“You can’t have light without shadows – that’s the way it is.”
Duke Red, informal overseer of Metropolis, has launched the construction of the Ziggurat, a Babelesque structure capable of centralising the world. In Metropolis, robots must live underground and are penalized if they wander out of their designated zone. The film begins with the callous adjudication of a robotic vandal by Rock (leader of the Marduk Party, an anti-robot vigilante faction), the adopted son of Duke Red. Robots have overrun the workforce, affording the people high unemployment rates and earning harsh resentment and fear from most humans.
Directed by renowned filmmaker, Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999, Arcadia of my Youth, and X), Metropolis is based, in part, on the 1949 manga by Osamu Tezuka but more influenced by Fritz Lang’s silent film (released in 1927). With a swinging jazz soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda, that Lang connection seems even more relevant. The film features an almost perfect combination of vibrancy and industrialisation, the biological and the artificial; and how such terms share a poignancy that encompasses both the superficial and the profound.
Private investigator, Shunsaku Ban, and his nephew Kenichi, hire the help of Pero (formerly known as 803DRPDM4973C) to arrest Dr. Laughton, a scientist indulging in organ trafficking. Dr. Laughton himself has been hired by Duke Red to construct a robotic representation of his deceased daughter, Tima. A jealous Rock kills Dr. Laughton and burns down his laboratory but Tima survives. Kenichi and Tima find themselves lost in a lower zone with Rock not far behind. Shunsaku Ban studies Dr. Laughton’s notebook and eavesdrops on Rock whilst searching for his nephew. We see the underbelly of the vapourous overworld, just as suffocating and mechanical as that human reservation. The entire message of the film (and indeed of much of its source material) supports the conviction that man cannot escape his humanity no matter how hard he might try. We see this in the Rock character who is continually disappointing Duke Red with overzealous acts in efforts to prove himself as a worthy son. We, like he, are constantly propelled to express our humanity, often too harshly, often unaware of its happening. For the orphan Rock, his jealously of Duke Red’s attachment to Tima is severe; this in turn makes things difficult for Tima who’s really just trying to find out whether she’s a human or a robot, eventually inquiring, “Who am I?” – certainly a human question. Propelled by the illusion of opportunity, it isn’t long before the rebel faction attacks, fails; mechanical and biological casualties follow. Rebel robots (some dressed as clowns) rage throughout town, only to be shot down in a hail of gunfire. “How can humans so easily destroy robots?” Tima asks Kenichi.
Full of Dickian introspections (spoken aloud to explicitly inform the audience of narrative details), there are certainly similar crossover nuances. In addition to all of these influences is a prominent steampunk aesthetic often becoming a unique form of “swingpunk”; a harmonious marriage of futuristic technology and retrospective jazz age theme. Just as it is with the art style itself, CGI and traditional rendering are used with a futuristic Art deco design as if the 1930s were being interpreted through a magnifying glass. It is indeed a spiritual cousin to Blade Runner. That the plot itself sometimes meanders and plods is somewhat forgivable as the premise is thought-provoking enough to warrant a stylistic splurge in fairly derivative concepts.