***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A
screenplay by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, based on the comic book by Osamu Tezuka
directed by Rintaro
by Walter Chaw There is a sense of wonder inherent in the exploration of new mediums. A young Maxim Gorky's 1896 review of one of the first Lumiére Cinématographe shows in Russia begins, "Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows." As I began exploring the anime medium (not a "genre," I am assured, and I have come to concur) a scant couple of years ago, I felt similarly the interloper in a dreamscape conjured by a culture steeped in tradition, mythology, and the sort of artistic sensibility that could only evolve from the only people victimized by the most terrible weapon of mass destruction humans have devised. Anime is--perhaps predictably, then--often-post-apocalyptic (its themes exploring the existential by way of William Gibson's cyberpunk and Philip K. Dick's identity crisis) finding elements of the rapture in such rapturous fantasies as the lyrical Princess Mononoke, the viscerally charged Ninja Scroll, and the ferocious yet delicate Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind.
Yet anime's most visible cultural diffusion into the United States (at least until Princess Mononoke and Kawajiri's Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) has been "hard" science fiction films like Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell and Katsuhiro Ôtomo's seminal Akira (easily the most-quoted "first" for most North American anime junkies). If not for sci-fi fandom's willingness to accept new media for the dissemination of what J.G. Ballard defined as the three pillars of the genre (time, space, identity), anime may never have found an audience outside of Japan. And I can almost think of no greater tragedy than being denied the opportunity to see Isao Takahata's shattering Grave of the Fireflies, one of the two or three finest pictures made in the 1980s.
The medium's decades-long artistic and philosophical tradition reaches a distillation of sorts in the dazzling Metropolis. Directed by anime legend Rintarô (after helping with the first example of the medium in 1958 (The White Snake Enchantress), he went on to contribute to the groundbreaking television series "Astro Boy" and "Kimba the White Lion") and scripted by Akira writer/director Ôtomo from a 1940s manga by "God of Manga" Osamu Tezuka, Metropolis is a techno-horror cyber-punk film that spends a good portion of its middle section in the fairy tale bowels of its enchanted city. The film tells a story charged with filial jealousy, with the human responsibility to its sentient machinations--one that is the logical extension of Decartes's dictum of thought equalling "being," even in the electric minds of electric sheep.
Duke Red builds the Ziggurat, a massive edifice erected in the delusion of an island sanctuary that is more than a monument to human achievement: it's a plan by the Duke to wrest control of the Metropolis from its elected officials. With a wired throne at its nexus meant for the cyborg resurrection of his dead daughter Tima, Duke Red enlists mad Dr. Lawton as the Dr. Frankenstein for his unnatural creation. Tima is more literally a symbolic gesture of power than an urge for the return of a lost daughter; Duke Red, in this respect, is a post-modern analyst of old monster-movie subtexts. Tima, however, is lost when Duke Red's adopted son Rock discovers the creation and burns down the lab.
Parallel to Duke Red's grand scheme and setback is a tale of a trench-coated detective and his young nephew Kenichi, visiting Metropolis in search of Dr. Lawton, whose nefarious experiments have earned their attention. Their stories intersect with the Ziggurat when Dr. Lawton's lab is destroyed and Tima, for all intents and appearances a little girl lost, is saved by Kenichi and smuggled into the robot-controlled underworld of the great city. Above the social commentary and Oedipal complexities of the film in this environment, it's impossible not to be reminded of the World Trade Center, itself perched in its illusion of an island sanctuary, posed as an architectural symbol of man's achievement and demolished in the cause of someone's righteousness. The analogy, particularly in Metropolis' closing scenes, is dexterous and haunting.
There are counterbalances and contradictions in Metropolis: a computer-generated landscape populated by traditional hand-drawn cel animation; a futuristic setting (in what appears geographically to be a colonized Manhattan) coupled with a vintage jazz soundtrack; a hard-boiled detective intrigue married to what might be described as an Asimov trope; and a picture that retells the Biblical fate of Babel as a fable of reunification rather than of dispersal. With visual elements cribbed from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Welles's Citizen Kane, and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the true wonder of Rintarô's impossibly rich Metropolis boasts of a surprising number of lasting images all its own. (My favourite is a giant fish swimming in a two-story aquarium behind a police chief's desk.) The stickiest image remains the catastrophic ground zero offset by a pack of supposedly non-sentient robots (reminding of the band of metal brothers from Brian Aldiss's 1958 tale "Who Can Replace a Man?") that, having found their freedom, must now find their purpose. Metropolis, above everything else, is a startlingly dissident film.
Last night, I was in the Kingdom of Shadows, witness to the evolution of a medium for storytelling dazzling and piquant. Metropolis isn't a perfect film, but it's a brilliant one with themes almost as dense as its visual sensibility. Dante described heaven as a multifoliate rose unfolding, and like Dante's Paradiso, at Metropolis' heart is a girl, a symbol horrible and luminous, forever perfect and forever unattainable. It is as thoughtful as bridging literature should be. That it received a theatrical release, however limited, in the United States is cause for celebration.
Columbia TriStar's anamorphic widescreen DVD release of Metropolis is stunning. The colours of the 1.85:1 transfer are bright and faithful, contributing to a showpiece presentation with nary a thing to complain about in regards to either its visuals or any aspect of its 5.1 Japanese language soundtrack (in Dolby Digital and DTS options). (I'm too much the champion of reading subtitles and hearing the original vocal talent to endorse the equally gorgeous Dolby 5.1 English dub.) Rear channels are worked almost as hard as the subwoofer during the picture's climactic set-piece. Listen to the subterranean scenes especially for ambient effects; throughout, the dialogue is clear and dynamic.
With extras spread out over two discs in a lovely foldout package, the first DVD features three trailers--for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Cowboy Bebop, and Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles--along with an English-language trailer for Metropolis. The second disc, a seldom-seen three-inch "pocket" DVD, contains the bulk of the supplements, beginning with a thirty-minute "making of" docu indicated by an unusual amount of candour from director Rintarô and screenwriter Ôtomo concerning the probability that source author Tezuka would have both hated and forbidden this big-screen adaptation of Metropolis. While there are too many interludes that essentially recount the action of the film plot point by plot point, it's overall an uncommonly interesting piece that follows the five-year production of film through conception to voice casting/work to animation. I got a good chuckle out of Rintarô's assertion that the only things the Japanese are truly proud of are their anime and baseball players (Hideo) Nomo and Ichiro.
A "History of Metropolis" provides extended text on the making of the film without the personal anecdotes found in the documentary, an extensive photo gallery houses rough sketches of the characters and art design, and a rather nifty "Animation Comparisons" feature combines two finished sequences ("Wheel Room" and "City View") with 'angle'-accessible looks at their evolution from storyboard through to finished product. Filmographies for Rintarô and Tezuka reveal themselves to be somewhat sparse, although I did find the "Filmmaker Interviews" (essentially unexpurgated versions of the interviews found in the documentary) to be serious and informative. Originally published: April 23, 2002.