The cliché about Osamu Tezuka is to call him the Walt Disney of Japan. He was, indeed, a pioneer of modern manga and anime, including creating the world famous Astro Boy, both as a manga and anime. But while he was wildly successful and astoundingly prolific, Tezuka was able to make inroads with his illustrated stories that Disney never realized: He created entertainments for adults as well as children, including a 3000-page biography of the Buddha. Metropolis, published in 1949, was a graphic novel from 30 years before the term was coined: a standalone comic book story, telling a complex science fiction story with plenty of adult themes.
The name come from the famous Fritz Lang film, though reportedly Tezuka had not seen it when he wrote the book: he had simply been inspired by the poster, with the famous image of the female robot at the center of that film. This film, an animated feature released in 2001 (12 years after Tezuka died) is an amalgam of all of these sources, and much of the dystopian robot science fiction that has come since. Its aim seems to be combining the contrasting style of Tezuka, whose cartoony characters were set off against their often decidedly uncartoony actions and behavior, and extremely detailed backgrounds, crowd scenes, and for the time sophisticated 3D-rendered animation. It's a heady brew of revolutionary politics, cyberpunk, and even a love story. It's also kind of a mess.
In the Metropolis of the title, Duke Red, the power behind the city's political class, has overseen the construction of an enormous skyscraper, the Ziggurat, which is the most technologically advanced building in the world. Metropolis itself is teeming with technology, with much of the work in the city being performed by robots. This has led to an increasingly underemployed and resentful underclass of humans who despise the robots for stealing their jobs. Duke Red's adopted son, Rock, is the head of the Marduk Party, who work hard to keep these anti-robot sentiments growing. Meanwhile, a pair of Japanese, a detective and his nephew assistant, Kenichi, travel to Metropolis hot on the heels of an organ trafficker, Dr. Laughton. They're assigned a detective robot who guides them through the dangerous parts of the city, but when they track down Laughton they are caught in the middle of a fire in the doctor's lab, where Kenichi and the detective are separated.
Kenichi ends up in the sewers, along with a girl he'd rescued out of the lab before it all exploded. The girl, Tima, is a very human seeming robot, created by Dr. Laughton as a replacement daughter for Duke Red, as well as the eventual android mind that will take control of the Ziggurat, for the benefit of all mankind. She doesn't know any of this, though, and Kenichi teaches her what little he can about being human in the short time they have together.
What starts out as a rather convoluted batch of plot contrivances become more and more twisted out of coherence as the film goes on. Tima falls in love with Kenichi, though the scenes they have with each other are brief and whatever connection they have developed is implied rather than dramatized. The Japanese detective and the detective robot discuss the human/robot relationships in the city, but it's never clear who we're supposed to sympathize with. The detective is sympathetic with robots, but whatever the details are of the real division in Metropolis, they aren't fleshed out enough to be interesting. There's a riot in the middle of the film, the Ziggurat turns out to be a giant weapon harnessing radiation from the sun which will drive any robots exposed to it insane. The purpose of which... is not clear. Duke Red's attitude towards robots is incoherent, as well.
What makes Metropolis worth watching, then, and I've seen it several times, is the visual splendor of the thing. It's a melding of Osamu Tezuka style designs with very detailed background work, elaborate crowd scenes, and some early use of CGI mixed with anime. Not all of the CGI has aged gracefully, but anyone who was watching anime in the early 2000s knows how bad it could get, and how early use of computers in storyboarding and drafting animation led to some very cheap, very ugly visual. That is not what happens here, where meticulous mechanical design work makes for some very arresting visuals.
Osamu Tezuka's style of cartoony character design is another one of the stars. Characters in Metropolis are distinctive in a way that many anime character designs are not. They are rounder, with child-like proportions and often wild hair or distinctive costumes to make them stand out. Some may find it off-putting, but I think it's a fun and inventive visual style. Fans of Tezuka will note that many of the designs are similar to characters in other Tezuka works - he would often "recast" characters from one manga into another.
What doesn't work so well is the updating and, in some ways, genericizing of the story. Red Duke's world conquest plans, the robots going crazy, the human revolution, have all been done to death in anime before. Tezuka's original manga is far more inventive: the Tima robot character can fly and can switch from male to female, wild animal mutations create packs of giant humanoid rats (all of whom have Mickey Mouse ears) to terrorize the city, and there's more variety in character and setting. In streamlining elements of that Metropolis story, and incorporating themes that have already been done in other works, much of the unique, almost crazy feeling of the manga story is lost. Sure, it would probably have made the film even less coherent, but it would be inventive madness.
As it stands, Metropolis is a beautiful piece of animation marred by an episodic, only barely cohesive story. Everything about the production is top notch: the character animation, the design work, the great mix of electronic music and Dixieland style jazz. It's well worth seeing just to take in the splendor. Just don't be surprised if not much more than the spectacle sticks with you when you're done.
Metropolis has been released as a Steelbook Limited Edition by Mill Creek Entertainment. It's an extremely handsome package, including a Blu-ray and DVD of the movie. The Blu-ray has English Audio in 5.1 surround, and uncompressed Japanese with English Subtitles in 2.0. While there is bonus material, it is only available on the DVD. It include a 30 minute making of documentary, 10 minutes of interviews with the director, and some animation work in progress shots.