Metropolis Anime Review
US Release By
In a retro-future world the center of technology and power is the city of Metropolis. But within this utopia is unrest between the rich who run the city and the poor who live below its surface and whose jobs have been taken by countless robots. The powerful Duke Red, however, looks outward--to control not just Metropolis, but the world. To do this, he needs a secretly constructed robot, Tima. But when his adopted son Rock, distrustful of robots, tries to destroy her, she ends up lost in the slums beneath the city, with only the young Kenichi as her guide. Meanwhile, Kenichi's uncle Shunsaku Ban, a private investigator, is busy trying to figure out just what kind of plots are afoot in this mechanized city.
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Like Blade Runner with a '30s facade, Metropolis is a production like no other, a technological fable with a huge budget, grandiose vision, classic foundation, and distinctive style. But for all the visual spectacle and Cold-War flavor, I was never as engrossed by the story as I expected or wanted to be. It is an undeniable visual tour de force--a technically masterful, captivating vision of a modern world that never was. It is also hampered by loose directing, a weak plot, and characters who aren't given enough time to develop. Perhaps most interesting and simultaneously frustrating, it is a rare film designed to take full advantage of an expansive theater screen, but the effect is utterly lost on all but the largest home theater screens.
The combination of classic visual style and archetypal story should make Metropolis familiar enough for older viewers not accustomed to anime, and a must-see treat for fans of classic anime--everything Tezuka could have imagined. For everyone else, I would recommend seeing Metropolis at least once just for the visual spectacle, preferably in a theater or the biggest screen you can find.
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At its release, Metropolis was hyped, hyped, and hyped some more, but if you want to read raves you can get plenty from the mainstream press. To be sure, Metropolis is a production like no other, a technical wonder with a huge budget, grandiose vision, classic foundation, and distinctive style. But for all the visual spectacle, I was never as engrossed by the story as I expected or wanted to be.
Metropolis is something like what AKIRA might have been had it been made in the 1930s, perhaps not surprising since Otomo was responsible for the screenplay. Shades of Otomo's masterpiece (as well as his Order to Stop Production short) are visible everywhere: Political intrigue, social unrest, power run amok, and the grand scale of the setting and the production itself. But AKIRA is set in the cyberpunk future; Metropolis is more like Blade Runner with a '30s facade.
The city of Metropolis is modernist fantasy world blending cyberpunk-standard technologies with abundant Jazz-era flavor and echoes of bustling pre-WWII cities. More than just a representation of all the power and shortcomings of technology, it has a sense of life and dense humanity rarely captured on film. This city is as much the star of the movie as any of the characters.
Like a mechanized, technicolor version of an old newsreel, Metropolis is dominated by towering architecture that combines futuristic Empire State Building-era vision with imposing Soviet-style design. Its colorful and chaotic streets are crowded with all manner of citizens and clunky robots of every shape and size. The locales--from impossibly grand to tiny little nooks--are half the reason to watch the movie. From canyon-like surface streets and decadent ballrooms to densely-packed, seedy areas underground, every setting is an equally rich part of the city.
Metropolis--both the city and the movie set in it--is seasoned with early Cold War tensions. The loosely explained political undertones of the story hint at strained international relations, and there are references to the sort of superweapons and apocalyptic technologies that the Cold War gave birth to. Taking a step farther back in history, there is also a strong undercurrent of social revolution, touching briefly on the good intentions and often flawed execution of populist uprisings.
Interestingly, many of these themes--particularly the dichotomy between the decadent rich and the proletariat--are expressed visually instead of explained outright. The characters' surroundings reflect their personalities, from the stern, monolithic buildings and spartan rooms of Duke Red to the angry graffiti and messy hideouts of the revolutionaries, complete with pictures of Che and a Zapatista reference.
In short, Metropolis is flat-out gorgeous.
