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John Shirley

John Shirley
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by John Shirley

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Wednesday 20 February 2002


Feature-length anime, directed by Rintaro

Reviewed by John Shirley

The director of this gloriously stylish but oddly charicaturish anime claims to have never seen Fritz Lang's movie of the same name, but there's much here that resonates with the classic expressionist silent film, including a great deal of the music, drawn from the 1920s, and an art deco vibe. Also the themes, post-industrial oppression, the search for one's humanity in a dehumanizing environment, recalls Lang.

Rintaro was apparently associated with Astro Boy, and this film is based on a famous Japanese manga, and astro-boy does it ever show. For while the backdrop and theme is grimly Bladerunner-meets-Wagner, the characters are all as cutesy as Micky Mouse — actually they're more reminiscent of the French comic and animation Tin Tin. The contrast is apparently adorably Japanese-pop-culture to some; to me it's annoying. These cutesy characters frequently blow each other's heads off. There's something perverse in that. Not that you're likely to hear John Shirley say perversity is bad — but some perversity is annoying.

The story? In a garishly overbuilt futuristic city, a lovable old detective and his googly-eyed boyish assistant investigate the whereabouts of an internationally known criminally-mad scientist. The scientist is working for the urban power broker Duke Red, to create the final component of the mysterious Ziggurat, a diabolic war machine that demands comparisons, found throughout the film, to the Tower of Babel. And the final component of the Ziggurat happens to be a robot in the shape of the powerful Duke Red's deceased, apple-of-his-eye young daughter. Rather like in Spielberg's AI, the robots used as a primary workforce are a kind of oppressed minority; the issues swirling around them, in Metropolis, are used by various ruthless factions. When Duke Red's adopted but unloved (and therefore deeply disturbed) son Rock, a robot-killer, sabotages the vast mechanical womb gestating Tima the girl-robot, she's precipitously launched into the world, not quite remembering who she's supposed to be — or supposed to replace — and she and the young detective's assistant fall in love as they are pursued through the literal underworld of the city... It's difficult to tell, with the rather muddled subtitling, but there seem to be various factions struggling for control of the city, all of them getting their agendas thrown into a cocked hat by the almost random incursions of the murderously obsessed Rock.

The hardnosed Rock is cartoonishly drawn to be as adorable as a Pokemon, and he and the young assistant are apparently young men, in the story — but look like they're 9 years old. That's just manga-fallout I suppose.

The story builds to an apocalyptic finale, with Hollywood-style suspenseful danglings from girders and recurrent fireballs thrown in, but it does double back to the issue of life for robots for an agreeable culmination. (There's an all-too-lovable robot called Fifi who sounds exactly like R2D2.) Tima, the girl robot, loses the ability to love, as she becomes part of the big killing machine. This would appear to be metaphorical. It's rather a heavy-handed metaphor (though who am I to bitch about heavy handed metaphors?), but that's not the problem — it's just so familiar.

This film, despite it's cutesy characters, wants to be taken seriously as art. This is a film for older kids and adults, judging by the violence and relatively sophisticated ideas, and therefore it must take its lumps with other adult fare, when its turn comes for criticism:

There are various themes mushed together in this film — man's arrogance in challenging nature and in assuming he is the only creature that can feel, the loss of love in a hyper-artificial environment, the abandonment of the poor by the political "machine", the question of emotion and soul in machines, and so on — and they've been rather done too often, in Star Trek episodes and in science fiction of all kinds, and if one is going to do them again one should either make them newly relevant or freshly turned, and Metropolis fails to provide that freshness. Fantastically elaborate clichés are still clichés.

There is another theme they touch on they'd have done well to explore more deeply: the relativity and spiritual relatability of "I" and "you", reminiscent of Martin Buber's ideas; the place where "I" and "the other" integrate in something higher — presumably love elevated to the level of spirituality. But this is only toyed with in Metropolis, like the toylike figures who enact it here.

The characters are also over-familiar or two-dimensional. The detective robot Pero has the most realism in his character, interestingly enough. And there is at least something of psychological consistency and energy to Rock. But most of the characters match their faces: charicaturish and two dimensional. American animators are often far less imaginative than those working in anime — but they do one thing well, facial expressions. And this is an advantage cell animators have over CG animators — it's easier to do certain kinds of facial nuancing. Maybe because Japanese culture does not encourage certain kinds of overt expressiveness, the animators of Metropolis seem to have no capacity for conveying character or even reaction through facial expressions.

What one sees this film for — and if you like animation, you should indeed see it for the grand spectacle at least — is for the world that is created, the setting, the science fictional ideas shown rather than talked about, — like the cellular-automata feel of the firefighter robots. If we compare this film and Final Fantasy, that kind of off-balance artistic priority would seem to be an animation trend. As in Final Fantasy, the setting in this film has all the characterization. The film's directing is melodramatic but every shot is carefully composed, sometimes exquisitely. This is something else the Japanese do better than the Americans; artistic composition within the animated frame was largely lost, in America, after the early Disney efforts. We saw only glimmers of it in Fantasia 2000.

Rintaro's Metropolis is a delight to the eye — once you accept those jarringly cute characters who move across the vast, shadowy postmodern panorama of the city like invaders from another "cartoon" entirely.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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