Our review of Giorgio Moroder presents: Metropolis (Region 2), published July 5th, 2012, is also available.
"Every epoch dreams its successor."—Jules Michelet (Epigraph for the film)
It is a future that never happened, full of soaring art deco architecture and jazz music. In the faraway city of Metropolis, the people celebrate the completion of the towering Ziggurat. Cheerful public-address systems declare the start of a thousand year empire and the climax of humanity's scientific achievement. Fireworks spray across the cityscape like a glorious artillery barrage. Welcome to our technological paradise.
But this is, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad, a paradise of snakes. The mistreated robot workers that live in the underground zones are getting uppity. The huge underclass of humans left out of work by the robot servants are preparing for revolution. The president is corrupt and in league with the revolutionaries. And Duke Red, builder of the Ziggurat and secret backer of the fascistic Marduk Party, has a plan to seize total power through technological dominance.
His secret weapon: an innocent and pretty robot named Tima. But when Duke Red's jealous adopted son Rock, leader of the Marduks, sets Tima loose in the city, it is up to private investigator Shunsaku Ban and his wide-eyed nephew Kenichi to keep Metropolis from total destruction.
What is a revolution? In one sense, it is a moving forward, a progression. We overturn the old, and replace it with the new. Several revolutions of this sort are brewing in the city of Metropolis. One is political: Duke Red's coup d'etat against the legitimate power of the state, in an effort to usher in a technocratic paradise centered around his great Ziggurat (and yes, the film does point out the Tower of Babel comparison). Two are social: the uprising of humans, led by the Marxist guerilla Atlas, against the robots; the uprising of robots, precipitated by Duke Red's dangerous conspiracy, against their immediate persecutors (the Marduk Party) and the human race that relegated them to the lower zones. Two revolutions are technological: Duke Red's plan to overwhelm Metropolis with his gadgets; the evolutionary transition between human and robot, centered around Tima's search for her own identity.
But there is another sense of the word revolution: a circle. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Duke Red is just as corrupt as the president he seeks to topple. The social revolutions trigger frenzied backlash (the images of bodies in the snow reminiscent of the Cossack assault in Doctor Zhivago). And the technological revolution?
Look at this city. Its retro design should remind us of futures past, of epochs dreamed but never come. Metropolis is a fusion of our hope for progress and our acknowledgement that every epoch is indebted to its many pasts, as well as its successors. Indeed, the film is a meeting of minds: modern animation legends Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999 and X) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) refashioning an early work by the "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka, always looking forward, would have hated the idea, and certainly turned down Rintaro's request to adapt the original comic while he was alive. But, Metropolis functions in part as a tribute to that pivotal figure on the Japanese popular culture landscape. Rintaro himself pitches in with some clarinet solos on the soundtrack, and famous anime artists like Go Nagai drop by for voice cameos. Otomo's screenplay is fashioned as both an update of Tezuka's story (adding or altering a few characters to appeal to contemporary audiences) and a peppier version of his own Akira. Notice the story parallels: a city on the verge of social collapse (where rebels groups take to the streets) is nudged over the edge by a confused young person traumatized by technology.
But, Metropolis seems much brighter in tone than Akira (and less muddled by philosophical tangents): the action is briskly directed (the chase scenes reminiscent of Miyazaki's steampunk classic Laputa) and the art design less realistic. Yet, there is something quite familiar about the film's ambivalence toward technology…and that name.
Metropolis. If there is a fourth artist that seems to go unmentioned here, Tezuka's own predecessor, it is Fritz Lang. Metropolis, especially in its visions of social stratification and critique of techno-fascism, owes a debt to Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis (conceived with his then-wife Thea von Harbou, who joined the Nazis while Lang fled from them). In a sense, the new Metropolis is, if not an actual remake of Lang's film, then a "reimagining" (to borrow a phrase applied to a Tim Burton film that shall remain nameless) that uses Tezuka's work as a bridge between Lang's world and our own. Director Rintaro plays on the connection, fashioning a world of scratchy propaganda films, dial telephones, and zeppelins while hinting at androids and internets unimagined in the jazz age. He mixes new images like holographic aquariums and with old techniques like iris transitions to make the film always seem both fresh and familiar. Clearly fascinated by the details of this city, his inventive direction gives the action sufficient energy to carry the film past its sometimes overconvoluted plot and melodramatic characterizations.