It is also faithful enough to Tezuka's style that some anime fans may not like it. The character designs, for example, are vintage Tezuka--quite old-fashioned-looking and somewhat cartoony by today's standards. Though most of the younger folk look like the anime prototype (Tezuka, after all, defined the style), many others feature hawk-like noses and ear-to-ear grins reminiscent of early Western animation. Kenichi also has Astroboy-style limbs so chunky they look downright odd. The character designs contribute significantly to the retro-future look of Metropolis, but are occasionally too cartoony for my taste.
The character animation is a similar story; for lack of a better word, it has an exaggerated "old fashioned" flair. I thought it seemed a little awkward, though there are some wonderfully expressive scenes.
Regardless of your taste in character design, Metropolis ranks among the finest looking anime films ever made. The incredible richness of the city is drawn with unparalleled detail and depth, and the gargantuan scale on which much of it is built is captured beautifully. Computer animation and cel art are blended flawlessly to create volume and dizzying pans in some scenes, while others rely almost entirely on exquisitely-painted backgrounds. The cinematic style is a similar fusion of old-fashioned live-action-style camerawork (such as quaint scene transitions) and thoroughly-modern impossible pans and flybys. Elsewhere, lighting, color, snow, and fire are combined masterfully to enhance moods and create some powerful images.
The visual scale of Metropolis is one of its strongest points, but also a serious issue on home video. Watching Metropolis on a TV is like watching home video of the Great Pyramids--you get the idea, but it's not the same as being there. There are only a handful of close-ups, and characters are often dwarfed by their surroundings, with the action occurring in a tiny part of the screen. Sitting in the front row of a theater, this is awe-inspiring--incredibly detailed crowd scenes and buildings towering above the street-level perspective. On video, tragically, anything but the largest home theater screens are going to leave you squinting (or missing the action entirely) in several scenes, and much of the effect in others will be almost completely lost.
It's a brave thing in this era of home video to make a film so willfully targeted at the big screen, so to do the vision justice you should watch Metropolis in a theater if you ever have the chance.
Here's the thing, though: Past the visual spectacle and historical significance of Metropolis, I didn't like it all that much. I think, like AKIRA, it's too much movie, not enough time.
My biggest complaint is that the story lacks punch. Although the plot is in brisk but unhurried motion from beginning to end, it's put together in a loose, rambling style. Action that should be edge-of-your-seat seems somehow too casual. Even several of the most dramatic and tragic scenes feel oddly relaxed. It does finally pull together in the last third of the movie, launching into a cliffhanger climax, but it's a little late at that point.
The characters also get short-changed for lack of time. I was pleasantly surprised that most (Kenichi excepted) are more than the caricatures they first appear. Even the bumbling detective is surprisingly competent, and Rock, ostensibly a villain, is the most interesting character in the movie. Unfortunately, Rock and Tima are the only characters given enough time to develop. Spreading the action among three groups doesn't help, and interesting characters like the revolutionaries are relegated to a couple of brief deep-sounding comments and the implication that there's more to them. Even Tima's sweet relationship with Kenichi--the foundation of the entire story--is abbreviated.
In contrast, the overarching plot--world domination, revolution, and betrayal--is unnecessarily convoluted. Not that it doesn't make sense, but a movie so archetypal--a robot with a heart--seems better suited to a more firmly-developed story.
Last up is the movie's soundscape, though as much of the story is told through action as dialogue. There aren't any particularly noteworthy performances in the capable Japanese cast. The English dub, while lacking the big-name stars of some of Disney's voiceovers, is equally good both dramatically and in terms of color. The writing is solid and accurate, and the casting impressively consistent with the original voices. The only significant difference is Pero, the detective robot, who is actually better in the dub--his amiable but dispassionate tone is perfect for a good Asimov robot.
