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review by Amy Harlib
The Metropolis film that briefly enjoyed art house distribution in the USA and screened at the 2002 Big Apple Anime Festival, uses Fritz Lang's classic 1927 silent masterpiece for inspiration, borrowing its title and some basic plot components to craft a Japanese anime homage of nearly equal impressive stature. Based also on a Lang-inspired 1949 manga (or graphic novel) by the late Osamu Tezuka (a founder of the anime art-form in Japan whose classic TV series Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion were the first of their kind in America), the newly made Metropolis comes with principal creator credits worthy of Tezuka's legacy: director Rintaro (Galaxy Express: 999) and scripter Katsuhiro Otomo (who wrote and directed the seminal 1988 production Akira).
Their resulting endeavour, a science fiction fable, combines the latest CGI technology with traditional painted-cel animation to produce dazzling results. The movie tells a story in which the setting becomes as much a character as any of the inhabitants, referring to the eponymous cosmopolitan urban centre with its overwhelming monumental structural scale, intricate design, and rigidly enforced social order designating the surface and upper zones for the elite humans and the underground for the working classes and the lowest subterranean levels reserved for their rivals in drudgery - diverse robots, AIs forbidden to have names.
Played out in the city-state of Metropolis, a fascinating combination of hidden squalor beneath the hi-tech areas adorned with ubiquitous retro art-deco design motifs on its myriad structures, the plot focuses on several principal personages and the just-completed spectacular Ziggurat, an elaborate skyscraper dedicated to scientific achievement. Its creator however, business tycoon Duke Red (Taro Ishida), uses the Ziggurat to conceal a secret agenda. During the opening celebrations, Japanese detective Shunsaku Ban (Kousei Tomita) and his young nephew Kenichi (Kei Kobayashi) arrive seeking renegade scientist Dr Laughton (Junpei Takiguchi).
Too busy with the Ziggurat festivities to help them directly, the police assign the investigating pair a robot guide 803-D- RP-DM-497-3-C (Norio Wakamoto) whom Shunsaku Ban nicknames Pero. His invaluable assistance soon uncovers information proving Dr Laughton works for Duke Red. Before anything can be done about this discovery, a mysterious fire destroys Laughton's lab leaving an amnesiac waif in its wake, Tima (Yuke Imoto) who quickly bonds with Kinichi. Kinichi and his Uncle don't realise that Tima embodies Laughton's ultimate creation - an advanced robot nearly indistinguishable from humans - made in the image of Duke Red's tragically deceased daughter and designed to help him take control of the political/technological power of Metropolis and thus, the world.
To complicate things further, we have Rock, an interestingly sympathetic antagonist, Duke Red's neglected foster son and his precociously youthful Chief Security Officer insanely jealous of Tima and robot-hater par excellence. Rock, desperate for his father's approval, nevertheless relentlessly attempts to track down Tima seeking to destroy her and any of her allies. That all this eventually and predictably leads to an apocalyptic conflagration of a climax scarcely matters, for the characters and the subtextual theme of their struggle against a corrupt government's oppression possesses emotionally engaging appeal underscored by the profoundly poignant final scene in the ruinous aftermath.
The protagonists and their opponents are rendered in the stylised, cartoonish manner of Tezuka's original drawings. This only adds to their charm, so too the way they vividly stand out against their gorgeously detailed, remarkably varied backgrounds sometimes depicting the labyrinthine, duct and gadget-laden lower levels and at other times showcasing the gleaming expanses of awesome architecture or the richly textured interiors.
Metropolis, with its refreshing score smoothly flowing from bouncy, Dixieland jazz (with none other than multi-talented director Rintaro among the musicians) to dramatic symphonic modes at appropriate moments, represents anime at the top of its form. Even though its plot lacks the coherence of those of the master Hayao Miyazaki, the characters and the visuals in their distinctive style compare favourably. This movie and its dazzling metropolitan milieu replete with multi-hued towers of metalwork and circuitry so meticulously detailed; its spaces criss-crossed by vehicles, escalators and people-moving conveyor belts; its surfaces sprinkled with advertisements and murals; its sky filled with zeppelins and other aircraft; its denizens so diverse, intermingling with a fascinating array of self-aware robots and their sympathisers with their plight so involving - makes for a memorable, must-see entertainment experience for veteran anime aficionados. Metropolis also would be an excellent film to lure newcomers into the fold, never mind that it's a fabulous place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there.
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