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Animation legend Rintaro reinvents the city to build a better Metropolis

By Jeff Berkwits

I n many respects, the resumé of famed director Rintaro reads like a history of anime. In 1958, at the age of 17, he participated in the creation of the first professionally produced Japanese animated feature film, The White Snake Enchantress (also known as Panda and the Magic Serpent), and relatively soon thereafter started directing episodes of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, two of the medium's earliest and most influential TV shows. He has subsequently helmed dozens of distinguished anime adventures, including Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Harmagedon and X: The Movie.

His latest motion picture, Metropolis, which opens on Jan. 25 in New York, Los Angeles and nearly a dozen other major cities in the United States and Canada, is based on a famous manga (comic book) created more than a half-century ago by the legendary "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka. In a recent conversation, Rintaro—speaking through an interpreter—revealed the challenges he faced in crafting this innovative film, along with his memories of Tezuka and why, despite the fact that the title Metropolis may already be familiar to most science-fiction fans from the classic 1926 silent movie, this new motion picture tells an altogether different tale.

The Metropolis manga debuted in the late 1940s. Why has it taken so long for this story to be realized as a motion picture?

Rintaro: Osamu Tezuka, the author of the manga, had no intention of making Metropolis into animation. He told me directly that anything he had done before Tetsuwan Atom [Astro Boy (1952)] was never intended to be made into animation or motion pictures. Tezuka said that his earlier work was not skillful enough, and also that his story structure was not quite up to the level he would have liked it to be. Those were two reasons that he did not want to make it into anime.

So how were you able to eventually get it made into an animated film?

Rintaro: It was just my personal intention: I wanted to make this into anime.

What was it about the story that inspired you?

Rintaro: I had directed some of the early episodes of Astro Boy, and I'm interested in the science fiction/fantasy-type story elements of manga, so I felt that Metropolis was the perfect adventure for me to direct as my next feature film.

So you're also a fan of science fiction?

Rintaro: Yes.

What are some of the SF films that have directly influenced you?

Rintaro: There are so many films that I love, but I really haven't had much influence from the Walt Disney films. Rather, I was more influenced by American Western films or gangster films or film noir, or even foreign films like French films, although to tell you specifically which films would be very difficult.

During the early 1960s, you worked directly with Tezuka on such ageless anime TV shows as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. What did you learn from him that you utilized in directing Metropolis?

Rintaro: It's kind of hard to explain what part of the film is influenced by Tezuka through working with him. But I really, really wanted to communicate Tezuka's spirit, and if the audience can feel it, that would be great.

Can you share some of your memories of Tezuka?

Rintaro: I have many fond memories of working with Tezuka, but my strongest memory concerns the very first episode of Astro Boy. When we created it, neither Tezuka nor I had any experience making a manga into a TV show. We were trying to figure out how to turn it into a TV anime, which required a half-hour episode once a week. Now, at that time in Japan [1963], creating an animated feature film usually took between one and two to three years, but we had to turn around something every week! So there were times when we were up 24 hours a day just to get the episode done.

I remember that Tezuka was so exhausted he would fall off his chair onto the floor and start sleeping. But when he was sleeping on the floor, he wasn't drawing, so there was no way we could advance to the next steps! We used to shake him and wake him up, telling him, "If you don't draw it, we can't finish this!" Then he would wake up and finish the episode. It was a really tough time figuring out how to do TV animation, but the people and all the staff were very enthusiastic. That spirit itself is a fond memory, too.

Some critics have stated that, at least in part, Metropolis is based on Fritz Lang's famed silent film of the same name. What similarities do you see between the two tales?

Rintaro: I get that question quite a lot! All I can say about the comparison is that Fritz Lang's film is one of my favorite films, so ever since I was young that film has been inputted somewhere in the corner of my brain. Now, in the process of making the animated Metropolis feature film, influences from the original Metropolis might have unconsciously popped up, but they certainly weren't intentional. So if the audience feels that there is a similarity between the Fritz Lang version and my version, well, I had absolutely no conscious intention of doing so. But again, with the Fritz Lang film being such a great film, without my knowing there might have been something that influenced me in the process of making my Metropolis.

So the fact that the names are the same is more coincidence than anything else?

Rintaro:: [laughs] That's right! My emphasis in making Metropolis was not based on the Fritz Lang movie, but rather remaining faithful to Tezuka's famous manga.

Conventional hand-drawn animation is clearly incorporated into this production, but there's also extensive use of CGI (computer-generated imagery). Why did you choose to intermingle the two approaches?

Rintaro: To actually make that retro-futuristic city, I could just use traditional animation, but the reason that I wanted to use the newest technology was to show that, when you watch Metropolis, there are actually two different worlds: the ground-level society and the underground society. The ground-level society is made up of buildings and streets and pavement, and I thought using the digital medium would be the perfect way to emphasize its cold, metallic feel. But I'm also interested in combining traditional animation with the newest technology. That was fascinating for me, and that's why I mixed these two different approaches.

What was the most challenging aspect of merging the two techniques?

Rintaro: The most difficult thing in terms of combining cel animation and digital images was that, when you mix these two elements, the digital part is inevitably going to stand out. So the biggest challenge for me was to really blend these two different components together so they wouldn't fight each other within the frame. I call this process "detachment," and it's basically creating the images by computer and then, once you finish the process, actually hand-drawing over them to give them less of a CGI look and bring them closer to cel animation quality. So essentially the hardest part of making this film was creating the CGI and then bringing it back closer to the quality of cel animation.

Here in North America, Metropolis is one of the rare anime movies being released in theaters rather than going straight to videotape or DVD. What do you hope American audiences will gain out of seeing the adventure on the big screen?

Rintaro: When I created the images for the futuristic city in Metropolis, in my mind I imagined Manhattan. So hopefully American audiences will feel a little bit closer to, or at least familiar with, the imagery, and through that they can grasp the underlying theme of the film, which is basically how humanity can be improved and how we can advance by living with different sorts of creatures. In this film, it's basically living together with robots and human beings. There will be a time that will come when those two different entities have to live together. If the audience can feel that, then I've done my job.

That certainly speaks to the moral of the movie, but how will viewers benefit by seeing the picture in a theater rather than on a television screen?

Rintaro: I'd much rather have the audience see this film on the big screen, because it will have a totally different impact than watching the images on video. If the audience is able to see this film on the big screen, and the film has a strong impact, then I'm happy.

If Tezuka were alive today, what do you think he would say about your interpretation of Metropolis?

Rintaro: I assume he would be very happy to see this film.

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