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Know Thy History: Metropolis

If you bring up the word “Metropolis” among your average cineaste, the first thing that will come to mind will be Fritz Lang’s landmark 1927 silent expressionist sci-fi movie where a robot woman named Maria causes sexual havoc among the ruling class and inspires the working class to revolt.

There’s another Metropolis, though, that may just be as wildly embraced by anime and manga fans. That would be the landmark manga created by Osamu Tezuka, a.k.a. “The Godfather of Anime,” a.k.a. “The Father or Manga.” Metropolis was published in 1949, back when the manga scene was inundated with low quality comics. Tezuka set out to change all that by creating a full-length sci-fi epic.

So to what extent was the manga Metropolis was directly influenced by the Fritz Lang Metropolis? From an interview with Tezuka:

This manmade person was based on the image of the female robot in the famous pre-war German film Metropolis. That said, I hadn’t seen the movie at the time and I didn’t even know what it was about. During the war, in Kinema Junpou, or some other such magazine, there was a single still from the movie of the female robot’s birth scene. I remembered it and it just gave me a little hint. I also really like the sound of the word “metropolis” so I used the same title, but other than that there was no real connection to the movie.

of course, he could’ve just said this to appease the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which means that, in Germany, Metropolis has to be released as Robotic Angel). Hey, being the Japanese Disney ain’t easy.

The comics’ narrative style seems to be strongly inspired by the movie serials. Much of the exposition is handled by some fairly superfluous in-story characters. When they speak, I can almost hear the crackling voices of old-timey radio announcers. Tezuka’s artistic style, on the other hand, strongly reminds me of classic black and white cartoons. Unlike modern manga and anime, the characters are rounded and rubbery, as if they just stepped off the set of Steamboat Willie or Felix the Cat.

Metropolis is set in an American city based on pre-war New York and Chicago. Or, judging by the big ducts with valves and rivets that criss-cross the city, the movie Metropolis.

The town is being terrorized by The Red Party, which is led by Duke Red, a guy with chicken hair and a big nose. During a scientific conference discussing the increase in sunspots, Duke Red tracks and finds a scientist named Dr. Layton. Layton has been working on an artificial human. While he assumes that his experiment has been a failure, Layton soon discovers that the increased sunspot activity has awakened the cells of his creation. Unfortunately, this is the sort of superweapon that Duke Red is looking for. Red kidnaps Layton and orders him to craft the being into a human body … namely one after a museum statue of The Angel of Rome that he just happened to have lying around.

Layton, though, escapes by faking his death. He also absconds with his creation, named Michi, who he raises as his own son. Or daughter. It’s actually a fairly important plot point that Michi is neither boy nor girl. In fact, there’s a button at the back of Minchi’s throat that you can press that transform him/her from an androgynous boy form into a pretty little girl. Somewhere, Rumiko Takahashi was reading this comic, and huge dollar signs appeared in her pupils.

Does this mean that there’s a scene in the comic at some point where a gross old man shoves his forearm into a little girl’s throat?

Yes.

Trouble seems to follow poor little Michi. Eventually, The Red Party tracks down and mortally wound him. Michi eventually falls under the care of Detective Moustachio from Japan, and she befriends his nephew, Kenichi. Michi has no idea he/she is a robot. He/she, though, discovers a plethora of new powers. Michi saves a poor little girl named Emmy from getting run over by a truck by using a combination of super speed and super strength. Later, while playing baseball, Michi discovers that she has a strong vertical leap which makes her a defensive threat in the outfield. Also, he/she can fly.

Anyway, Detective Moustachio is here from Tokyo at the behest of the Metropolis police force. In an attempt to bring Duke Red to justice, they have been soliciting the help of several prominent detectives, including … I kind you not … Sherlock Holmes.

How does this work out? I mean, he’s probably a hundred years by now. The story does have an explanation, by the way, but it tends to make everyone involved look like total maroons.

Mustachio infiltrates The Red Party’s headquarters, and he discovers many disturbing things. First, that Duke Red has created an army of sentient robot slaves who are terribly mistreated. Second, that Duke Red was responsible for the increased sunspot activity. And the sunspots didn’t only just bring Michi to life. They also mutate plants and animals to monstrous proportions.

Giant ant-lions appear in India and chomp on poor passer-bys. Man-eating grasshoppers attack Colorado and wipe out the American Indians. Gargantuan pumpkins grow in Japan and … people turn them into housing. (Wait, that’s not so bad.) And massive worms show up China to screw with the farmers. But most diabolical of all is Duke Red’s own personal army of killer mutants, giant rats that …

Wait. What?