The Jazz-heavy soundtrack is more interesting. The period music sets a light mood fitting the visuals and capturing the atmosphere of the world of Metropolis. There are upbeat, familiar tunes on the city streets, frenetic percussion accompanying a robotic fire brigade, and melancholy dirges. More traditional orchestral pieces are used toward the end where appropriate, but I question the decision to set the chaotic finale to "I Can't Stop Loving You." The juxtaposition is appealingly artistic, but the contrast is so jarring it nearly ruins the film's climax.
When you put all this together, it's hard to say exactly what Metropolis is, or whether anyone in particular will like it. It is a visual tour de force, a technical masterpiece, a captivating vision of a modern world that never was, and a technological fable. It is also hampered by loose directing, a weak plot, and simplistic characters. Older viewers unfamiliar with anime will find the look familiar enough and the vision compelling enough that they may well love it. Fans of classic anime will find everything Tezuka could have imagined--a must-see film. Anime fans who don't like classic anime probably won't like Metropolis either--the visual style is old-fashioned and the story an anime archetype. For everyone in between, I would recommend seeing Metropolis at least once just for the experience, preferably in a theater or the biggest screen you can find.
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If you want a similar political plot set in a much darker Cyberpunk future, try AKIRA. Similar questions of humanity and technology are dealt with in Key: The Metal Idol, and to a less similar extent in Ghost in the Shell. For a different story with a similar feel, most of Miyazaki's movies are worth a look--Laputa and Nausicaa in particular. The hard-to-find Robot Carnival and Neo Tokyo collections of shorts both have sections similar to Metropolis, especially The Order To Stop Production in Neo Tokyo. Finally, for the same general sort of detailed alternate world, Wings of Honneamise and perhaps the steampunk world of Sakura Wars are worth a look.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a manga story of the same name, written and drawn by Osamu Tezuka in 1949. It is available in English from Dark Horse.
Among the interesting visual nods in the background, the revolutionaries have pictures of Che and a Zapatista reference.
Bandai Visual has the official Japanese site with some information and the same famed hyperbolic quote from James Cameron that is used on the US DVD boxes.
Metropolis was released theatrically in both the US and Japan; it first opened in mid-2001, while the US theater run began a little later on 2002-01-25. In the US it was critically well-received but saw a rather limited release, although it did fairly well financially in the few theaters it was shown in.
The rest of this qualifies as spoilers, best skipped if you haven't seen the film.
There is an unusual visual touch in the scene where the minister, Lamp, is dying: A candle briefly appears over his head as he falls to the ground. This is a reference to Tezuka's various manga; the same character appears in different roles in several of Tezuka's other stories. It is a running joke (based on his name) that extreme emotion sometimes causes him to sprout a candle from the back of his head. (Thanks to Carl Muckenhoupt for pointing this out.)
Not that you'd expect realism, but there are major scientific problems with the doomsday weapon that the Ziggeraut is supposed to be. Though solar flares do cause electromagnetic disturbances on Earth (and create the aurora), the amount of energy that would go into producing a solar flare big enough to cause major electromagnetic disturbances on Earth would probably be far more than that required to cause the effect directly. It also wouldn't be so easy to turn a flare off once it was started. Most importantly, it takes a full 8 minutes for light to reach the sun, and 30 minutes to several days for the fallout from a solar flare to get to Earth--certainly not within their 3-minute demonstration.
US DVD Review
The DVD is a hybrid set featuring both a full screen and anamorphic widescreen video transfer, Japanese soundtracks in your choice of Dolby 5.1 or DTS, an English Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, plus a French stereo audio track. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish. There are a heap of extras, some of which are on the second "pocket DVD" (a 3-inch mini-DVD) of bonus materials; goodies include a range of interviews, notes, biographies, and historical information on the production and its creators, plus a making-of special and trailers.
Rated PG-13 for violence.
Violence: 3 - Though far from graphic, there are several violent scenes.
Nudity: 1 - Tima spends a chunk of the movie in an oversized shirt.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing.
Language: 1 - Fairly mild language.
Available in North America from Columbia Home Video on hybrid DVD. Was also available on dubbed VHS, now out of print.