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Metropolis: The Forgotten Madhouse Masterpiece

by Matthew Roe,

While the title of this video is definitely attempting to write a sizable check, I'll have to throw an asterisk on that. This film could have been one of anime's greatest masterpieces, and in many aspects, the 2001 feature film Metropolis still holds up today as a stunning animated marvel. In this essay, I'll be going through my biggest delights and gripes with the film, understanding why its sum is ultimately less than its parts. But, I will say right now that one thing continues to baffle me: Why did we forget this movie?

Produced by Studio Madhouse over a five year production cycle, with reported ¥1 billion budget, the project was helmed by two anime titans: director and Madhouse co-founder Rintaro, and screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo, the mastermind behind the landmark manga and anime film, Akira. But it doesn't stop there. If you parse the encyclopedia on ANN, you'll soon find how much talent this undertaking brought to the table. I will name-drop as we go, but based on the pedigree alone, this anime was seemingly built to impress.

The film was adapted from Osamu Tezuka's 1949 manga of the same name (and by this point we collectively shouldn't have to explain who the Godfather of Manga is, but if you don't know Tezuka, check out my career rundown on Hideaki Anno where I go into more detail). While Tezuka had never seen the original 1927 silent film by Fritz Lang when creating his manga, he reportedly took inspiration from publicity stills of Brigitte Helm as the The Machine Man. The Metropolis manga would become one of his first sincerely popular works, in which he would explore the facets of humanity via a technocratic dystopia. He would refine these concepts in his seminal series Astro Boy, just a few years later. But before we head into the nitty-gritty of the work, let's just briefly summarize the story as it's presented in the film.

The 2001 movie takes place in a massive multi-layered city, simply called Metropolis, where humans and robots exist in constant turmoil. We come on the eve of a massive week-long, city-wide festival celebrating the completion of the Ziggurat, a skyscraper of unprecedented scale which is later compared to the infamous Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis. The project was the brainchild of Duke Red, the wealthiest of Metropolis' citizens, and its unofficial dictator. While claiming that Metropolis will spread its influence across the world with the Ziggurat as its main instigator, and as dignitaries and power brokers all vie for dominance, Duke Red also orchestrates anti-robot violence, via his shadowy paramilitary arm, the Marduks. These radicals are led by Red's adoptive son Rock, a fanatic whose devotion to his de facto father has evolved into obsessive hero worship. This facet of his personality is only outclassed by his own willingness to murder anyone and anything which jeopardizes his place at the Duke's side.

As the celebrations kick off, private detective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi Shikishima arrive from Japan to apprehend a Dr. Laughton, a scientist wanted for human rights violations. While working with the local police and their robot sentries, Ban discovers Laughton was secretly hired by Duke Red to build a new generation of android, which would be used as a central control unit for a world-ending superweapon hidden within the framework of the Ziggurat. But these plans are thrown to the side when Rock lets his jealousy and paranoia get the better of him. He shoots Laughton and destroys his laboratory, supposedly with the new android inside. But the android, affectionately named Tima, manages to escape thanks to Kenichi and a little luck. While running for their lives, Kenichi and Tima become unplanned guests of Atlas and his rebels. They are swept along as Atlas sets the stage for a massive protest, trying to call attention to the severe and widespread disparity between the classes of Metropolis. Thus begins a swirling game of cat-and-mouse, with most of the players unaware of each other's intentions as their paths lead them all inexorably towards a climactic showdown, setting the future of mankind on the line.

I will admit that I have never read the manga by Tezuka, beyond the few pages I've used in this video. So I cannot really comment on it. On the flip side, I absolutely adore the original German Expressionist masterwork, and couldn't recommend it enough. But I will caution those seeking it out. There are four official versions of the 1927 film which have been released since 1984 in the West. Tragically, the only official version of Lang's Metropolis that I physically own is the 1984 re-release by composer Giorgio Moroder – with my DVD being the one released in 2011 by Kino Lorber. While it certainly is an interesting bit of film history (hence why I still own it), the 80s pop soundtrack and Moroder's custom score are just misfires on all levels with me. This bad taste is compounded by the colorized film, robbing the original of its stark and foreboding atmosphere. If you've never watched Metropolis, avoid this one as your first viewing. While the other official restorations are solid in their own right, I'd personally recommend the 2011 unofficial re-score by The New Pollutants – its Bandcamp page is here. It's all weird, wonderful, and woeful, and (for me) works in just about every conceivable way.

