‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’: Thoughts on Metropolis

Madhouse’s 2001 rendition of Tezuka Osamu’s Metropolis is a movie that only ever seems to get better with age. The world of this Metropolis is so kaleidoscopically lush in detail that it maintains a truly timeless quality almost two decades later. Rintarô’s preferences, as we see from Meikyû Monogatari, for the artwork and architecture of the Western European 1920s and the techno-futurisms that were already being imagined at the time, enrich this film and give it a weight and grandeur that ironically, for all their placement in the past, only add to this timelessness. Metropolis is a great, sweeping story of cruelty and kindness, of glamour and decay, of pride and falls. It’s a story of fathers and children, of classes and masses, of political intrigue and betrayal. It’s a story of revolution and reaction. As such, it’s Lang and Tezuka, but it’s also Eisenstein. But at the heart of it – flowing naturally from, and woven deftly into, this grandiose and operatic drama staged upon this ominously-glittering monument to high modernity – is the tender and innocent love story of a boy and a robot that remains one of the heartbreaking and endearing highlights of Japanese animation.

The story revolves around several figures in the Metropolis, which has completed humanity’s crowning achievement: a new Tower of Babel called the Ziggurat. This monument, which promises to dominate the earth and conquer the skies, is the brainchild of the megalomaniacal Duke Red. Duke Red is the behind-the-scenes power in Metropolis, holding no formal political office, but instead manipulating President Boone behind the scenes with the help of General Skunk. He also enforces his will on the Metropolis through the Marduks – a fascistic paramilitary which is tasked with keeping robotic workers in their needed zones. In the middle of all this political intrigue is Rock – the head of the Marduks and Duke Red’s adoptive son; and Dr Laughton – an international criminal and mad scientist whom Duke Red has hired to construct a robotic replica of his dead daughter.

Into this picture come an international private investigator, Shunsuke Ban, and his nephew and assistant Ken’ichi – who are hot on the trail of Dr Laughton. They hire the services of a numbered (but not named) Metropolis police robot – whom they nickname ‘Pero’ – as a guide, and it’s largely through their eyes that we get to visit each of the different zones of Metropolis, and begin to understand the rules and the class structure of the city. Much of the beauty of the film derives from the ‘cinematography’, which shoots as much for a pedestrian’s-eye view of a megalopolis as it does for the aerial glamour shots. Shunsuke and Ken’ichi ultimately catch up with Dr Laughton, who is shot by Rock and his lab destroyed in a fire. Shunsuke rescues Laughton and his research notes; and Ken’ichi discovers and befriends a young girl, Tima, who escapes from the fire. Both of these events draw Shunsuke and Ken’ichi into the violent games of Metropolis politics, including a proletarian revolution and a generational power struggle with the Marduks at the top of the Ziggurat. And all of these events somehow revolve around Tima, who stands at the meeting point of the robotic and human worlds.

I want to point out as well that all the sheer technical mastery on display in this film is stunning in its breadth and scope. The blending of computer-generated and traditional animation was cutting-edge for its time and still holds up spectacularly almost twenty years later. The character designs are pure vintage Tezuka, which means their features and mannerisms are made to seem redolent of golden-age American animation of the 30s, 40s and 50s – which deeply influenced Tezuka’s own art style. Even the cars resemble the classic American automobile line-ups of the 40s and 50s. And there are artistic flourishes as well as plot devices from the 1927 Fritz Lang movie Metropolis as well. But the feel of the city that these human characters inhabit is both older than they are, and newer-feeling. It features architectural conventions from 1920s art deco and the high modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright – and newer, shooting at the techno-futurist visions of that same time period but joined seamlessly with coy adaptations of the filmmakers’ own dystopian Blade Runner-influenced collaborative work. The result should feel like an utter mess. But such is the artistic vision of Rintarô and Ôtomo that the mess has a kind of regularity, a rhythm and consistency to it. There is a cinematic gloss to Metropolis, but it also reflects the realities of our own built space to the point that one can feel what life is like there. The glittering hyperrealism of the Ziggurat, with all its mass-destructive power and the haute-couture Gilded Age excess of its denizens, presents itself in stark contrast to the crumbling, claustrophobic, plumbing-and-wire-lined slums of Zone 1 (and below), where the working-class humans and robots live. If we define cyberpunk by its usual gloss of ‘high-tech, low-life’, then Metropolis is certainly cyberpunk.

