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Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Metropolis

Although I’ve recently focused on Katsuhiro Otomo’s directorial career, he’s played many different roles in the anime industry, most notably as a screenwriter. Between 1994 and 2004, Otomo’s directorial skills were concerned primarily with the lengthy, gruelling production on Steamboy. He did, somehow, manage to find time to oversee 1999’s Spriggan, plus write the script for the 2001 cinematic adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga Metropolis, directed by Rintaro. Rintaro and Otomo had previously collaborated on Madhouse studio’s 1987 anthology Neo Tokyo, each directing their own segment.

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Metropolis was one of Tezuka’s earliest published manga, a rambling, unfocused, and very odd science fiction tale based in the loosest of fashions on Fritz Lang’s famous 1927 silent movie of the same name. Tezuka had never even seen the original Metropolis, and was reportedly inspired to write his story by a single still image from the film. Dark Horse Comics translated and published Tezuka’s Metropolis into English in 2003, along with his other early works Nextworld and Lost World, all similarly pulpy and sci-fi themed.

Something of a prototype for his later Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), Tezuka’s Metropolis is a tragedy featuring the androgynous robot Michi who navigates a futuristic society where robots are mistreated and used as slave labour by humans. Any similarities with Lang’s film in terms of content and visuals are purely coincidental. Incidentally, Tezuka would later re-use Michi’s character design as Atom’s robot mother.

A scene from later in the movie demonstrates the vibrant use of colour in the city’s design, always full of people milling around. The city looks alive.

Rintaro and Otomo’s version of Metropolis is a creative but strange synthesis of the most basic narrative beats from Tezuka’s manga, with a closer homage to Lang’s original movie. Lang’s film explored class warfare, workers’ rights, and societal revolution. Otomo’s script lifts these themes wholesale, and Rintaro infuses his visuals with 1920s design motifs, and the soundtrack with appropriately vintage jazz and swing. It results in a visually stunning retro-futurist fable that functions as a period piece for an age that never truly existed, except in the popular imagination of early twentieth century writers and filmakers.

Something about this look familiar to you?

The city of Metropolis itself is a sprawling network of multi-level, labyrinthine streets, walkways and tunnels, with enormous skyscrapers whose reach extends dizzyingly towards the heavens. Towering above them all is the plutocrat Duke Red’s Ziggurat. The film begins with the camera swooping down from the pinnacle of the Ziggurat, down towards the opening ceremony of this titanic edifice, complete with the appearance of a statue of Lang’s robot Maria. The city is opulent, alive, teeming with people and robots, depicted on multiple moving planes. The attention to detail is astounding.

Atop the Zigurrat, an enormous, imposing weapons platform.

As an early example of CGI use in anime, the compositing of both 2D and 3D animation can look a little clunky, but much of the camera work, background detail and intricate machinery would be impossible without computer assistance. Although some instances have a little too much resemblance to pre-rendered PS2 cutscenes, the stunning art direction does a lot to make up for the technical limitations of the time. Even in busy crowd scenes, every character is an individual, moving in their own way, there are no visual shortcuts. For once, Tezuka’s cartoonish character designs are preserved, in all their exaggerated glory. Characters have thick, flared legs, huge noses, big eyes. Tezuka fans will easily spot every single one of his “star system” characters that he utilised like a theatre troupe across most of his works.

Private detective Shinsaku Ban and nephew Kenichi Shikishima with their robot friend.


Tezuka’s default hero character Kenichi, who stars in so many of his manga, is the main audience POV character. He’s a wide-eyed, innocent lad who accompanies his rough-around-the-edges uncle, the instantly recognisable Shinsaku Ban (often referred to in English translations of other Tezuka works as Mister Mustachio), cast true to form as a private detective, come to Metropolis in search of the rogue scientist Dr Lawton. Lawton has been engaged by the stupendously wealthy Duke Red to build a superintelligent android to whom will be given the controls to the Ziggurat weapons system.

It’s no accident that Duke Red looks hawk-like with his enormous nose — he’s a predator at the top of the food chain.
Mysteriously glowing girl — it’s an anime all right.

The magnificently-schnozzed Red is one of Tezuka’s common antagonist characters, usually cast as a corrupt authoritarian or rich nobleman, usually with sinister plans. It’s an open secret that Red also funds (and in fact founded) the radically anti-robot “Marduks” political group, and his adopted son Rock is one of his enforcers. Rock is almost psychotically jealous of Lawton’s android, he feels Red sees it as a better heir than his unstable adopted son. When Rock’s violent attack against Lawton destroys the clandestine lab, the android — now seen to be a young, blonde girl called Tima (who does not realise her inhuman nature)— escapes, and is found by a smitten Kenichi.

You may recognise the trigger-happy Rock from other Tezuka films like Space Firebird (Phoenix) 2772, one of the very first anime movies I ever saw, back in the mid-1980s.

So begins an extended chase sequence, as Kenichi and Tima flee through the various levels of the labyrinthine city, striving to stay one step ahead of the murderously reckless Rock. We see them descend through the slums, where poor workers lead a desperate life far beneath the glittering city’s surface, the streets cluttered with rubbish. They hide in a garbage heap and end up falling into the city’s waste disposal network, where they’re aided by the sweetest trashbot, Albert. Metropolis’ frankly stunning production design makes every level of the city distinctive, with backdrops of machinery that tirelessly move and rotate, armies of robots tending to the city’s mechanisms. There’s always something incredible to look at, even in the darkest, most grimy depths.

