While this isn’t the Fritz Lang expressionist classic, there are more than a few common elements to be found in what might be the best animation to come from Japan since “Akira”. Not so coincidentally, this near-masterpiece was adapted by “Akira” author Katsuhiro Otomo from a 50-year-old manga comic by legendary writer/artist/animator Osamu Tezuka (the original “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion”, the widely-perceived but unacknowledged source for Disney’s “The Lion King”) and directed by Tezuka associate Rintaro (“Space Pirate Captain Harlock”, “Galaxy Express 999”), “Metropolis”.
In the future city of Metropolis, boss Duke Red has just completed his career-defining project, the Ziggurat, an immense structure that towers over an already enormous, multi-tiered urban center. Such a triumph is only measured, however, as the lights of an equally large celebration of the tower’s opening only reveals the tiers that exist within this society, from the downtrodden working class living on the ground levels, and the robots who live below them. More will join them if the Duke has his way, as his plans aren’t quite done yet. He’s hired the morally-bankrupt Dr. Laughton to create a robotic simulacrum of his late daughter Tima, who is destined to fulfill the Ziggurat’s true purpose.
There are a few things to stand in his way: If Duke Red’s secrecy from his jealous foster son and head of security Rock doesn’t bring his undoing, than perhaps visiting private detective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi will. Then again, there’s always the chance of the odd worker or robot rebellion, or maybe the Duke hasn’t quite thought out his plan as well as he hoped.
After half a century, does the story hold up? Eh, pretty much. In the end, the story doesn’t really matter that much as this is really a vehicle for the amazing visuals. Films like “Blade Runner” and “Brazil” have probably influenced the final product, though Rintaro and his team mix a great deal of European and Asian design with a lot of digital technology to produce something that can seem distinct and universal on its own terms. They should have produced this in 3D for IMAX as “Metropolis” is the kind of work destined to blow the minds of stoners everywhere. It’s long been a tragedy that Japan’s economic difficulties largely blocked attempts to even remotely approach the quality and artistic success of “Akira”. This time, Rintaro and Otomo haven’t made it all the way back, but they did get close. We should all be happy they tried.