So, by what I've just said, you cannot expect me to judge this film on whether it successfully adapted the original manga. And as far as I can tell, from some basic information out there, the film's narrative was altered dramatically from the manga, so I can imagine this movie gets some flak from the original's fans. But what makes this version of Metropolis unique, is that it borrows just as much from the silent film as it does from its direct source material. So, whether you're coming in as a fan of the manga, the silent film (or if you haven't experienced either), this movie is accessible as an original, contained story. It doesn't rely on prior knowledge to build its world or to flush out its characters, and it doesn't struggle to fit every tidbit of Tezuka's predetermined storyline into a feature film framework. While lifting themes and characters from both previous versions, Rintaro and Otomo place them in a parade of their own original ideas. This movie could be interpreted as more an homage than a recreation, and that wouldn't be far off. Metropolis is a spiritual adaptation at best, and should be viewed as its own beast. Oh, and it's down-damn-right beautiful.

Metropolis smacks you right in the eyes from the very first frame, with every visual overflowing with boundless creativity, complexity, and nuance. Whether in its setting, special effects, or character design, every visual asset is rich in exquisite detail and passion. The residences and businesses of Metropolis feel lived and worked in. The upper banquet halls ooze with prestige and affluence, while the lower marketplaces are heaps of reclaimed junk and scavengers. The robots which fuel many of the main conflicts also vary, depending on where they are supposed to operate. They are treated as tools, and those who work around the rich and powerful are polished to a mirror shine, while the workers down in the lower zones are caked with grime and rust.

These settings and character designs are augmented thoroughly via the absolutely breathtaking color palette. That doesn't mean that every scene is awash in vibrant colors which always seek to dazzle the eyes. Color is used expertly to explore every perspective. Scenes which lean heavily into the seedy and uncertain underbelly of the city are lit with neon blues and reds, just as you would expect from any sci-fi noir, like what we got in Altered Carbon. Conversely, the snow-drench sequence where we witness the defeat of the Zone-1 rebels occurs within murky whites set against washed-out grays – as if we were watching a recreation of the October Revolution.

Regardless of where or when we are, the city feels alive and bustling – the retrofuturist approach combines German Expressionism, Art Deco, steampunk, and Tezuka's signature blends of style and theme into an animated world that you only come across once in a blue moon. But if you thought that now is when I go through what doesn't work, you're sadly mistaken, because we haven't even touched on Toshiyuki Honda's stellar musical score.

In my ears, it's nearly perfect. The blends of freeform jazz, meandering woodwinds and strings, and booming drums and horns, make this score a 1:1 sonic expression of the movie's overall motifs. The frenetic kineticism of the action scenes, the cramped and lively corridors of the slums – nearly every sequence has the best possible accompaniment. Sure, there's one section where the background music seems to be stuck in a five-second loop, and it gets old almost immediately. But only 90 seconds of weak music in a 1-hour-and-48-minute movie is pretty damned impressive, regardless of the project. Oh, and the ending sequence really reminds me of the final montage in Dr. Strangelove, and that's just awesome. Though, before wrapping this section up, what I'd also like to spotlight is the use of silence.

Too many modern movies and television, whether it's anime or not, have this nasty habit of using too much music to get their points across. I believe that if you don't allow the material to breathe on its own terms, that affects our ability to be absorbed and to empathize. If the musical score is always bashing you over the head with what emotion to feel, then you pay more attention to it, rather than the scene at hand. The silence of Metropolis is just as razor-sharp as its score, only permeated by expected ambience. It allows the voice acting and the sound design to get under our collective skins, pulling us deeper into the mind states of the characters.

I could go on about the awesomeness of the animation (how it throws that Madhouse weight behind each footfall and trigger pull), or how the voice acting in both the Japanese and English dubs are equally solid and entertaining, but I won't. As much as I have gushed about this movie, you might be asking how I began this essay the way that I did. It's because of two major problems – Transitions and Pacing.

