Akira defined science fiction anime for the last ten years. Love it or hate it, the film served as the benchmark anime for film critics and others who would never otherwise see anything within the genre. Although other anime have hit American theaters in limited runs, such as Princess Mononoke, X, and Perfect Blue, very little true sci-fi anime made it to the big screen in the West. But Metropolis has arrived, and though I am still enamored with Akira, we now have the 21st century's first truly epic science fiction anime. It is breathtaking enough in its grandeur to awe us and yet intimate enough in its softer moments to make us care for its characters. It is anime at its finest.
As it opens, we meet Kenichi, a young man on an adventure with his uncle, Shunsaku Ban. They arrive in Metropolis as a grand festival is about to start, heralding the completion of the Ziggurat, an immense building reaching to the heavens. A detective, Shunsaku's on a mission to arrest Dr. Laughton, a dangerous criminal known for bizarre experiments on humans and robots alike. They do find Dr. Laughton, but his laboratory is burned to the ground as they narrowly escape. In the encounter, they meet a mysterious girl without a name. With the robot-chasing Marduk Party right behind them, she and Kenichi escape through the labyrinthine city. Kenichi is eventually able to help her recover a few memories, as well as her name...Tima.
Tima and Kenichi discover all is not well in Metropolis--robots supply all the menial labor, but have little to no rights and aren't even allowed in parts of the city without facing destruction. Meanwhile, an entire class of people waits underground, upset that robots have taken their jobs and planning to stage a coup in order to take over the government. But those in power have other plans--Duke Red, the man truly in charge of Metropolis, intends an even bigger takeover himself, and his plans include harnessing a secret that Tima holds unknowingly. The wild card in all of this is Rock, Duke Red's young orphaned ward who desperately wants his affection and lashes out at all things mechanical in order to gain his attention. As secrets are revealed and alliances forged, the city of Metropolis lies in the balance.
Metropolis is based on an original story by Osamu Tezuka, commonly known as the father of anime and creator of the much-beloved Astro Boy. It's scripted by Katsuhiro Otomo, the writer/director of Akira, and directed by Rin Taro, the hand behind admired (and maligned) films as diverse as X, The Dagger of Kamui, and Galaxy Express 999. There's an incredible amount of talent here, and this is a happy case where it all comes together in a brilliant, moving package. Tezuka's work has never been more accessible to a new generation with only the vaguest knowledge of his legacy. Otomo creates a script that is both smart and touching, similar in themes to his own masterpiece but with a heart Akira lacks. Rin Taro takes his characteristically bold and inventive style and puts it to work, remaining extremely faithful to the look of Tezuka's characters (which are extremely retro in comparison to today's anime) while creating a world that is fascinating yet thoroughly modern. Rin Taro's work is often criticized for being beautiful but utterly hollow. Here, with a great script and inventive visuals, he creates his own tour de force unmatched by anything else in his previous films.
There is brilliance in the details here, and detail is evident everywhere. The mechanics of the city itself are on full display, and the amount of work and time put into crafting the nuances must have been staggering. There is plenty of CGI here, but it too is inspiring and seamless. But visuals aren't the only catchy thing here. A jazz-infused soundtrack keeps things moving, and the finale set against the backdrop of Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You" is nothing short of stunning.
What makes Metropolis such a pleasure to watch, however, are characters that actually have character. The tiniest of roles is infused with life. Even the antagonists of the piece have motivations anyone can easily understand. The viewer cannot help but feel for Rock, the vicious youth that kills without a thought, because of his longing for love and acceptance from someone who cannot fulfill that wish. We intensely dislike him for what he does, but against better judgment we understand. We feel loss with these characters, and at the end, hope. Some will fault Metropolis' ending, which I will not spoil, because it is too predictable in comparison with other anime. Perhaps it is. However, the way it is handled is so impressive that those thoughts are undone.
I can't rave enough about Metropolis, so I'm going to stop. I'm running out of adjectives. Go see it in the theater and buy it on DVD. 'Nuff said.
Metropolis -- violence, disturbing imagery for young children who might like the character designs -- A+