Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Video Backlog: “Metropolis”

Publisher: Eureka Entertainment Ltd (UK)
Format: Region A and B Blu-ray, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Region 2 DVD, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles
Length: 107 minutes
Production Date: 2001
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Detective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi travel to Metropolis to question Dr Laughton, a scientist suspected to be involved in organ trafficking. They arrive in the city to discover its inhabitants hold extremely anti-robot views, as many of the jobs in the city have been mechanised, causing unemployment. They also find themselves in the midst of a citywide celebration of the opening of a massive skyscraper named Ziggurat which is owned by highly influential businessman Duke Red. A protesting robot tries to hijack the celebrations by projecting the logo of a local anti-robot vigilante group, the Marduk Party, onto the building. The rebel robot is destroyed by Rock, Duke Red's adopted son and unofficial head of the Marduk Party. Ban and Kenichi head to the police department in order to ask for help in their investigations. The only officer they can supply them with is a robot named 803-D-RP-DM-497-3-C, which Ban decides to nickname Pero.

Pero guides them through the three levels of the city; level one which is above ground where the most affluent live, level two where a lot of the working class, poor and unemployed live and the third level where the generators which run the city are situated. On the second level is the abandoned factory where Dr Laughton lives and produces his work. Unbeknownst to Ban, Duke Red has commissioned Laughton to construct a robot called Tima seemingly based upon Red’s deceased daughter. Tima has been created as a control until for a powerful secret weapon hidden inside the Ziggurat building. An enraged Rock discovers Tima's existence and decides to kill Laughton and set the factory on fire. Arriving just as the building is alight, Ban notices Laughton trapped inside the building and both he and Kenichi go to inside to rescue him and anyone else trapped inside. Laughton is almost beyond help, but he gives Ban his notebook on Tima. Kenichi discovers the now activated Tima, not realising that she is in fact a robot, rushes to save her. The pair fall through metal grates in the floor and down into the sewer system.

Separated from Kenichi and with Laughton now dead, Ban and Pero continue on with the investigation while searching for Kenichi. He and Tima are somewhere on the third level. Kenichi is surprised to discover that Tima can barely form sentences and doesn’t seem to know much about the world. Meanwhile Rock discovers that the remains of Tima weren’t in the remnants of the fire and hunts down Tima and Kenichi in an attempt to kill them both. During the long chase, Kenichi is knocked out while trying to escape. He awakens to find himself and Tima in a room. They have been saved by a man named Atlas who heads up a group of unemployed labourers who are planning a revolution against Duke Red. But this is not exactly an unorganised mob. Atlas has made a secret pact with Metropolis mayor President Boone in order to take out Duke Red. The revolutionaries set about attacking the city, but it soon becomes apparent that Duke Red has known about their plan all along. Later Tima is eventually captured along with Kenichi. Tima is forced to control the Ziggurat against her will. It’s up to Ban and Kenichi to not only save Tima but also the entire world from Duke Red’s weapon inside the Ziggurat.

This film was probably the most hyped anime film of 2001 (well maybe “Spirited Away” was even more hyped). When Osamu Tezuka died in 1989, his production company, Tezuka Productions, set about turning as many of his manga into anime. A string of anime were produced, mostly of titles that had not previously been animated before such as various adaptations of “Black Jack”, “Ambassador Magma”, “Jungle Emperor” and “Buddha”. Before its release in 2001, this film had apparently been in production for almost five years and had an astronomical cost (for an anime film) of ¥1.5 billion. There were a lot of heavy hitters on the production side with Katsuhiro Otomo writing the screenplay, Rintaro directing and Madhouse as the animation studio. It was also one of the first anime features to really use computer graphics to a large extent.

The last time I saw this film was around 15 years ago when Columbia Tristar/Sony released the film on DVD (with a bizarre 8cm “CD single” DVD containing all the extras) to much fanfare. To be utterly honest I don’t think I was overly impressed with the film back then. I think I’m even less impressed with it now. The key problem I think a lot of people have with Rintaro’s work is that he goes for spectacle over story. It’s a complaint that you’ll hear quite often about his previous major work, his movie adaptation of Clamp’s “X”. Right from the start of the film you can see that he’s more interested in showing off the city than actually telling the story or exploring the characters motivations or backgrounds. Watching this time around it really stuck out to me how many wide shots there were and how at times you could not distinguish from the main characters of the story and background characters. There is so much going on in a lot of these shots. Every bloody thing is animated and moving and at times I really found it hard to spot the main characters in in certain shots. With few close up shots, it really depersonalises the characters, and to a large degree you don’t feel involved in the story at all.

Some of the background characters in these wide shots had really exaggerated and unnatural movements which really made them stand out from everything else. The point is we as an audience should be focused on the story and its main characters. All of this background animation was needlessly distracting and a hindrance to the story. As a result I really found it hard to connect to any of the characters at all. I found really hard to accept that Kenichi and Tima had made any real connection between each other. The political machinations between Duke Red, the Marduk Party, President Boone and Atlas’ revolutionaries were muddled and could have been clarified and cleared up a bit more. Many of the characters and side characters are introduced and are almost always killed or vanish before the audience really get to know any of them. Then you have the relationship between Duke Red, Tima and his deceased daughter. This is barely explained and makes little sense when you consider Duke Red is anti-robot.

I think a lot of the blame here can be attributed to screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo. He’s crammed a lot of story into the film’s short runtime. While the film is based upon the original manga, a lot of material has been added to the story including a number of characters. Like the overly animated backgrounds, there is just too much going on and not enough focus of what is important. The audience has a hard time trying to make sense of it all. This film is the first time I became aware of Tezuka’s Star System. A ton of his characters from other manga appear here such as Rock (who wasn’t in the original manga), Shunsaku Ban, Duke Red, Acetylene Lamp (who plays Boone’s secretary), Skunk (who appears briefly as a general), Ham Egg (who appears a police officer) and Pero who is taken from an early part of the “Astroboy” manga. But really these cameos don’t really propel the story along at all. They just make the film feel overstuffed.

This two disc set (one blu-ray, one DVD) was produced by niche UK based arthouse/cult film distributor Eureka. While the blu-ray is a lot better than the old Sony DVD, there are some video problems. The most glaring problem is the strange horizontal banding (similar lines as you’d see in an old CRT TV) which occurs only in some light coloured scenes. There is also some colour gradient banding in a couple of dark scenes, but it’s not really all that bad. The discs retain all of the important features from the Sony release and also include a previously unseen extra; a Japanese promo video. The two disc set comes in a steelbook case which is a bit so-so really. The back of the case has no image at all; it's just black with small company logos at the bottom. At the very least it’s probably better than the forthcoming US Sony release which is being replicated on BD-Rs, not factory pressed blu-rays. Eureka’s BD also has Japanese titles rather than replaced English credits as the Sony DVD had, and the post credits still image which was cut from the original western DVD releases appears on Eureka's release.

Summing up, I really felt frustrated with this film this time around. I don’t think it’s aged well at all, it’s stuffed too much with plot and characters, and is far more interested in showing off the animation than actually trying to engage the audience with the story being told. All the elements are there for a great film, but it’s all a bit of a mess I’m afraid. And to top it off you have that really misplaced Ray Charles version of “I Can't Stop Loving You” during the climax… I can only give this film a 5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Eleven TV series and one OVA and one movie. In addition I am also waiting for the second part and movie of one TV series to be released before viewing it.

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