The computer-enhanced visuals of Japanese anime director Rintaro's Metropolis are many things -- hypnotic, detailed, colorful. But, while watching them, I couldn't help feeling that I had seen this kind of scenery in the past. This is because I have. It's one of the weaknesses of Japanese animation, this borrowing of styles that have come before.
I've seen such detailed mechanical wonders when I, along with the majority of Americans, was introduced to anime through the '80's TV series "Robotech." Subsequent exposure to anime revealed a singular style that is steadily improved upon, but seldom deviated from. Most recently, I've seen Metropolis's futuristic buildings, massive machinery, and underground blend of darkness and forgotten technological waste in the cinema sequences of the Japanese "Final Fantasy" video games. I used to stare in awe at the distant sight of a bizarre city, our perspective zooming in closer to minute sections of it, animated in such incredible detail, rendered with painstaking care, as I played "FF VII" or "FF VIII." Now I see it in Metropolis and the similarity of the rendering is eerie. Were it primarily hand-drawn it could have elicited a different feeling from me, but it is largely computer-drawn and so I could not help but feel that I was watching a video game.
Perhaps I am being unfair. After all, the depiction of Metropolis, a city inspired by the one in the classic Fritz Lang silent film of the same name, is breathtaking, with its achitecturally complex skyscrapers and its cluttered zones below. But even as its visual style shines bright enough to be able to rise past its similarities to other anime-influenced worlds, its theme does not. It borrows elements from the original Metropolis, Blade Runner, and numerous anime before it, but doesn't take any of them in its own original direction.
Familiar scenarios saturate the story -- it takes place in the future, features a technologically advanced city, includes robots who act more human than the humans, and ends in a cataclysmic climax. The lessons learned here have been learned before -- the arrogance of man will bring about his downfall, the ambition of man will cause his destruction by his own creations, the cruelty of the elite can never quash the will of the oppressed, etc. etc. It's a melting pot of old sci-fi ideas from which not one of them can take control and drive the audience to uncharted territory. For something as splendid-looking as this particular film, the viewer expects something special but instead gets rehash.
The movie deserves points for incorporating a slightly different-than-usual style for its characters, who are drawn pudgy and exaggerated. It also uses a surreal Western jazz score to prick up one's ears. But because it otherwise looks like a video game and acts like used sci-fi anime, Metropolis is sadly lacking and feels like a waste of potential.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 7, 2002
(Released by TriStar Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)