Metropolis 2001 (poster)

Metropolis (2001)

Pure as the Driven Snow

Love (or something) in the ruins. Ever since Little Boy, Japan and the U.S. have been co-enablers in a mutual identity problem.


my black-eyed susans—
withered wilted and pelted
with wind driven snow

Why does innocence, the unadulterated innocence of a slender and speechless young girl gazing wistfully at the heavens while an atomic breeze plays in her hair, seem pornographic? Innocent. Whisper the word and in only a moment a vast array of diabolical potential surfaces from the unconscious mind. Innocent . . .

Who, me?

Tima, robotic girl-child of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, seems the very picture of guilelessness from the beginning. What is she innocent of? The worst crime a manga artist could think of? The deaths of 200,000 people at 8:15 on a Monday morning four years before Metropolis was originally published? Maybe a less tremendous sin, like the allure of a precocious girl-child? Maybe the two are not so different. Maybe, when one has firsthand knowledge of the most obviously destructive bomb in history—and even there finds blame a difficult thing to place—one has trouble seeing this as so different from the least of crimes.

Metropolis is the animated version of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga comic (debatably a tribute to Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic), one of Japan’s earliest attempts at sorting out issues of morality and blame in the face of a catastrophe so colossal it’s off the charts. Metropolis is the United States. Metropolis is NATO. Metropolis is the Western megastate that, after laying Japan low, rebuilt the nation in its own image by flooding it with the technology, the rock and roll, and the can-do attitude of the West.

The film begins in the distant future, long after Hiroshima, when Japan sends its own, literal, Little Boy to the Metropolis. His name is Kenichi and he is nephew to detective Shunsaku Ban. He becomes the first and only true friend of the robot girl, Tima, heir to the ziggurat of the West. Tima is an electronic simulacrum of the deceased daughter of Metropolis industrialist Duke Red, creator of the Ziggurat, the structure Sony Pictures calls “A symbol of the advanced civilization . . . The newly completed skyscraper.” Like the corporate West he symbolizes, the Duke longs to recreate childhood lost by means of technology. It is a formula we have watched unfold repeatedly onscreen: Youth + Technology = Power.

Technology and youth are both cultural symbols for potential, for the untrod snowscape of the future. In America, potential is superior to actualization. Take a look at this month’s clever ad campaign featuring (Japanese) would-be off-road behemoths engaged in a trans-Saharan Polo match: “Not that you would . . . but you could.”

Go, Anime Power!

In Japan, Youth + Technology = Wide Eyed Fun. Is this most Western of Eastern cultures our funhouse mirror, or are we theirs? Both America and Japan revel in the marketing of innocence. The darker side to this tendency is that exploitation operates on a continuum.

If child-eros is our culture’s last great taboo, why do we see an increasing trend towards it in advertising and media? Even the fairer half of the demographic is constantly encouraged to paper their office walls with images of winged infants and their soft, cute bottoms (a stark contrast to the daily duties dictated by a real baby’s butt). The underlying iceberg is that, despite its illegality, outright child pornography is all over the Web. We look for answers in what is pure, untouched, but Midas-like, we destroy what we revere. As the great lefty storyteller Utah Phillips put it to a group of high school kids being told by the Chamber of Commerce that they were America’s most valuable natural resource, “Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources in this place? Have you ever seen a clear cut in the forest?”

So what’s a kid to do? The “bad boy” is a convention of the anime and manga genres, but Rock, the stylish and disenfranchised son of the industrialist, Duke Red, is a distinctly American character. Rock (we could easily add “and Roll”) vows never to let his father put a mere machine on the throne of the Ziggurat. He is rebellion. He is the teenage mass seething in the finished basements of America with its Linkin Park and its Eminem and its scary yellow dye jobs. In America, youth culture has always been part Luddite and its message is epitomized in Rock’s: You, father, should sit on the throne of the Ziggurat. You should take responsibility for the state of our culture instead of carousing through it in the vacuum packed, Mick-Jagger-blasting exoskeleton of your SUV. From the beginning, Rock tries to sabotage Tima out of jealousy for the father who will not call him a son.

