Updated: Jun 16
Between the Layers of Metropolis – Anime Review and Analysis
Cast/Voices: Kei Kobayashi, Yuka Imoto, Kôki Okada, Tarô Ishida, Kôsei Tomita
Related films: Steamboy, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Dennou Coil
The anime version of Metropolis took inspiration from its silent film namesake from 1927. On the surface it seems like a simple remake, but under the surface the anime is very different. One common feature unites the two metropolises, though:
Anime Metropolis is just as mesmerizing as the original was 74 years before it.
In the back alleys of Metropolis wanders a tiny robotic girl called Tima. On the search for an answer, she prowls the many different layers of the monumental city. One question haunts her every waking hour, which for a robot is 24/7… Who am I?
The origins of Metropolis - From silent film to manga and anime
To make a long story short: When director Rintaro made the anime version of Metropolis he based it mainly on the manga of the same name, written by Osamu Tezuka. The manga was inspired by Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic from 1927, also named Metropolis.
Tezuka claims to never have seen Lang’s Metropolis or read its script (Orbaugh, page 87). His inspiration was merely based on a few still pictures from the film. This explains why anime Metropolis is radically different from its source material, yet still strangely familiar.
The original Metropolis (1927) portrays a futuristic city in which the social hierarchy is divided into actual layers of a vertically organized cityscape. The atmosphere is cold and the populace is depicted as actual cogs in the wheels that drive the city-machine.
The leaders of society reside on the top floors of the grandiose skyscrapers. The surface belongs to the white-collar middle-class workers, while the blue-collar workers of lower stature spend most of their time on the lower levels.
The concept of a level-based hierarchy is a key feature of the anime as well. However, due to a rather simple mystery story and cute anime stereotypes in abundance, the mood is more differentiated than you would expect from a mere re-make.
First impressions of the anime might therefore give the impression that Metropolis is yet another run of the mill anime sci-fi, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The story is filled with small intricacies that lift Metropolis up and beyond.
The stories that spin the wheels of Metropolis
Both the black and white silent film and the anime version are about the implications of technological advancement. In Lang’s original, robot technology is used as a weapon to silence powerful political voices in the blue-collar community.
In anime Metropolis the robot called Tima is the missing piece needed to complete a super-weapon. The city leader – Duke Red – needs her to control this weapon so that he can take control over the entire world.
The plan is somewhat flawed, since Duke Red and his chief scientist – Dr. Laughton – fail to realize that a perfect robotic copy of a human might be as uncontrollable as humans themselves.
By accident, Tima is prematurely awakened and does not realize the nature of her own existence. Her confusion leads her on a quest for answers. She also develops a strong infatuation with her first human encounter, which happens to be a young boy called Kenichi.
Later in the story, when Duke Red tells Tima what she is, she soon starts to question both her own existence as well as Duke Red’s motives. These conundrums lead to the robotic equivalent of a nervous breakdown.
Before long Tima suffer from a Jekyll and Hyde like schizophrenia, in which her persona from transforms form angelic savior to demonized destructor. The more she considers her own reality, the closer she comes to be overtaken by her dark side.
Two visions of grandeur - The differences in Metropolis
Considering the lapse of time between the two Metropolises, it is not so surprising to notice some key differences in themes and topics. The totalitarian regime and biblical references in Lang’s Metropolis are virtually absent in the anime version.
In Rintaro’s Metropolis there is a hidden military presence, and an incident where Duke Red attempts to achieve coup d’état by declaring martial law. These sequences are undercurrents in the narrative, but they still bring to mind the military’s attempted coup d’état in Japan during WWII.
The most evident difference between the two metropolises is the fact that humans are not portrayed as robots in anime Metropolis. Instead, the city is overflown with robots that have become an integral part of society.
The design of the city and its social hierarchies, as well as the main characters is similar in both films. The narrative, cultural connotations and relations between the characters are very different.
A key difference is the citizens’ relation to technological advancement. Compared to Lang’s film, modernity is no longer an issue in Rintaro’s Metropolis. The anime’s setting is a society where modernity was surpassed long ago. The fear of technology, however, is as present in Metropolis (2001) as it was in Metropolis (1927).
Reading between the levels in Metropolis
The anime tunes down the emphasis on fear of technology though, but it clearly hides in the shadows of Metropolis, nonetheless. The human tragedy in both films are caused by leaders who aim to use technological advance to their own benefit.
In the original Metropolis, technological advance itself appears to be the villain. In anime Metropolis, however, human emotion is put forth as the root of evil. This is clearly underlined in a two central scenes. The first scene is the start of a city riot, when a robot asks the insurgent leader:
Robot: «Why must humanity settle matters by resorting to violence?»
Insurgent: «Yes, we all know that. I agree it’s a problem. It’s our emotions. They vibrate, and all we can do… …is move forward within that amplitude.»