And if Metropolis does have a noticeable flaw, it is that its characters, drawn in the style of Tezuka's comic-book reparatory company (he used the same faces from comic to comic, as if he had his own company of actors he would cast in different parts), do occasionally come across as oversimplified. Perhaps this is just as well: just as in Lang's original, the characters in Metropolis are more allegorical than realistic. How could they not be, in such a city of futures past? And there are so many key players in this drama, that occasionally Otomo's story seems pressed to find reasons to pull them all together. Of course, they must all be in place in time for the requisite apocalyptic climax, less horrifying perhaps than Akira, but certainly more ironic (Ray Charles sings a bittersweet "I Can't Stop Loving You" over the chaos, as Rintaro seemingly borrows from another critique of technocracy, Dr. Strangelove).
Ultimately, Metropolis does succeed, in part because of its sumptuous look and its focus on action over rhetoric, but mostly because all the principles seem to have a sense of fun about the project. In an interview on the second disc of Columbia TriStar's DVD release of the film, Rintaro admits that his real interest in adapting Metropolis was to push his own creative skills and create "a perfect vision of science fiction comics." Successfully reaching into the history of 20th century science fiction (Lang in the 1920s, Tezuka in the 1940s, Otomo in the 1980s, and the latest animation technologies of the new millennium), he has brought out his best work in years. Sony has released its American version of Metropolis in a handsome package, with a sharp anamorphic print. While the press releases stated that the film would be offered in both widescreen and full frame, this disc appears to be only widescreen. Better than the alternative, I suppose. Best of all, the soundtrack defaults to the original Japanese, with the option of 5.1 or DTS. A serviceable English dub (in 5.1) is available, but I am glad Sony gave preference to the original soundtrack here. There are plenty of subtitles to go around, including two English versions—one literal (and subject to awkward translations or mispronunciations, like "Malduk" instead of "Marduk"), and one designed for the U.S. theatrical release (which is oddly playing at a local theater as I write this).
All the extras are on disc two, which is, for reasons known only to the marketing wizards at Sony (and remember, these are the same geniuses who came up with David Manning and Superbit), a two-inch mini-disc, called here a "pocket DVD." The disc is a bit hard to handle, but at least this is a tacit admission by Sony that the extra content does not actually fill up a whole second disc (which is rarely the case these days with most double-disc sets). In any case, the second disc offers a gallery of character and art design sketches, a multi-angle comparison of two sequences to show how cel animation and CG effects were merged on screen, and nicely formatted biographies of Rintaro and Otomo. Even better: an essay offering background on Tezuka's original manga (published 1947-49) and how it made the transition to the screen (and what specific character changes were made). No mention is made of Fritz Lang however, and I would have liked to see perhaps a chapter or two of the original manga, as a taste of Tezuka's early work (of which too little is available in the United States).
The centerpiece of the second disc is a promotional television special for Japan's Animax channel, "The Making of Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis." Although the first half seems padded with film clips, we do get to see a bit of Tezuka's original manga and even some of his rare sketches (go see more of his work at the Tezuka World website). We visit the voice actors, Mad House production studios, and an extensive interview with Rintaro and Otomo. All the interviews seem loose and relatively candid, especially with the director and writer. Both clearly had a vision for the film, and not just an excuse to show off computer graphic gimmickry. They talk about developing characters and a "fun, solid storyline," according to Otomo. Rintaro especially, having worked directly with Tezuka on the Astro Boy television show, seems amused by his admission that the legendary artist would have hated the film and will probably haunt him as a ghost. The second half of the special offers more in-depth interviews: Rintaro and Otomo talk about the differences between Disney's production methods and those of Japanese studios (surprisingly favoring Disney's well-organized model), and we hear more from the principle voice actors and the film's composer, jazz musician Toshiyuki Honda.
And in case you have not heard enough from Rintaro and Otomo, the disc also offers eight more minutes of interview footage, where the director chats more about his relationship with Tezuka and screenwriter Otomo gets to gloat about the thrill of "the perfect city being destroyed." All these interviews are quite welcome, not only giving us a behind-the-scenes look at a marvelous film, but driving home the sense that Metropolis was, even with its enormous budget ($15 million, huge for a Japanese animated film) and high profile, a real labor of love.
And it is as a labor of love that Metropolis is best enjoyed. It is pure spectacle, with just enough depth in its political and social critique to avoid superficiality. Its retro art style gives it an appealing timeless quality, an allegory about the relationship between humans and technology that sums up the core of all science fiction. Maybe I am partial to this film because of its art design—I am a sucker for big cogwheels and jazz music—but Metropolis is an enjoyable ride however you look at it. And Sony has done a fine job packaging this film for American audiences.
This court orders the dismantling of Duke Red's Ziggurat with all due speed. Sony is released for good behavior. In spite of suggestions to the contrary, Osamu Tezuka would probably be proud of the honor done him by this film and its creators. Case dismissed.
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• Animax Special: The Making of Metropolis
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