While it takes a lot of liberties with Osamu Tezuka’s source material, Metropolis is a thought-provoking and stunning piece of animated action.
The relationship between man and robot is a topic of discussion that has been asked and analysed over and over again. What makes us human? Where do the differences between us end? Was Deckard a replicant or not?
And here we have Metropolis, an animated film based loosely off of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga. Coming from the man whose most famous creation Astro Boy is entirely about the relationships between humans and robots, it’s almost inevitable.
So what’s it about? In the Metropolis, the unofficial leader of the city Duke Red, has erected a new gargantuan skyscraper he claims will “light up the stars” and extend mankind’s power. The city holds a week-long celebration for this as our heroes, private detective Shinsaku and his nephew Kenichi, arrive on the scene, looking for a man suspected of trafficking human organs.
They find the man, who we see is working for Red in building an intelligent human-like robot, but before they can get any answers, Red’s adopted son Rock – leader of a vigilante party existing to keep robot-human relations calm – burns down the lab, fearful this new robot will overshadow his father. While Shinsaku escapes, Kenichi finds this bot – a girl named Tima – and rescues her, unaware she isn’t a human. Interests conflict and the mystery thickens as we learn more about Red’s plan, as well as of a revolution slowly bubbling away beneath the surface of the city.
The film uses a few points of reference from the Fritz Lang film of the same name, especially the idea of the bustling city thriving due to the crazy hard work put in by the people underground, and it helps solidify the robot-human questions the film asks. Will their mistreatment of robots cause a revolt, like with the labourers in the Zones? Metropolis doesn’t spend too much time pondering the answers. It has more important things to do.
Director Rintaro has a massive, exciting world here and manages to showcase it wonderfully. We don’t see much of the world outside of the Metropolis, but you don’t necessarily need to. There’s an unspoken globalisation here: the protagonists both hail from Japan yet have no problem fitting in or communicating with the people around them, regardless of class. The world the film is set is bustling with all kinds of people and the plot does well in not making everything black and white. Everyone has different goals – Shinsaku wants the case solved, Kenichi wants to keep Tima safe, Rock wants to protect his father’s honour – and the way they blend together makes for a movie that’s interesting and gripping all the way through.
However, it suffers somewhat in its main character. The problem here isn’t that Kenichi doesn’t do much because he does, so much as he’s so incredibly boring a character. We know nothing of his history, or who he is, other than a vague indication that he’s good, and unlike the other characters who have jobs they can default into (the wary private detective, the megalomaniac, the … naive robot?) he just sort of exists as a template of blankness, and the questions keep piling on. How did he end up working for his uncle? What’s his stance on human-robot relations? How old even is he? The film doesn’t try to answer these questions – it’s less bothered by characterisation and more interested with ideas and visuals, although it’s hard to blame it for that.
Metropolis is a visual treat. Every frame is gorgeous, colourful and full of imaginative set and character designs. Tezuka’s trademark visual style is all over this, despite it coming out a good decade after his death, although while Astro Boy and Kimba were fairly light-hearted, Metropolis delves into some pretty dark territory and his typical big, goofy eyes and cute designs can be a bit jarring when they’re all firing machine guns at one another. But that’s nitpicking.
Frankly, I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Even the CG animated backgrounds work really well, which is a bit of a surprise. It’s rare to see a CG background blend so well into the 2D environment. The animation is flawless, and each scene, with its unique colour palette, oozes atmosphere.
Verdict: Metropolis is an exciting and gripping film that is just great to watch. The story can feel a bit familiar at times, and the characters aren’t the most developed, but it doesn’t matter. Being sucked into this fictional universe and the adventures happening is the biggest factor and for that it exceeds greatly.