animefringe june 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Metropolis - More Than Just a Movie

One of the more fortunate aspects of the recent explosion in interest in Japanese media properties is the release of many classic works of manga in the US. During the past year, Dark Horse Comics and Viz Communications have been publishing many of the great comic classics of the god of manga, Osamu Tezuka. As a result, manga fans were privileged to finally read Tezuka’s insanely famous Astro Boy, and then treated to the first two parts of his magnum opus, Phoenix. Within this atmosphere, and coupled with the success of the Tezuka-inspired film of the same name, Dark Horse Comics recently published one of his earliest works, Metropolis.

The story of the comic Metropolis differs from the film version greatly. The comic opens up with Duke Red pursuing the genius scientist Doctor Lawton, forcing him to create an artificial being with the face of an angel. Lawton fakes the death of the being, named Michi, in order to offer his creation a chance at a normal life. A Japanese detective by the name of Mustachio comes on the scene, who also helps to protect the child from the dark power of the Red Party. As the story progresses, Michi, upon discovering his true nature as an artificial being, joins the robot slaves of Metropolis to overthrow the city, losing all compassion and humanity in his search for complete destruction.

The story resembles the film’s plot closely enough, yet the details of Tezuka’s original work are very different, in both atmosphere and story. As majestic as the film version was, the original comic is rough and confusing. The story takes a myriad of twists and turns that seem underdeveloped and sudden. The structure of the story and the dialogue appear immature; It’s plain to see that this is the early work of someone with great potential. Not all of the flaws are Tezuka’s fault, however. In his afterword, he states that his original draft went well over the 160 page limit imposed on him by his original publishers, which forced him to cut out good chunks of the story. Still, the final product leaves something to be desired. What could have been a truly great and timeless work was damaged by an immature story-telling manner and a short page-limit.

From the first pages, I was surprised by how American the art style seemed. When looking at comic art styles of the 30s and 40s in the West, one sees clearly the influence that Tezuka drew from it. It is no secret that he highly respected and imitated much of Disney’s animation style. This emulation of the American style is present from the character designs, most displaying American-influenced features, most noticeably in the eyes drawn in on the characters. There is even a direct homage to Disney, with the introduction of a race of mutant mice called Mikimaus Waltdisneus.

Even with these blemishes and homages, in Metropolis you see the seeds that would eventually grow into the modern style of Japanese comic art. For contemporary fans, the art won’t at all seem impressive; rather, this is suggests a simpler, more childish sense of design.

The importance of this work is not so much the story or the artwork, as much as the history that is present here. Japanese comics had to start somewhere, and Tezuka gave it an amazing start. This simple story shows the early potential for comics in Japan; a mixture of art styles that could only grow and evolve, as well as a willingness to use mature themes and ideas in comic storytelling.

What one finds here is not just the enormous potential that Tezuka had, but the potential of Japanese comics and animation as a whole, influenced by the popularity of Tezuka’s works. As far as Tezuka’s later works are concerned, we see in the artificial child, Michi, many of the characteristics that would later manifest in a much more polished version as Astro Boy.

In the end, Tezuka succeeds in spinning a touching tale of the meaning of humanity in an industrial world. He tackles, however lightly, many important issues: agency, slavery, technology. The use of deeper themes in Japanese comic forms today can be traced back to Tezuka’s contribution to the art form. Fans interested in the evolution of the comic form in Japan must read this Dark Horse release; this work is the cornerstone of Japanese comics, and we are fortunate to finally experience Metropolis in the English language.