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With an impeccable pedigree from Fritz Lang’s original masterpiece and the subsequent comic book adaptation for a technology obsessed Japanese public by ‘Father of Manga’ Osamu Tezuka, Astroboy director Rintaro had a hell of a lot to live up to with his animated epic. Three years in the making, with inevitable comparisons to Blade Runner and The Fifth Element to be made as each drew more or less inspiration from the same source material, Metropolis is certainly going to stir you, though not necessarily in the way you might think…

Metropolis, a sprawling cityscape seemingly without end, is hosting its crowning achievement, the centrepiece to make it complete: the Ziggurat. The mightiest monolith of them all. Entering the enthusiastic, bordering on the orgiastic, throng are newcomers Ban Shunsaku and his naïve nephew Kenichi. Arriving from Japan, the private detective and his awe-struck young charge are looking for the quite disgusting Dr. Laughton, a renegade scientist who’s rumoured to be the recipient of trafficked human organs for robotic research.

While at the celebrations, in which the duplicitous Duke Red - unofficially the leader of Metropolis although President Boon remains the democratically elected but corrupt Premier - makes his initial appearance, Shunsaku and Kenichi discover the full extent of fraught human/robot relations when an out of bounds android is summarily executed by Rock, Duke Red’s adopted son.

Shunsaku and Kenichi are cast adrift in this strange city and enlist the assistance of Metropolis’ chief of police. Though no men can be spared a robot is made available. After his serial number proves too cumbersome to remember, ‘he’ is nicknamed Pero by Shunsaku, in contravention of the strict code regarding the conduct of robots, and the search for Dr. Laughton gets underway.

Meanwhile Rock, a rising star within the ruling anti-robot Malduk party and overly protective of his adoptive father, soon pays a visit to the underground levels of Metropolis and tracks down Dr. Laughton’s laboratory where he discovers a super-humanoid specifically created in the image of Duke Red’s deceased daughter. Filled with hate and envy, Rock attempts to destroy the lab and Dr. Laughton to bury the top-secret experiment forever.

Investigating the underground urban nightmare that is Zone 1, Pero leads the detective duo to the scene of a fire. Recognising Laughton’s silhouette in amongst the flames, Shunsaku dives inside to capture his quarry while Kenichi discovers an amnesia afflicted young girl, Tima, stumbling from the blaze. Flames force the young couple further underground separating Kenichi from his uncle while Shunsaku battles in vain to save his suspect.

The next day Rock becomes aware that Tima has survived and is consumed by his quest to track down and destroy her to safeguard the future of humans. Breathlessly attempting to evade capture, Kenichi and Tima uncover a subterranean resistance network waiting for a signal from above ground to overthrow the ruling regime. With the fate of Metropolis hanging in the balance, Kenichi hopes to recover his uncle with Tima struggling to unravel her true nature and her destiny synonymous with a dark secret stored atop the Ziggurat...

If the above sounds complicated, the believe me, it is not meant to be so. Perhaps the neatest summation I can give for this movie, and also one of the highest compliments to be bestowed, is that you can’t simply watch it once. For such a surprisingly simple story, there are so many ethical, political, humanist, futurist, political and philosophical threads which require contemplation that it’s possible to read this movie in a different way every time you watch it.

Yes, there are plenty of chase sequences, an annoying comedic ancillary character and breathtaking visuals to keep the kids occupied despite, I suspect, ever being entirely emotionally involving for anyone under the age of 8 years old. In this way, it’s unlikely to challenge perennial pre-pubescent film favourites from Disney or Dreamworks and certainly not Pixar. That said, Metropolis really isn’t a children’s movie, for all it’s PG rating.

Credit must go to the dream team pairing of writer Katsushiro Otomo and director Rintaro. While the script is sparse enough to render you thinking “Is that it?” the first time you see the credits roll, it’s deliberately designed that way so as to cajole each member of the audience to apply his/her own values to the allegorical nature of the human/robot struggle. As a viewer, the more you put into the experience, the more you’ll get out of watching this movie.

Knowledgeable narrative aside (spot the barbed references to fascism throughout), the film just looks absolutely stunning. Perhaps this accentuates the sense of dislocation on the first viewing as the intricacies of the visuals can initially detract from the story, although in no way can this be considered perfunctory as was much of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Much has been made of the integration of CG backgrounds with traditional foregrounds and Tezuka-style character animation. I would argue that this merely heightens the jarring divide between the human aspects and their mechanical counterparts. The human elements look out of place as a direct result of being distinctly out of step with all the technology which envelops them.

Much noise has been made elsewhere too regarding Toshiyuki Honda’s jazz score. I freely admit it takes some getting used to but this seems to be a homage both to the era in which Fritz Lang’s original movie was made and the sense of individual liberty (political, social and sexual) that the ‘roaring twenties’ engendered – a key component of this 21st century Japanimation equivalent.

While the heritage and pedigree of this Metropolis is approaching its 80th year, the themes inherent are perhaps more relevant than ever. Where humans are soulless organic machines in ceaseless pursuit of a programmed objective and robots are the dignified underclass who care despite their artificial hearts, this movie should strike a resounding chord.

Columbia have thankfully provided a presentation to reward all the outstanding efforts of the visual artists involved. Anamorphically enhanced at 1.85:1, it’s a stunning image with wonderfully rich colours that are sharply defined with no hint of bleeding - all the more impressive considering the day-glo intricacies of the Zone 1 locale. Blacks are satisfyingly deep with shadow detail coming up trumps inside Laughton’s harshly lit laboratory.

