[box cover]

Metropolis (2002)

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Screenplay by Katsuhiro Ôtomo
Based on the comic book by Osamu Tezuka

Directed by Tarô Rin

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Like a great many film-lovers, this reviewer far prefers subtitled foreign films to their dubbed versions. I'd rather let my (admittedly limited) brain process the written translation as I watch the movie, as opposed to listening to badly matched voices lurch awkwardly from un-synchronized lips. But sometimes our eyes and brains just can't do the job as well as we'd like. The visually overwhelming — and subtitled, not dubbed — Japanese animated film Metropolis (2002) is so astoundingly gorgeous and intricately detailed that it's easy to miss entire lines of dialogue because you simply can't tear your eyes away long enough to read the subtitles.

Despite being a bit unwieldy, the plot is a far more linear Western narrative than you usually find in anime — meaning that even those who usually hate anime might find it intriguing. The story of Metropolis takes place in a sort of 1940s retro-future of flying cars and Art Deco skyscrapers, where humans and robots live together in an uneasy symbiosis. The luckier humans live above ground in the city's Zone 1, while robot workers and poorer folk live in the various descending strata below. Shunsaku Ban, a Japanese private detective, arrives in Metropolis with his nephew, Kenichi, hot on the trail of a renegade scientist evocatively named Dr. Laughton. The doctor is working on a top-secret project for Duke Red, the president's calculating right-hand man: a humanoid robot girl, designed to look exactly like Duke's deceased daughter, Tima. But Duke's adopted son, Rock, has a pathological case of sibling rivalry — and besides, he really, really hates robots. So he sets fire to Dr. Laughton's laboratory. When Kenichi and Tima escape, Rock tracks them through the more dangerous lower levels of Metropolis, intent on killing them both. While on the run, Tima and Kenichi (naturally) fall in love. But Tima isn't aware that she's a robot, and neither of them know that she's also a powerful weapon — the final element in Duke's plan to destroy the world.

*          *          *

Adapted by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Akira) from Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion creator Osamu Tezuka's 1949 graphic novel, Metropolis is only marginally an homage to the great 1927 Fritz Lang film (inspired by a still of Lang's android, Tezuka reportedly never actually saw the entire movie himself.) Rather, Metropolis offers a typically dystopic treatment of the future combined with a wide array of appropriated Western pop images and retro jazz stylings, all in the service of examining the fears, discontent, and culture-shock of postwar industrialized Japan. A dizzying combination of elaborate 3D computer graphics and traditional cell animation, the mixed-bag world of Metropolis contains massive skyscrapers, cigar-shaped futuristic buses, marble floors, falling snow, zeppelins, old-style candlestick telephones, writhing masses of cables, wires, people, and things. References to innumerable films are tossed into the mix — various moments recall Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Dr. Strangelove — and it's all so beautifully rendered that you'll find yourself hungering to catch every detail.

Director Tarô Rin (X, Battle Angel, Galaxy Express 999) creates a vision of a city so vast that it's practically a self-contained universe, expanding upwards, down into the earth and out in every direction. In its canyons of steel and glass, the only beauty to be found is in the artificial — the buildings, the signs, cars, and the robots. The elaborately rendered 3D backgrounds startle, contrasting with the flat character animation, but the effect is to inspire a sense of awe at man's technological achievements while at the same time feeling reined-in and oppressed. The constantly surprising score by internationally renowned saxophonist Honda Toshiyuki takes a common theme — the jaunty title song — and creates mood-inducing variations combining Dixieland jazz, swing, classical music, and even a few Brechtian laments. The haunting, dark ending of Metropolis takes a Kubrickian turn as Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You" accompanies the final scenes. Metropolis is an instant anime classic, a film whose images will continue to haunt viewers for some time after they've see it.

*          *          *

For their DVD release of Metropolis, Columbia TriStar is debuting a three-inch "pocket DVD," with about an hour's worth of extras. The small format-size previously has been used for compact discs, but this is the first time it's been used for DVD content. The discs will play in standard DVD players (which have grooved insets in the tray designed to hold a three-inch disc). In a press release, Columbia says that "the smaller size is fun and more convenient for users" (we didn't find it noticeably more fun or convenient than a regular disc, but maybe we're just jaded.)

As for those extras: The standard-sized Disc One offers Metropolis in a gorgeous, crisp, colorful, digitally mastered anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DTS and Dolby 5.1 audio in Japanese, English, or French; subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese or Thai; and theatrical trailers.

Disc Two — that ultra-fun "pocket DVD" — contains the 30-minute "The Making of Metropolis," featuring interviews with Tarô Rin and Katsuhiro Ôtomo, a look at the combining of digital and cell animation, soundbites from the voice actors, a quick visit to the prestigious Mad House animation studio, a chat with Honda Toshiyuki about his score, and finally back to Tarô and Ôtomo, who admit that "We couldn't possibly have done it if Mr. Tezuka was still alive. I think he would have hated it, maybe." Also on board are Animation Comparisons, two scenes that you can watch develop through eight different design versions; History of Metropolis, a text primer on the history of the original Tezuka manga and how it came to the screen; and Filmmaker Interviews — generally more of the same stuff from the 30-minute feature, on digital techniques, writing the script, and how Tezuka probably wouldn't have liked it very much — although he would have been fascinated by the computer design work, they say.

— Dawn Taylor

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