Eventually Michi discovers that she’s a robot, and that Duke Red has been keeping robot slaves. Suddenly, Michi’s previously sunny disposition turns to murderous anger. He/she decides that humans are jerks and declares war. Michi leads a robot army into Metropolis, where they begin to destroy the city.

Kenichi paradrops in on Michi, which leads to a one-on-one no-holds-barred fist fight. To his credit, Kenichi actually manages to stand his ground. Kid knows his judo. He also tries to appeal to Michi’s human nature, but, in a surprising twist, Michi is too far gone to be reasoned with.

The fight ends, though, after Mustachio locates the machine that Duke Red has been using to create sunspots. Without the power to keep her cells stable, Michi begins to disintegrate. His/her body is taken to the hospital. The people of Metropolis, angered by Michi’s rampage, demand his/her execution. However, one of the scientists goes on a big speech how it’s not Michi’s fault, since he/she was never told the truth about being a robot. When Michi went on a murderous rampage that inflicted millions of dollars in property damage and likely killed tens of thousands, could he/she be blamed since he/she was just throwing a tantrum about having no parents?

And, guess what? The people of Metropolis totally buy it. In fact, they come to Michi’s bedside to pay their final respects. Unfortunately by this point, Michi has totally disintegrated, so in a really weird scene they pay respects to the statue that Michi was based on.

You know, if that stuffy old professor had mention in passing that Michi had to gag on a creepy old man’s arm after he forcefully shoved it down her throat, I think that everyone would’ve been more believably sympathetic. Just sayin’.

Metropolis‘ legacy continues today. Michi was the prototype for Tezuka’s most famous creation, Astro Boy, which solidified Tezuka’s status in manga and anime. It also inspired the critically acclaimed anime adaptation of the same name in 2001.

OK, I know Rober Ebert gave this movie four stars, but having read the manga and seen the movie, I’m going to have to disagree with him. I don’t think the anime was that faithful of an adaptation. Sure, some familiar elements of the manga show up in the film. There’s retro 40’s imagery and robots and stuff. Still, it’s just so dark, which was something that manga never was. Oh, sure, there’s a scene in the manga where Mustachio kills and skins Mickey Mouse so he can wear it as a disguise…

… but really. In the anime, their version of Michi mutters, “Who am I?” before going offline permanently? That’s surprisingly a more cliche anime ending than the original’s unrepentant rampage through the Metropolis streets. I guess it makes sense once you realize the movie was written by Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira, but, let’s face it: “Who am I?” is never going to be as memorable as “I am Tetsuo.”

I think what upsets me the most is that they ditch Michi’s androgynous appearance. They merge Michi with Emmy, the poor flower girl, and merge them into a single character named Tima. Sadly, Tima is more like the ineffectual Emmy than the frightening force of nature that was Michi. It just seems like a total betrayal of the character. Tima was a timid little girl with no superpowers who needed Kenichi to teach her the basics of language. And she’s prone to making achingly heartbreaking poses where he stands on a rooftop so a bird perches on her so she looks like an angel. I guess it’s a reference to the original’s Angel of Rome statue, but, c’mon, can we take the pretentiousness down a notch.

Tima is just far less appealing than the original optimistic Michi who transforms into a frightening powerhouse of doom. I mean… what if we Americans did a story about a popular hero hailing from Metropolis. Only he can’t fly, and he’s a mopey emo. How would you feel if…

Oh.

Right.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 15, 2011, in comics, Know Thy History, The Webcomic Overlook. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Oh wow. You wrote several paragraphs about Tezuka. Om nom nom.

    I don’t have much to say since I haven’t picked up Metropolis in any form yet. Still working my way through Black Jack. I do fangirl Tezuka pretty hard, though.

  2. Thank you for on this information on Metropolis, El Santo. I have to admit to you that Metropolis is one of my favorite Japanese movies. However, I knew very little about the comic it was based on. I’ve seen and read a lot of Tezuka’s other works, though. I wonder if I would have liked the movie less if I was more familiar with the comic, as seems to be the case for you.

    It’s interesting to note that Tezuka was not remarkably proud of Metropolis. It was probably the usual affair of an artist being a little embarrassed of his earlier works. People badgered him to make a movie adaptation for years, which he declined every time. It wasn’t until after his death that his estate granted permission to make the movie Metropolis. Was that a little wrong? I don’t know, I still loved the movie. But it probably would have been a much different movie if it Tezuka had been alive to make the decisions for it.

    Thanks for the great article, El Santo.

  3. Guess I’m going to read Metropolis now. I think I’ll take a look at the movie, too… Thanks for the info Santo I love your essays on history stuff!

  4. Did you just call DUKE RED gross?

    Sir, those are fighting words.

  5. I wish Tima were a powerhouse like Astro Boy rather than doing nothing like in the movie.

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