Despite being an animation that calls upon plenty of fire, smoke, steam and mist effects (one long key sequence even takes place with delightfully detailed snowflakes falling), not once does Metropolis suffer from a hint of pixellation or macro-blocking. On a couple of occasions, in sequences occurring within the Ziggurat, it was possible to detect what looked like edge enhancement but I suspect, seeing as this was confined to the rendering of gleaming toothed machinery, that this was more due to the integration of the CG metallic-like elements with the traditional cell art.

Subtitles are clearly legible in a nice sharp white font with a gentle black outline. While the subtitle streams for both the original Japanese translation and U.S. theatrical release correspond closely to the actual speech of characters, free from grammatical and spelling errors, the U.S version does lack some of the intricacies of its counterpart. Some of the political dimensions are downplayed ever so slightly and there is enough profanity on show so as to blunt the lyrical nature of the narrative and how it remains a PG should be open to question. Something to bear in mind in showing this movie to the younger kids…

Sonically it’s another superb disc from Columbia. Cheers from the Ziggurat celebrations or shouts from the massed ranks of the coup d’etat will roll and echo effectively around all four surrounds with the sequence of Tima atop the throne definitely a workout for your subwoofer. Channel separation is amply demonstrated by the distinct positioning of automotive objects in the city’s skyline; in fact this is one of the best features of the entire presentation. Toshiyuki Honda’s vibrant jazz inspired score (whether you like it or not!), by turns tinkly with piano riffs or spiky with strong brass and horn interludes, is also given ample sonic space with plenty coming from the rear speakers.

Unfortunately I was unable to test the DTS track on this disc (sadly only available as an English dub) but it should be at least as good as its’ Dolby Digital equivalent in which case you shouldn’t be disappointed.

The Japanese and English 5.1 mixes are equally well served with crisp dialogue emanating from the centre speaker holding up well against the well designed sound stage. Despite stating again my insistence for original language dubs, I have to grudgingly admit that the English effort on display here is not at all bad. Some of the complexity of the Japanese is lost but at least there is no sense of pandering to an Anglicised audience which is a refreshing change and marks this out as one of the best dub tracks around.

While trailers for Metropolis, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles are included on disc 1, the bulk of extras can be found on disc 2.

In the absence of a commentary, the cream of the special features crop is easily the Animax Special. Clocking in at 33 minutes, the Japanese ‘making of’ programme, conducted entirely in its native language, covers the production process of Metropolis from its Astroboy animation origins to the Japanese premiere. Included in this programme, complete with captions and an overly earnest voice over you’ve just got to love, is a look inside Mad House studios to dissect the difficulties in merging Tezuka’s old school style animation with the complex demands of the digital computer generated format.

Of greater interest is a brief interview section with writer Katsushiro Otomo and director Rintaro. While both agree that Tezuka would never have authorised Metropolis’ translation to the screen, Otomo explains his reasoning behind Rock’s pivotal inclusion in the screenplay (he never appears in the original Manga) which should sate some hardcore fans’ howls of protest. Rintaro makes several salient points about the grindingly slow production process itself and how the Japanese working model differs greatly to the U.S. practices. Fascinating is Rintaro’ s insistence that a future collaboration between Japanimation studios and the house of the mighty mouse may not be far away. Certainly something to look forward to...

Also included in this programme is a look behind the scenes of the cast recordings (containing an explanation as to why the three principal characters were voiced by actors with no previous experience) and snippets of interviews with musical director Toshiyuki Honda and Minako Obata who wrote and sang the theme song, both of whom are essential to the film’s success.

A pair of Film Maker Interviews swiftly follow. Essentially this is an 8 minute exposition of Rintaro and Otomo’s personal thoughts on the project. Covering most of the ground already well trodden in the previous programme, there are further insights into what Tezuka would have thought of the movie, various cell animation techniques and exactly why Otomo took the screenwriting job in the first place.

Animation Comparisons also make the extras slate. There are two of these, the Wheel Room and City View. Essentially these break down the various layers of the animation process to illustrate just how much work in the arena of cell artistry and CG goes into particular sequences. With 8 layers in the former and 5 in the latter, you’ll be able to appreciate just how complex it is to piece together and synchronise the various procedures to create the stunning images.

Next is a History Of Metropolis text-based featurette. While many of the information is supplied elsewhere on the disc, this section gives the best background yet to Osamu Tezuka, as well as illustrating the frustratingly slow nature of animation: 2 hours to hand paint each cell, 24 cells in one second of finished film, 150,000 frames in the finished film.

Brief Text Biographies of Tezuka and Rintaro are here too, giving you plenty of pointers towards more great anime to sample and, to finish off the package, a Photo Gallery with 30 images split into three sections; Tima and Kenichi, the supporting cast and the movie’s art direction.

All of the above are accessed by some sumptuous animated, static and scored menus incorporating key visual motifs, such as the airship and Ziggurat, from the movie.

Engaging, thought provoking, opulent. The fact that it’s possible to apply the adjectives anodyne, uninteresting and eye-candy to the same is indicative of how this movie can polarise opinion. If you want a simple animated tale then it’s very likely that you’ll be disappointed with Metropolis. However, for those who don’t mind a more cerebral approach to their anime presented on a technically first rate disc from Columbia then this is an absolutely outstanding achievement in all respects and an essential purchase. As James Cameron gushes on the back cover: “Images from this film will stay with you forever.” However, if you can see past this, there’s a wealth of possibilities to occupy much more just than the eye and the ear...