This still looks more like something from a Mamoru Oshii film.
Humorously ill-fitting clothes. There are some light-hearted touches, but overall it’s a fairly serious movie.

Tima is painted as an almost mythical, angelic figure — innocent and shining, drawing gasps from the people watching her. Kenichi’s role is an amalgamation of surrogate parent and chaste love interest, teaching her basic life lessons, like how to speak and what is safe to eat. They’re caught up in the midst of a bloody revolution, as the exploited underclass rise up against their rich masters who would replace them with even more readily-exploitable robots. There are a few upsetting scenes of human-on-robot violence that wouldn’t look out of place in The Animatrix (also 2003). This is where the film’s message gets a little muddled, because there are multiple factions at play here, and none of their motivations are properly explored.

Unfortunately, detective robot here dies a pointless, cruel death in an almost throwaway scene. This seems to be deliberate.

First there’s the poor people, whose rebellion, it seems, was always doomed. They resent the robots for understandable reasons. Then there’s the Marduks, set up by the nobility, to destabilise society’s reliance on robots by instigating episodes of externally-induced robot rampages. I’m never quite sure what their end game is here, especially as their founder plans to make a robot the default ruler of the city. I’m also unsure as to the ultimate purpose of the Ziggurat, and its weapon platform that triggers solar flares that sends robots berserk. Is it to be used to conquer the world or something? Then there’s the political class who cozy up to Duke Red when it’s convenient, and who are then ruthlessly disposed of in Red’s coup attempt, parallel to the workers’ revolution. And finally, there’s the poor robots themselves, gifted with some degree of autonomy, but no ability to fight for (or perhaps even recognise) their own desires.

Tima ascends to godhood
That’s not a god I’d want to worship…

This confusion comes to a head in the movie’s climax, where Duke Red has incapacitated Kenichi, captured Tima, and informs her of her true nature. Something in her little positronic brain breaks (not exactly helped by an unhinged Rock shooting her point blank in the chest and the bullet completely failing to kill her), and she takes her place on the Ziggurat’s metal throne — not to follow her “father” Duke Red’s instruction, but instead to wreak vengeance on behalf of the robots that society has abused. This scene looks incredibly cool, but comes as such an abrupt heel-turn that the first time I watched it, I was extremely confused as to what was happening. However, this is only following the general shape (if not the specific details) of Tezuka’s manga — in it, Tima’s equivalent, Michi, instigates a robot revolution and attacks Metropolis and the humans residing there.

The source of many childhood nightmares.

Once sitting on the throne, the Ziggurat starts to fall apart, and multitudes of metallic wires attach themselves to Tima as her visage becomes less human and more mechanical — it’s a scene deeply reminiscent of that one unsettling part of Superman III that scarred me as a child. You know the one, where the random woman is pulled into an evil machine, confined by wires and has bits of metal jammed onto her? Yeah. Anyway, this leads to the climax which is by far the most Otomo part of the film. Metropolis E.X.P.L.O.D.E.S. Or, at least the Ziggurat and a bunch of surrounding skyscrapers do. Set to an incongruously sentimental soundtrack of Ray Charles’ I Can’t Stop Loving You comes one of the most explosion-porn-filled conclusions in anime cinematic history, surpassed only by Otomo’s own Steamboy three years later.


As a piece of stunning, explosive spectacle it’s certainly impressive, and memorable, but almost feels like it belongs to a different film. It provides the briefest, most brutal conclusion to various character’s storylines, not only Duke Red and Rock’s, but to Tima herself, falling to her death. It leads me to wonder what the point of any of it was? What does this film even say in the end? Is it fable about man’s over-reliance on technology? A (timely…) rebuke to the over-reach of amoral mega-billionaires? A warning of the dangers of human-robot romance? It isn’t clear. Perhaps this confusion originates from its bizarre Frankenstein’s monster concept of ramming together two stories that, although sharing a name, share barely anything else in common with one another.

Like a modern day Tower of Babel, signifying the hubris of mankind leading to divinely-ordained destruction…

It’s definitely one of the very best-looking anime movies ever produced, and it features a great many show-stopping moments of beauty and spectacle, but in the end, Otomo’s script fails to properly explore any of the story’s concepts or nuances over and above the barest minimum necessary to provide a framework from which to attach exploding skyscrapers. Tima herself is a bare cipher of a character (as one might expect, given her background, I suppose), but her final turn to enemy of mankind lacks any kind of emotional punch. Kenichi’s desperation to save her, to communicate with her, is well realised, but instead of heartbreak at his loss, we’re left more with stunned confusion. Perhaps that was what Otomo was aiming for, but I do look for a bit more in the way of satisfying emotional resolution in my films.

BZZZZZZT! And it’s a goodnight from Tima, and a goodight from me!

Directed by: Rintaro
Screenplay by: Katsuhiro Otomo
Based on: Metropolis by Fritz Lang, Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka
Production company: Madhouse
Japanese cinematic release: May 26th, 2001
UK DVD release: July 22nd, 2002, Columbia Tristar
UK blu-ray release: March 13th, 2007, Eureka Entertainment
Languages: Japanese audio with English Subtitles, English audio
Runtime: 104 minutes (PAL DVD) 110 minutes (blu-ray)
BBFC rating: PG

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Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.

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