Shared obsession

The Japanese share our curiosity-turned-obsession with the possibility of a sentient machine. It is our cross-cultural agreement on how to deal with the fifteen kiloton second sun that rose over Hiroshima one morning in 1945. In all of the moral fallout, Little Boy alone remained pure. No one questions his motives or his politics. No one faults him for the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and neutron rays that he became. No one insinuates that he got what was coming to him. Machines, as every sci-fi kid understands, are not guilty of anything. But: If they become sentient and maintain their inability to be implicated for evil, then, folks, we have touchdown . . . the messiah.

Having exhausted the possibilities of organized religion and our own selves, we turn to our creations for salvation. Look at the poor cleaning robot, Fi-Fi, who lives on the lowest level of the Metropolis. It takes care of Kenichi and Tima in their hour of need. It tries to feed them and eventually sacrifices itself to ensure their escape.

On ascending to the throne of the mighty Ziggurat, Tima sublimates her learned personalities into the collective consciousness of all things robot. She is no longer a daughter to Duke Red or a playmate to the naïve Kenichi. She is robot. Her mission, the mission of all machines. Dare we even ask? Need we? It is self-evident . . . Destroy Humanity.

Fifty years after the atom bomb, the symbolism of an attractive, innocent robotic girl is pretty straightforward. She is the logical evolution of the simulated sexual possibilities always only a click away from the drudgery—the dull, unmitigated torment—of the Microsoft Office Suite. Like our political desire, even our lust is now mediated by machines.

Gotta have faith

As the Ziggurat begins to crumble, so does the constructed child, Tima. At Metropolis’s dramatic zenith she hangs two-faced, half precocious girl-child, half wirey mess of motherboard and dying spark. “I am who?” she asks the Japanese schoolboy, Kenichi, the only one who still has faith in her after she has betrayed humanity.

Tima in the Ruins
Tima in the ruins

And who still has faith in the American technological simulacra? Where can we turn to see our self-image reciprocated? Ever since Little Boy, Japan and the U.S. have been co-enablers in a mutual identity problem. Who is mimicking who? Let’s figure this thing out: If I’m in love with Pikachu but you’re still wild about Elton John . . . Hold on: I was heavily into Shonen Knife and noise bands in college but you have lung cancer from smoking Marlboros . . . Wait, which one of us is the dominant technological power again? Oh, it doesn’t matter—we’re both crazy about pubescent girls and vitamin water . . .

We react with one another like two plutonium spheres reaching critical mass. Tima and Kenichi work out a fumbling treatise on identity—

Tima: I am you?

Kenichi: No, no, no: you are I . . . Oh, forget it.


Metropolis begins with a quote from the French romantic historian Jules Michelet: “Every epoch dreams its successor.” It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to realize that the late manga-god Osamu Tezuka’s dream of the fall of the Ziggurat has become reality at the hand of this other fellow . . . what’s his name? Something Bin Laden? In the aftermath, haven’t we, like the lowly transistor radio left in the rubble at the film’s closing, been doomed to repeat the question: I am who? Who am I?

There is more to Metropolis, however, than the psychoanalysis of the West. Its most praiseworthy quality is the abject beauty of a snow-whitened mega-city depicted against the backdrop of sweetly staggering Dixieland jazz. Humans and machines try to make sense of each other and of their puzzling future in a steadily trailing blizzard of snow that might as well be radioactive fallout . . . or, for that matter, the jet-immolated confetti of stock quotes and commodities reports.

That’s tragedy, folks. If there’s anything America should learn from the Japanese, it’s that tragedy is an essential component of life. What’s more, as every manga artist knows, all tragedy is wrapped up in a rare and snowy beauty, an unearthly aesthetic that maintains our hope in humanity at a time when even the empty shell of the machine seems preferable to the guilty practices of man.


No sky
no earth—but still
snowflakes fall

posted by editor ::: June 21, 2002 ::: philms :::