It’s not so often that you see an anime as deliberately unsexy as Rintaro’s Metropolis. This is not to say that the film, based on Osama Tezuka’s 1940’s manga of the same name, blends digital and hand-painted animation in ways that aren’t completely seductive. Metropolis‘s skyscrapers tower to ominous heights, its fires rage with a liquid brightness, and its core machinery (robots, factories, weapons, and the struggling lower class) rumbles with uneasy predictions of disaster. But the characters are such innocents — including, to a certain extent, the villains — that even massive plots for world domination are curiously bumbling. As for sex, well, given that the key relationship is between a human boy and a robot girl, both of whom look no older than 14, Metropolis is a bit more wholesome than Blade Runner.
The sensual pleasures of Metropolis (and believe me, there are many) come in the dream-like visuals of the city itself, and not in any leggy, busty, scantily clad women. A relief, at first, but also oddly disconcerting: when the sexual element, so frustratingly prevalent and, often, disturbingly perverse in most anime, is completely removed, along with other signifiers of adulthood, it’s a little like watching children mime the apocalypse.
It’s virtually impossible to resist “oooing” and “ahhhing” over the opening shots. The “camera” dips and swerves dizzyingly along the sleek surfaces of the Ziggurat, bad guy Duke Red’s (Jamieson Price) latest addition to the city of Metropolis’ futuristic skyline, as celebratory fireworks burst and shimmer like exploding stars. Unbeknownst to the revelers gathered at the base of the building, Red has also commissioned Dr. Laughton, a renegade scientist, to construct Tima (Yuka Imoto), a very human-like robot girl, to serve as the Ziggurat’s centerpiece and as the eventual controller of all Metropolis.
Tima is rescued from a fire that ravages Laughton’s laboratory by Kenichi (Kei Kobayashi), the nephew of a private detective in town on an investigation. As Tima is not yet finished, she believes she is human, and becomes strongly attached to Kenichi — the feeling, of course, is mutual — during their escape through the sewer system. But their love for each other, like the other human elements of Metropolis, never seems quite as real as the gorgeous backdrops, except in one late scene. Imprisoned and alone in the Ziggurat, Tima covers the walls of her room with crayon scribblings of Kenichi’s name. She huddles in the corner of her bed, her body the only part of the room not written on, like a visual manifestation of her separation anxiety and continual search for a real identity. Consumed with the quest to understand who — or what — she really is, Tima grasps on to the next best thing to her own self-awareness: the individuality of the one she loves.
She would do better to look elsewhere for role models. Boyish Kenichi, along with the other denizens of this ecstatic fantasy world, has the same simplistic facial expressions (and, by extension, emotions) as Tima. While the influence of Little Nemo and other classic cartoons is very clear, Metropolis‘s humans’ wide eyes and cute little noses seem precious compared to their rapturous surroundings. Doubtless I’d be wide-eyed, too, if I visited such a wonderland of sensory stimulation, but they live there.
Even the revolutionaries from Metropolis’ seedy sections are bizarrely adorable. Whether they’re revolting against Duke Red and his minions or gleefully attacking the robots who have taken all the working-class jobs, they look about as serious as a rabid pack of cherubs. They’re only playing at war. Duke Red registers as a little menacing, with his vulture nose and craggy brow, but is motivated at least partly by human loss; Tima, we learn, is made to look like his beloved dead daughter. His joy in making her the Ziggurat’s figurehead thus seems to stem more from fatherly pride than a genuine desire to rule the world. When he fails, at last, it is not because he was too greedy, but because, like most parents, his expectations for his child were set too high. Even the villain is, in some ways, naove; he isn’t quite adult enough to realize the full implications of his actions.
Technically, Metropolis is as much a breakthrough in anime as Akira, Princess Mononoke, and Blood: The Last Vampire. Its jazzy soundtrack fits beautifully with the retro-futuristic look; the climax’s thundering images of destruction are ironically paired with Ray Charles crooning “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” bringing to mind films such as Brazil. But Metropolis is missing the chaotic, anarchic punch of Akira, the epic emotion of Princess Mononoke. In these films, there is a journey towards adulthood, in one way or another, for good or for bad. The strange wholesomeness of Metropolis, however, means that its characters never grow up. When two characters are so obviously infatuated with each other as Tima and Kenichi and yet barely even touch, something’s amiss. And indeed, while Metropolis is glorious, ecstatic, and larger than life, it is also sadly sterile. I never thought I’d ask for more sexiness in an anime, but there has to be a middle ground; if Tima never reaches adulthood, how will she ever find out who she really is?