It’s fascinating how many subtle nods there are in Metropolis, not just to Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie but to that era of classic cinema in general. The snowy scene on the stairs to the Ziggurat after Atlas’s revolution fails, and Rock confronts Ken’ichi, Tima and Shunsuke, is in some ways made to recall another sanguinary staircase scene in Battleship Potemkin; in particular the way that the animation was framed.

Metropolis also works so well as a setting because of the great wealth in its details. Propaganda blaring from public loudspeakers on the street. Massive, gaudily-painted scissor puppets being robotically animated in front of stores. Irascible street vendors lining up on crowded plazas. Drunks and robots rubbing shoulders outside a bar. Long queues of robotic workers lining up outside security checkpoints on their way to and from work. Marduks performing public raids and executing robots in the street. It’s a testament both to Tezuka’s gæopolitical sensitivity and to Ôtomo’s wry and critical approach to globalisation, that the location of Metropolis is left unspecified, and could as easily be Hong Kong as New York City, or any number of megacities between. Much of the atmosphere is made to look and feel American – the high-modern and distinctly New World stylings of Wright and Art Deco have already been mentioned – but there are occasional flourishes of Western European, Soviet and even Chinese art styles to be seen.

Again, this being a collaboration between Rintarô as director, and Ôtomo Katsuhiro as screenwriter, there are a fair number of throwbacks and references to Meikyû Monogatari that I’d never noticed before. Metropolis may be seen as ‘Labyrinth Labyrinthos’ turned inside-out, and ‘Construction Cancellation Order’ at least in some degree subverted. The surface parallels between Sachi of ‘Labyrinth Labyrinthos’ and Tima of Metropolis I’ve already remarked upon a little bit, but the parallels actually run quite a bit deeper than that. We see Sachi go ‘through the looking-glass’ into a world of monsters, with her only guide being a mime who cannot talk and who seems to be unreal.

The symbolic parallel here with Tima is that Tima comes out of a metal shell into the real world. Dr Loughton’s lab strongly resembles the centre of the labyrinth. For Tima, humans are the ones that are ‘through the looking-glass’. Instead of a mime being her guide, it is Tima at first who cannot speak, and must be taught how to speak by Ken’ichi: and of course her first (and last) question in the film is ‘Who am I?’ Metropolis is still a very literal labyrinth which Tima must traverse to its centre, but instead of there being a world of monsters and ghosts and clockwork men and circus freaks – Tima comes through the looking-glass into a world of monsters and saints of a different sort, all with human faces: some of which, like Duke Red’s, are very much like hers. The ‘circus tent’ is a political circus. The central drama is one of communism versus fascism – the grand high-modern ideologies which seek to mount the pinnacle of the world and control paradise. It is interesting that both ideologies are shown to fail, and that the Ziggurat is doomed to collapse.

It is also interesting how Ôtomo, as screenwriter, has substantially revised his understanding of the nature of class conflict and robotics – at least for the purposes of this film. In keeping with the idea that it is Tima, the robot, coming through the looking-glass and encountering monsters in human form, here the ‘enemy’ is not an impersonal robotic logic run amok as in ‘Construction Cancellation Order’: it is the Marduks, who manifest a pure will to power. Ôtomo does give full rein to his proletarian sympathies in Metropolis, with the human worker-revolutionary Atlas being a mostly sympathetic character. In this he is almost certainly following the original creator Tezuka Osamu’s preferences. He doesn’t gloss over the class tensions that result from automation, and the resentment that human workers feel about losing their jobs to machines. And it is true that he still has some fairly heavy warnings, as in ‘Construction Cancellation Order’, to make about overreliance on technology, the dangers of overproduction and the hubris of a totally-rationalised world completely at the mercy of a singular artificial mind. But it’s notable that he places the blame for these human-robotic conflicts at the feet of Duke Red, General Skunk, Rock – the people who keep both robots and humans down, and seek to use raw military force to dominate the city and the world.

