Osamu Tezuka – Metropolis (1949/2003) [Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian]
Osamu Tezuka is one of the most famous comics artists that Japan has ever produced, but I’m not real sure how well known he still is today. Some people may remember Astro Boy (which I loved as a cartoon as a kid), or they might know Kimba the White Lion, who was borrowed by Disney and recast (and recolored) as the character Simba for The Lion King---and it’s interesting that Disney eventually borrowed from Tezuka because (as I’ve read) he was very influenced by Disney animation. In fact, there is a scene in Metropolis were a pack of giant rats attacks a factory---and all of the rats’ heads look just like Mickey Mouse! One character, Dr. Bell, gives the rats’ scientific name: “These animals are called Mikimaus Waltdisneus.” Yeah…
Metropolis is a strange book. It’s a science fiction tale which doesn’t bring to mind Fritz Lang’s film of the same name so much as it does Karl Capek’s R.U.R. (a play from 1920 in which a company makes robot slaves, and the robots eventually rise up and kill everybody…) In Tezuka’s book, the evil Duke Red and his group of villainous cronies, called the Red Party, are attempting to take over the world and are creating robot slaves to do their bidding. Duke Red, a master of disguise and clever as a snake, discovers a brilliant scientist, Dr. Lawton, who is working on “artificial cells” and kidnaps Lawton to try to force him to make an “artificial being” with super-powers that would be the ultimate slave/weapon. Once the being has been created, however, Dr. Lawton escapes with the artificial being, now called Michi, and attempts to raise Michi as his own child. (Oddly, the being called Michi is both male AND female. There is a switch down Michi’s throat that can be pushed to change Michi from a boy into a girl and back again. Other than one scene where Michi, as a girl, is able to hide from Duke Red for a few seconds, this fluid gender doesn’t seem to have much of a point in the tale.)
Over the course of this strange story, the robot slaves created by the Red Party are abused by Duke Red, and Michi is also traumatized by various experiences, and the slaves and Michi eventually decide to revolt and go on a murderous rampage, killing and destroying everything in their path. Although the art style of this comic seems very kid-oriented to me, and according to a short note at the end of the edition that I have, Tezuka says that this WAS a kids’ story, there is still a lot of death and gruesomeness here. There’s even a one very creepy scene where a police detective (one of the main characters in the story) skins one of the Mickey rats and wears the creature’s carcass as a disguise to escape from the Red Party’s hideout!
Yeah, this story is dark, especially for a kids’ book, and it does tend to be a bit preachy. (One character at the end of the story has a monologue where he looks the reader in the eye and says, people will “wipe themselves out” if they aren’t careful!) It’s also not paced as well as some of Tezuka’s later stories, like Dororo, which is absolutely fantastic! But with all of this said, Metropolis is such an odd and creepy story that it’s worth reading just for the WTF factor. It has metatextual moments, lots of inside jokes (pay attention to what the characters in big crowd scenes are saying), and the art is clean and cartoony, which contrasts in an interesting way with the dark subject matter. Also, if you’ve seen the 2001 anime film and you’re hoping that the comic is similar, you might be disappointed. The comic is less coherent---simpler and less sophisticated in tone---and much goofier than the anime, but like I mentioned above, it is weird and fun. Give it a try if you get a chance, and get a glimpse of what comics were like in Japan way back in the 1940s!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)