Metropolis (2001) and The Long Kiss Goodbye to The 20th Century
Having to adapt the masterwork of one of the greatest directors of the 20th century is a task no sane person would take, especially when the work in question is Metropolis and that director is Fritz Lang. Having to adapt the masterwork of the most influential creator in Japanese history which was inspired by the masterwork in question is even more insane still, fortunately Rintaro is no sane man. The idea of the masterwork is one that tends to fascinate me if for no other reason than so few artists seem to achieve theirs, one only has to look at the laundry list of unrealized films by a Stanley Kubrick or Richard William's unfinished vision of The Theif and the Cobbler to see how rare it is to see a creator harpoon their Moby Dick, yet I feel that is exactly what Rintaro did with 2001's Metropolis. While the film bares the name of the late Osamu Tezuka it is important to note he never wanted to see Metropolis adapted onto the silver screen and had actually prevented the film's aforementioned director from making it several times whilst still under his employ at Tezuka productions. It is important to note this because much like Tezuka's manga Rintaro's adaption bares very little resemblance to its source material, beyond sharing a name and a handful of characters this film is almost one hundred percent the vision of Rintaro who had a hand in nearly every aspect of its production and created somewhat of a Frankenstein's monster of the best aspects of both Lang's and Tezuka's work whilst adding several new ideas of his own. Another notable voice involved in this production was that of fellow animation legend and auteur Katsuhiro Otomo whom Rintaro handpicked to write it's screenplay and was responsible for much of the film's theming, as well is the inclusion of the character of Rock, who wasn't present in the original manga. To say this was a who's who of Japanese animation would be an understatement. I recommend trying to track down the behind the scenes of Metropolis production as it is almost equally as interesting as the film in question and includes some funny anecdotes from the film's computer animators who at one point had to line their screens with plastic film because Rintaro would regularly draw on them as if they were made of paper when choreographing scenes. Stories like this illustrate just how much of a pioneering effort this film was at the time of its production and it's theme of old meets new.
Metropolis opens with an exclamation as Duke Red stands atop the Ziggurat extolling its virtues to the public far below, however the bombast of the celebration is interrupted by the gunshots of the Mardukes the private militia of Duke Red tasked with terminating all "malfunctioning" robots that escape from their designated zones and are the first hint at the civil unrest present in Metropolis. Witness to these events are private detective Shinsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi who have been hired to track the whereabouts of one Dr. Laughton, a scientist wanted for several human rights violations due to his experiments harvesting human organs and combing them with robot parts and is believed to be hiding somewhere in the underbelly of Metropolis. This interaction won't be the last time these characters are tied together and as the plot continues to unfold we are further introduced to the power dynamics and politics at play in Metropolis. I won't go into any further detail as I feel that is a film that has to be experienced to get the most enjoyment out of it, however I would like to examine some of themes at the center of Metropolis, namely the ones of fascism and war. Much of the imagery in Metropolis evokes that of the Third Reich, one could easily look at the Mardukes uniforms, their origin as a political party, their task of eliminating subversives and the young age of most of its members and draw several parallels to that of Nazi Germany. Another parallel would be the zone markings on the robots and the treatment of those forced to live below the surface, while the idea of the zones is partially lifted from Lang's Metropolis it is easy to compare them to that of the Jewish ghettos that Hitler had created in occupied countries prior to the completion of the concentration camps. In regards to war Metropolis paints much of the actions of Duke Red as a result of the previous war, from his adoption of Rock to his founding of the Mardukes, the construction of the Ziggurat and its hidden destructive nature as well as his secret funding for the creation of the android Tima. While I would classify Metropolis as an antiwar and anti-fascist film, it does not handle the subjects in a preachy manner the way some of its contemporaries of the anime genre have and instead looks to examine the effects both can have on a society and the correlation between the devastation of war and the rise subversive political movements as a whole. While not as dour as say Jin-Roh or the likes Grave of the Fireflies, Metropolis definitely can have its heavy moments and while it definitely can be cartoony at times, it goes without saying this is not a kids film!
It is impossible to talk about metropolis without bringing up the many ways it pays tribut to the Roaring Twenties, as the title of this review suggests Metropolis feels like one final tribute 20th century, the New Orleans Jazz influence of the score pairs almost perfect with the art deco style of the design and while Rintaro had fought to get this project off the ground it is hard to imagine it being made at any other point in history. As a beloved film professor of mine once stated "There's no such thing as being ahead of time, everything is very much of its time", this film is no exception, computer animation, while around for nearly two decades at this point was still a relatively new medium and many animation studios had yet to make the switch from traditional cel animation to digital. Metropolis embraces both the old and new with many of its transitions meant to evoke the films of yesteryear whilst the cgi landscapes and zeppelins were meant to give a glimpse into the future, Metropolis was a coming of age story not just for its lead characters Kenichi and Tima but in that of its production. When thinking of other films that try to evoke the swinging Jazz Age to modern audiences it always feels like they're pandering to modern sensibilities rather than embrace what made that era so special, Metropolis finds that perfect balance and comparing it to say the most recent adaptation of the Great Gatsby with its hip hop soundtrack and extravagant cgi set pieces is simply depressing. For all its faults Metropolis feels like a labor of love for all parties involved and I firmly suggest you go out and try find a copy of the recent Blu-Ray release, until next time.