DM Haight

“Metropolis”. For many, that word symbolizes the epitome of a civilization. It’s a word that harkens back to the golden age of comics, with Superman saving the city from evildoers. For others, it brings on images of the automaton from the Fritz Lang classic, the one that set the stage for modern science fiction, the one that defined the silent era’s scope and imagination. From the moment Lang’s film hit theaters, the German Expressionistic movement had seen its apex. But when we see modern films today, we are no longer constrained by the physicality of film. By that I mean to say that we no longer rely on the sets, or props, or even actors of films like we used to, much of what we do today in film is altered in some way, shape, or form that takes away the genuine reality that silent films once had. We are no longer bound to the realm of the quasi-real (whether that is a good or bad thing is for another time and another discussion). By being relieved of these shackles binding us to the real, we can venture off into different spaces, places, worlds, races, even imaginations, consciences; the possibilities are endless. So why not make a film in a medium that is truly handmade? Why not create in a medium where the real world is left out of the equation, where reality and imagination are bound together only by the limits of the mind? Why not take the beloved imagery of one of the most celebrated films in cinema, and transport into the world of animation? We see just this happening with Rintaro’s 2001 adaptation of the Fritz Lang vision in Metropolis.

If ever there was a film about revolution, corruption of power, and resurrection, they’d have to contend with the steampunk film from Rintaro. From the get go we understand the world of Metropolis as a city, nay, city-state corrupted by a few men who run every level of it. The towers are incredible, hiding most of the city, a symbol of the elite’s sway over the poorer districts and levels crowded by the unfortunate citizens of the city’s bowels. There’s a power structure that’s utterly unfair for the citizens, and it’s a further grab for ultimate power that leads to the creation of one of the most tragic characters in anime–Tima. She was the daughter of Duke Red, the man with all the power in the city. But Tima died before the events of the film take place. But Duke Red sought to harness the power of a god. This search for power lead him to seek out and employ a mad scientist, Dr. Laughton, to recreate his child in robot form so that he, Duke Red, can use her as a key to his Ziggurat, where she can hold control over nuclear and biological weapons. Duke Red, though he loves his daughter’s memory, can only see the visage of his own biological creation. When we see him encounter the robot version of his daughter, there is a different dynamic from the first moments of seeing her physical, outward appearance. He sees her as a memory, nothing more. She’s become a robot, a tool for his use, covered in synthetic skin. Although he feels an affection for her, he feels no obligation to keep her real reason for existence a secret from her.

Just like with other stories about resurrection, Metropolis employs the trope of a greed driven, power hungry creator with a certain sentiment toward his creation. But these stories also tend to have the jealous-type, illegitimate child looking to hold onto whatever undefined power they may have. Rock is this illegitimate figure with everything to lose. He’s considered a powerful figure in Duke Red’s forces, taken in by the man himself while Rock was just a boy. Upon the realization of an attempt at resurrection, Rock goes on a shooting spree, first killing Laughton to ensure that he can’t create the cyborg again, and then trying to kill the cyborg Tima herself. He leaves the scene in a flames, the building crashing down around Tima, leaving the bald automaton in the inferno. Essentially Tima is a newborn in a world where she’s outwardly a human child, psychologically a blank slate, and yet physically the most advanced creature, synthetic or organic, on the planet. Rock cannot destroy this being because he is confused in his motives to begin with . At first he wanted to eliminate Laughton and Tima because they were unintentionally usurping his authority and affection in the eyes of his perceived father figure. But as the film progresses so do his perceptions of Tima. He hunts the cyborg throughout the city, causing mayhem, killing robots left and right. He’s highly prejudiced against the synthetic creatures, thus his search for Tima begins to transform from a jealous rage sired in greed, to a manhunt with racist intentions. He becomes a one-man lynch mob, a symbol of the tyranny of the upper caste, an example of the powerful’s unashamed destruction of the lower districts. Rock is the iconic image of an aristocracy unchecked.

It’s Rock’s continued example of the aristocracy that drives the rebellion. The people from the lover levels of the city want a change. They are subverted by the Duke Reds of Metropolis, and they live in slums. With no work available, and no food because the city has allocated its resources to Duke Red’s Ziggurat, they see that the days of trying to rebel the official and diplomatic way are long gone. People are starving, dying, and the leaders of the underground can’t let that happen. The innocent robots are the ones who face the brunt of the attack. One in specific, the one who helps a detective track down Dr. Laughton, is faced with the daunting responsibility of calming the throng of angry revolutionaries. He’s an innocent character, intelligent, yet bound by his programming. He’s very similar to Tima in the way he interacts. He’s an android, but is built as a humanoid, wears a fedora, a trench coat. He’s a detective, and a good one at that. But when revolution comes, it is always the innocent who suffer the wrath of the upheaval. It’s an insurrection of the people against a political force that controls the world. In a way it’s a parallel with the resurrection of Tima. Much like Tima, the city’s people are innocent. They were made to starve and cluster because of those in power. They were made to rebel because Duke Red wanted control. Tima is also born innocent and only rebels against Duke Red once she finds out her true purpose in his plan. It’s a dual rebellion against the oligarchy, both a resurrection of a sect of people and a single being. They both represent innocence being abused and used to feed the egos of the aristocracy. Metropolis is the animated re-imagining of Fritz Lang’s steampunk vision. With the themes it holds within itself, it’s no wonder that we can’t help but feel for the nostalgia of uprising and change during times of over-wealth, and a disproportionate weighting on the behalf of the uber-rich. Metropolis is a beautifully stylistic example of a steampunk world steeped in rebellion and resurrection, laden with violence and despair, and yet charming and inviting. Metropolis is definitely an anime you don’t have to be in the fanboy closet to enjoy.

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