Japanese animation - anime - repeatedly comes back to the same debate: about the perils of advances in technology; and the same motifs: social decay, the vast metropolis, the human-like robot, the cataclysmic disaster. All these elements are present and correct in Metropolis. Not surprisingly, as it's adapted by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, the creator of the benchmark Akira manga and anime and is based on 1949 manga created by Osama Tezuka, a godfather figure for these key Japanese media. But there's more history to this film than that - Tezuka's manga was, of course, inspired by Fritz Lang's 1926 classic film, which casts a long shadow over much subsequent sci-fi.
The city-state of Metropolis is a giant, hi-tech, multi-layered place - imagine modern Singapore, Hong Kong or Tokyo reimagined by a 20s or 30s sci-fi visionary. Despite a puppet president, the city is actually ruled by the devious Duke Red (Ishida) and a fascistic militia led by his gun-toting adopted son, Rock (Okada). As in Lang's Metropolis, beneath the wealth and achievement there exists an underclass - humans disenfranchised by robot labourers, themselves another marginalised group.
The robot-hating Rock is perturbed when he discovers Red is employing renegade scientist Dr Laughton to create a "superhuman" robot modelled on Red's dead daughter. Japanese detective Shunsuka Ban (Tomita) and his nephew sidekick, Kenichi (Kobayashi), who are seeking Laughton, arrive on the scene just after Rock has trashed Laughton's lab. In the confusion, Kenichi falls in with the 'newborn' robot, Tima (Imoto), who slowly learns about her nature and destiny.
Even sci-fi fans may be confounded by the fevered riffing on anime's favourite themes. Robots believing they are human is a familiar scenario, notably from Spielberg's A.I.. But the issues arising from the threat of rampant technology are confusing - particularly in the paradox that sentient robots personify the threat of technology to humanity, but are themselves victims.
There's also a problem with the style of the characters. Rather than opting for the proportionate style of Akira or Ghost In A Shell, the humans here are in the more childish, 'classic' manga style - which evolved from early Disney cartoons - and look like squashed 'Tin Tin' characters. Presumably this is in keeping with the retro-futurism of the whole affair, however it jars with the settings, which, realised through a combination of CG and cel animation, are magnificent, atmospheric, highly detailed and sometimes photorealistic. Indeed, the film works best for this sheer spectacle.