The whole mess of iris shots, wipes, dips to black, and fade/cut combos make for a really intriguing visual experience — I don't know of many other anime movies which lean so heavily into this particular design category. But I would say at least half of the scene transitions in Metropolis are misfires, especially when dealing with the iris shots. While it can be seen as an homage to the silent film from which the filmmakers were drawing inspiration, each transition's motivation isn't always clear. Iris shots are meant to bridge scenes by focusing on a significant prop, character, or setting element which will come into play in the following story. In Metropolis they seem to use whatever, whenever they damn-well feel like it. While most people probably won't get uppity about this part, it truly began to bug me after the first half an hour. I don't have an issue with this kind of transitioning as a technique, but it needs to be motivated. The wipe transitions used in Star Wars: A New Hope may have been cribbed from Akira Kurosawa because George Lucas was a giant fanboy, but they still had motivated purposes, which were clear and followed along with the visual language already established, making them feel warranted.

While these transition flubs in Metropolis can be annoying, they aren't absolutely game breaking. That possibly lies with the film's horrible sense of pacing. Metropolis is simultaneously too slow and too fast all at once. Early exposition scenes barely hang around long enough to let the information sink in for its characters and for our benefit. On the other hand, sequences where we just bear witness of the borderline-ethereal nature of Tima go on for multiple minutes with little pushing the plot along. I am not saying we shouldn't have had those latter moments, because I wouldn't cut them, or even slice down their runtime. I would simply allow the smaller pieces to breathe for longer, with more emphasis placed on how the characters interact, and how we receive information.

But when you combine the many fragments of the narrative that lack enough time to settle in properly with the misunderstanding of how to transition between each fragment, we get sudden dips to black and crossfades which parade about like they're the star of the show. We'll be with our characters, engaged in a scene which is increasing in tension, likewise increasing our interest in what's happening, when the scene will just end. Sometimes in mid-conversation when we're finally getting to know our characters beyond their superficial archetypes. It's hard for me to imagine the justifiable reason for this beyond budgetary issues, because as we've seen, the animation, music, and art direction are banging on all cylinders. And as we've discussed in previous videos, with any film or animation production there are going to be compromises. But when these compromises severely hobble the story you are trying to tell, then it ends up neutering the power of those parts which excel.

While I know some will froth at the mouth at me saying it, it sort of reminds me of Ralph Bakshi's Cool World. Released in 1992, Cool World would be the final feature film in Ralph Bakshi's storied animation career. It was later revealed that domineering studio interference on behalf of producer Frank Mancuso Jr. caused the production to derail in spectacular catastrophic fashion (and just because Bakshi is an incorrigible madlad). So, since the story and production schedule was hijacked by the studio, Bakshi resigned himself to the elements which he actually had control over. As a result, the insane art direction and animation style stand out like beacons of light amongst the jumbled incoherent mess of the rest of the film. But even though I still consider those two design elements to be some of the best Bakshi ever put out, it didn't save the rest of the movie from being a trashy vortex of bad ideas.

With Metropolis, it's as if it's Cool World's inverse — most of its design and narrative choices are great, even outright genius at times. But the aspects which the creators didn't quite pick up, results in a frustratingly truncated narrative, which leads to more fumbles of two-dimensional character tropes. While it is an amazing ride, full of hoops and loops, it will not be satisfying like the full-course meal that it is marketed as. If the film were 20 to 30 minutes longer, to iron out jagged scenes and awkward editing, then it probably would be spoken about today as one of the movies which helped bring Western audiences into the anime fold. But, ultimately, Metropolis is a beautiful, innovative, exciting journey that falls just short of realizing its full potential. I love it for what it is, but also lament at what it could have been.

Thank you to everyone who's made it all the way to the end of this essay. I've really wanted to talk about this one for a long while, and I think we should be discussing it way more in our circles than we do. I hope that I may have convinced some of y'all to get a hold of a copy – it's not on any streaming platform as of this video, so if you want to watch it, you'll need to buy a physical DVD or Blu-ray. My steelbox copy was released by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2018, and it contains both formats. I normally wave people away from Mill Creek, because they're known for cheap packaging, bad optimization, and pretty mediocre featurettes considering their special edition prices, but this is one of those rare occasions where I'll actually tip my hat to them for creating a fairly solid home release. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the Anime News Network to keep an eye out for new content, which we release every week. Ring that damn bell, if you haven't already. My personal channel Criticlysm is a source for similar content, and you can see me fail at Twitter at my handle listed below. I appreciate your support and feedback. Until next time.

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