(Insurgent raises gun and blow robots head off. Riot starts.)
The second scene is the conversation between Duke Red and Tima that triggers her transformation into a harbinger of doom:
Tima: «Then am I human, like Kenichi?»
Duke Red: «You’re no mere human being … ruled by emotion and feeling, torn between morality and love!»
Both dialogues point to the unstable nature of human emotions. Duke Red’s stepson and assassin – Rock (a recurrent character in most mangas by Osamu Tezuka) – further underlines this notion. (Spoiler start) Rock desperately craves the approval of his father. Therefore, he tries to kill Duke Red's fascination with Tima, quite literally.
Rock murders Dr. Laughton in jealousy. This causes the fire in the lab that makes Tima awake prematurely. If Rock had controlled his emotions, Tima would have never started her quest for self-realization. (Spoiler end)
Though Rock is presented as bad guy throughout the movie, he is the one who hinders the final honing of Tima into a super-weapon in the first place. In this sense he might be considered the hero of Metropolis.
Production and reconstruction - Postmodernism in the making
Rintaro’s Metropolis is an early example of successful merging between old school anime drawing and CGI effects. As such, the visual magnificence of Lang’s Metropolis is very well maintained.
The narrative can be somewhat hard to grasp on first watch, but the visuals are gripping from the first second. Not many animes have delivered equally jaw-dropping design or such flawless blend of hand-drawn images and CGI ever since.
20 years after its release, Metropolis still stands out as a visual masterpiece.
Thomas Lamarre argues that rather than relating to old and new, or then and now, Metropolis (2001) reflects a «non-relation» to the temporal construction of history. Lamarre interprets Tima's multiple origins, multiple identities and multiple histories as symptomatic of a globalized, postmodern society.
If not directly connected, Lamarre's argument seems to somehow coincide with Takayuki Tatsumi's notion of Japanese Apaches in the post Korean War era. These Apaches were scrap metal thieves and became a symbol of anyone with a conflicting attitude towards government or official institutions.
Tatsumi argues that these Japanese Apaches reconstructed popular taste. As such they mediated between the Japanese people and their temptation to naturalize the digital information network of virtual reality.
This means that new media makes for a less passive past. Reconstruction of popular taste, in which repetition, rituals and myths are free to be re-appropriated over and over, presents redemption for old media.
As such, Tima appears to be the perfect metaphor. For what is anime Metropolis, if not a re-appropriation and reconstruction of older media (Lang’s Metropolis) in the guise of new, digitalized, marvelous entertainment.
Whether or not Tima is an innocent angel or harbinger of doom does not appear to be the main issue in Metropolis (2001). Tima’s search for meaning of her own existence rather seems to symbolize the same search that most emotional human beings experience at some point or other in our lives.
The message of Metropolis appears to be that human emotion is not to be trusted.
It is Rock's emotions that put Tima and Kenichi in constant danger throughout the movie. It is the emotion of the proletariat that unleashes havoc in the city. It was Duke Red’s emotions that led him to create Tima as a substitute for his lost daughter, and it is Tima’s emotions that finally put all mankind in danger.
Unreliable emotions certainly pose a threat when considering artificial intelligence. It stands to reason that self-aware intelligence would be capable of experiencing just as strong emotions as you and me, or in this particular case, as Rock, Duke Red and Tima.
Tima’s twofold nature appears to parallel a basic choice that all sentient beings share; either search for meaning in your own existence, or accept your part as a cog in the wheels of society. Just like in Metropolis, emotions control our choices, while intellect is both our never-ending curse and final hope.
Final Verdict of Metropolis (2001)
If Metropolis for some reason passed you by, do yourself a favor: Prepare for a slightly cryptic narrative and cute characters, take the movie for what it is, and prepare to be amazed.
All fans of Fritz Lang and his original are also recommended to put this anime on your to-do-list. It might require some concentration, but rest assured, Rintaro’s Metropolis is a true gem. Especially the re-view value makes it worth the effort.
Thomas Lamarre: «The First Time as Farce»
(Cinema Anime, edit by Brown, Steven T. 2006, Palgrave MacMillian, New York, USA.)
Sharalyn Orbaugh: «Frankenstein and the Cyborg Metropolis»
(Cinema Anime, edit by Brown, Steven T. 2006, Palgrave MacMillian, New York, USA.)
Jonathan Rosenbaum: «Unified Theory»
(Metropolis Blu-ray Booklet, 2010, Eureka Entertainment Ltd, UK.)
Takayuki Tatsumi: «Full Metal Apache»
(2006, Duke University Press, Durham and London, UK.)
Terry Meyer Boake: Architecture and Film – Osama Tezuka's Metropolis
Roger Ebert: Metropolis
Fandom: Metropolis Anime
Japanese Visual Culture: From Metropolis to Metoroporisu