, the billionaire who built the structure, Ziggurat is more than a monstrous vertical city – it’s a huge machine that can take control of all the world’s computer systems. The key to that machine is Tima, the most advanced robot ever created, formed in the image of Red’s deceased daughter. Down in the lower city, Dr. Laughton has been working on the highly illegal experiments necessary for Tima’s creation in secret for quite some time. Private Detective Shunsaku Ban has come from Japan, along with his nephew Kenichi, in pursuit of Laughton.
Rock, adopted son and security chief of Duke Red, learns of the scheme and is jealous. He finds Laughton’s lab, murders the scientist, and sets fire to the building. However, Shunsaku and Kenichi arrive in time to save a young girl from the fire. The unknowing robot Tima and Kenichi quickly form a deep bond. Extremist groups on both sides of the robot issue are manipulated by the city’s elite in their struggle for power, and are useful in returning Tima to Duke Red. When Tima takes her seat in the psychotronic chair high atop the Ziggurat, will it bring about the paradise that Red envisions, or destroy the world?
Well considering this film was made in Japan, a country obsessed with building huge sandcastles and kicking them down, rest assured the climax involves a lot of destruction. Perhaps it was these images, in the wake of 9/11, that made Sony decide not to give Metropolis a wider dubbed release to theaters. Which is a shame – I usually prefer my foreign language films subtitled, but the visuals of this one are so incredibly gorgeous that I found it distracting to tear my eyes away from them to read the dialogue. Sony, by the way, is the world leader in the field of ‘entertainment robots’, and they’re using Metropolis as further promotion of their planned Astro Boy feature.
The temptation with recent projects adapting Tezuka has been to “modernize” his character designs, which are considered too cute for his more mature material. It’s gratifying to see that Rintaro has retained the Master’s original ‘cast’, and that any new characters have been designed in the same style, creating the perfect counterpoint to the heavy issues being dealt with. Another nice touch is the soundtrack, a blend of classic big band jazz and electronica perfectly suited for this world of people and robots. Many aspects of Metropolis have since been adopted many times for other works of science fiction, and will thus be taken as clichés by some viewers. That’s too bad – it’s like rejecting the Mona Lisa because you’ve seen too many smiley faces.