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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
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Review by Yoshi Yukino

Director: Rintaro
Writing credits: Tezuka Osamu (comic book), Otomo Katsuhiro (screenplay), Marc Handler (English version)
Cast (voices): Imoto Yuka, Kobayashi Kei
Language: Japanese
Country: Japan
Genre: Animated Science Fiction
Year released: 2001
Runtime: 108 min
Rating: *** (out of four stars)

Though hyped as Tezuka Osamu's classic brought to the screen, Metropolis isn't so much a recreation of the late master's work, but rather a loose adaptation with Rintaro (Atom Boy, Galaxy Express 999, X) directing, and Otomo Katsuhiro (Akira) providing a new screenplay that features characters that weren't in the original.

Tezuka's 1949 manga was much inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and it's also from the same classic film that this animation gets its inspiration for the stunning visuals for its great city. Buildings tower above ground and roads of many levels meander through the city. Below, humans live with a fascination for technology as well as robots which are created to serve them.

Among the tallest of the buildings is the skyscraper Ziggurat, a huge edifice with towers connected by bridges and braces. Built by the Duke Red, Ziggurat is the symbol of his power, and when the robot called Tima--created for him by the mad scientist Dr. Laughton to the likeness of his dead daughter--sits upon the throne inside its hall, she will seize control over all existing computer networks and bring the world to its knees.

His adopted son, Rock, however hates robots, and turns deadly jealous when his father prefers Tima to him. Meanwhile an old detective by the name of Hige Oyaji arrives from Japan with his nephew Kenichi to arrest Laughton, but when Kenichi ends up with Tima, they become embroiled in a conspiracy that includes a coup dÂ’etat, a mass revolt, and the apocalypse.

Rintaro's direction is slick and the film looks unmistakably modern, relying heavily on 3D computer graphics and special effects to bring the sprawling metropolis to life. Nevertheless, the director tries to reflect the period of the original manga (and the film that inspired it, no doubt) by opting for transitional effects like ellipse wipes that cartoons half a century earlier were so fond of using. The soundtrack's western and Dixieland too, featuring Joe Primose's St. James Infirmary at one point, and Ray Charles' I Can't Stop Loving You during its last climatic scenes.

Otomo's screenplay is also darker than Tezuka's manga ever was, and though never as violent as, say, Akira, Metropolis has nonetheless earned itself a PG-13 rating in the U.S.

While Rintaro's direction is solid, and the story is told with much passion and little fuss, Otomo's failure to get the most out of his characters becomes the film's Achilles heels. Kenichi and Tima are too insipid to raise their romance above anything more than lukewarm niceness, and a hundred odd minutes may be a tad too short for a story like Metropolis' to develop fully; by the time the film's over, you just wish you could understand more of Jack's hatred for robots and his undying love for a foster father who despises him; or perhaps feel more for Tima whose best attempts to express her feelings for Kenichi was to scribble his name all over her room.

Characterization was never Otomo's forte, and while Akira's stunning in every aspect, it isn't always remembered for its characters. In a cyberpunk film like that, the impact's not lost of course. But for a film like Metropolis which hinges on a theme about humanity, you need strong characters that can invoke strong feelings in audiences, and that unfortunately just didn't happen.

Metropolis reportedly cost 15 hundred million yen to produce over a period of five years, and you can tell. The quality of the animation is beautiful, and the towering metropolis' stunningly mesmerizing. Otomo's screenplay has also given Tezuka's story a more contemporary feel that post-Tezuka anime fans can feel comfortable with despite what some might complain as dated, almost Disneyish character artwork. Rintaro has admitted that he once suggested to Tezuka himself about turning Metropolis into an anime about 30 years ago, but his idea was rejected. How the master would've reacted to seeing this film now is anyone's guess, but one can be sure he would be very pleased with the grounds Japanese animation has covered.

Though, being the storyteller that he was, one suspects he would've traded some of the fancy special effects for more story and character development too.

Good: Stunningly beautiful; a serious look at humanity in the technological age

Bad: Otomo's failure to get the most out of the characters, especially from Kenichi and Tima, means the story will always be half told.

Verdict: A visual treat Metropolis is, no doubt. It may not be to the liking of those weaned on more mainstream anime, and films like these will always be considered more art than entertainment. But even as art goes, Metropolis may be something to admire, but it still isn't perfect.