Ôtomo’s stylings of many of the robots we see: awkward, clunky, sparking, giving off random spurts of exhaust, having glitchy or unnatural speech patterns, seem to recall the similarly-idiosyncratic 444-1 (as well as, for example, the merrily-murderous marionettes and robotic emcee in the Monty Python-esque intro-outro of Robot Carnival). But here, the effect is precisely the opposite. Even though they are occasionally unpredictable, and even though they do stage an anti-human uprising at the end, these robots are not meant to feel menacing as they were in ‘Construction Cancellation Order’. There’s even a moment that recalls the ‘breakfasts’ that 444-1 served Sugioka, when the junk robot Albert shows up in Zone 3 with a tray of rotten food for Ken’ichi and Tima to eat. But unlike the implied menace of 444-1’s increasingly-unpalatable menu, here Albert’s mix-up comes off a genuine, if bumbling, attempt to be hospitable. The individual robots in the film – Tima, Pero, Albert – all are all seen to have a sympathetic, even human side. And the palpable kindness with which Ken’ichi and Shunsuke treat the robots we meet, in marked contrast to the Marduks, places an entirely different cast on the class conflicts we witness.

Light and shadow are played with throughout the film: Shunsuke Ban even explicitly alludes to this when he remarks to Pero that ‘You can’t have light without shadow; that’s just the way it is.’ Ken’ichi and Tima often themselves ‘glow’ or appear lit from within in order to emphasise their innocence and goodwill, while even the characters with light-coloured skin (such as Rock or General Skunk or Boone) are seen to dwell in the shadows even though they live atop the Ziggurat in the full sunlight. Even the halls of power are often dimly and broodingly lit, or else in flashes by fireworks or floodlights – or explosions. By contrast, the further down we go the more we see splashes of bright primary colour amidst the gloom, often from artificial lights – or, indeed, from fire. It seems to be a deliberate statement on the director’s part that, apart from the ærial shots of the Ziggurat that are made to appear foreboding and menacing, we don’t get to see the natural light of the sky at all… until the very end, after the Ziggurat has fallen, and sunlight pours down into the depths of Zone 1.

No treatment of Metropolis would be complete without mentioning the superb pitch-perfection of the soundtrack. It wasn’t an accident that Honda Toshiyuki – a famous Japanese jazz artist and composer who has dabbled in soul, funk and fusion as well – was chosen to direct the score. And he doesn’t so much nail the point home with brute force as provide that extra soupçon of panache that turns an already-impressive animated film into a classic. His composition is made up of jazz, swing and big-band numbers (with Louis Armstrong’s ‘Saint James Infirmary’ playing during a key moment) that are clearly meant to put the audience in a Gilded Age Manhattan frame of mind. The use of Ray Charles’s ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ as the accompaniment to the final scenes of the Ziggurat’s destruction is, at once, a brilliant semi-ironic tip of the hat to Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and also a genuinely bittersweet expression of Ken’ichi’s feelings for Tima at that moment.

I’ve got way, way more things to say about Metropolis that I will have to expand on in a later piece. It really is that rich and that complex a film. I’ve only just scratched the surface of some of its deeper political insights – in part because I wanted to show that it is firstly and truly an artistic exploration of high modernity, not a didactic sermon or a polemical critique. There is really so much to this film, and deeply, that – like Ray – I just can’t stop loving.


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