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  • States of Emergency: Urban Space and the Robotic Body in the Metropolis Tales
  • Lawrence Bird (bio)

The tradition of the oppressed shows us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

One of the most ubiquitous and disturbing images in anime and manga—indeed, an image that comes close to defining them—is the apocalyptic destruction of the city, with a human or humanoid figure at the epicenter. Very often this figure shares in the destruction of the city: it comes apart as the city does. This mutually experienced destruction implies more than just catastrophe. Whether we are aware of it or not, bodies and cities act as each other’s limits. On the one hand cities and buildings, as they shelter and enclose us, articulate a series of important distinctions. They mark a boundary between the spaces of the individual and those of the public. They afford a distinction between the space of citizens (often associated with the human) and the space beyond citizens, beyond civilization (the realms of the inhuman). On the other hand, our bodies in turn place limits on the city. Architecture and urban form take the human as their measure, literally and metaphorically. The shared destruction of these mutually delimiting figures—human [End Page 127] and urban architectures—implies a modern crisis in what it means to be human and what it means to dwell together in a community.

Such images are all the more disturbing in their resonance with world events, which have with increasing frequency made us witnesses to the disintegration of real bodies, real cities. This implies some relation between anime and manga images of destruction and the history of destruction of cities in the real world. Particularly important in Japan is the leveling of cities at the end of World War II.1 Nonetheless, neither the imagery nor the circumstances for such imagery is uniquely Japanese. Both speak to a more general crisis of modernity, and to the political, social, and ontological implications of modernity as articulated in architectural form. Here I propose a look at three instances of the destruction of the modern city and its relation to the disintegration of the human, all of which strive to topple the same behemoth, the modern Metropolis.

The first attempt on the Metropolis is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a silent film that has had such a profound impact on the dystopian imagination in science fiction. Although Lang’s film toys with the possibility of the total destruction of the city, it ultimately offers something else: the immolation of a humanoid body, the sacrifice of a gynoid robot. Something similar occurs at the end of Tezuka Osamu’s manga Metropolis (1949): while the rebellion of the robots threatens to destroy the Metropolis, ultimately it is the robot that disintegrates. The connection between Lang’s and Tezuka’s tales is tenuous. By his own account, Tezuka had seen only one still from Lang’s film, and knew little else about its content.2 Tezuka was not rewriting or remaking Lang’s film, and the two stories differ significantly, as I will discuss below. Nonetheless, Tezuka and Lang are both concerned with the destructive forces of modernity and the potential obliteration of the very emblem of modernity, the Metropolis. It is on the basis of this shared concern for the modern destruction of body/city that director Rintarō and writer Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s animated Metropolis (2001) folds together elements of the two prior Metropolis stories. The 2001 version achieves the urban apocalypse only promised in the prior attempts, ending with the destruction of the gynoid robot and the Metropolis.

Clearly, with the destruction of both the modern city and the human body at stake, there are political implications to such stories and images. In fact, each Metropolis presents a political scenario: the destruction of the city is linked to conflicts between factions and social classes as well as to the rise and fall of leaders. There is a direct engagement with structures of authority and sovereignty. Significantly, structures of authority [End Page 128] and sovereignty are imagined through...