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  • The Song at the End of the World:Personal Apocalypse in Rintarô's Metropolis
  • William L. Benzon (bio)
Rintarô (director). 2001. Metropolis. Culver City, CA: TriStar Pictures. ISBN 0-7678-8180-X.

The penultimate sequence of Rintarô's Metropolis (2001) is astonishing. We see a finger press down on a key, followed by flashing light, and then hear Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You," a bittersweet ballad about lost love. As the music unfolds, we see the horrendous destruction of a huge building complex. The juxtaposition of music and image is exquisitely jarring. What is going on here?

Sound-track music is rarely so inconsequential that one may dismiss it as mere ornament. In this scene, the music bears as much of the dramatic burden as the action, imagery, and dialogue. Several narrative, thematic, and expressive features can be isolated that are associated with this complex.

Metropolis is set in a large, sprawling city that seems generally Western. As the film opens, we are celebrating the completion of the Ziggurat, an elaborate skyscraper. While ultimately biblical, the reference links Rintarô's film to Fritz Lang's silent film Metropolis (various art deco images make the same link). It is this Ziggurat that comes tumbling down at the film's end. Simultaneously, we see Ken'ichi's last attempts to save Tima, a young gynoid (female robot) who is at the story's center. Ken'ichi fails, and yet the overall effect is not so much of loss as of relief. Although the final scene depicts rubble and ruin, and despite Ken'ichi's grief for Tima, the ending is optimistic and is rendered in bright, saturated colors.

Charles's ballad laments the end of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman. No such relationship exists in the film, whose major characters are male except for the visibly female Tima. Tima and Ken'ichi quickly develop a close relationship, but it is hard to say just what kind of relationship exists between a young human boy and a newly animated gynoid. It surely is not erotic. Yet, within the apocalyptic scene itself, that relationship is the most obvious focus for the song's grief. So we have personal grief amid large-scale destruction.

That destruction is itself given a very personal context. Duke Red, an ambitious industrialist, commissioned Tima to replace his deceased daughter, and he simultaneously created the Ziggurat as his instrument for world domination. Actually, the Ziggurat was built to be Tima's throne, which she could use as her instrument. Thus Red's wille zur macht seems to be the twisted expression of a father's undying grief for his dead daughter, and that grief brings him, also, within the affective penumbra of Charles's song.

The song was triggered when Rock—an orphan taken in by Duke Red—was attempting to reach him just after Red finally called out to Rock in need. Rock thought of Red as his father, although Red repeatedly and explicitly denies it. Rock jealously attempts to destroy Tima, which is central to the causal nexus that brings down the Ziggurat. Coupling Red's motivation for creating Tima and the Ziggurat with Rock's motivation for destroying Tima, we seem to be facing a film that asks us to believe that a large-scale historical event—revolution and destruction in a major city—is but a family affair writ large.

Thus the determining dynamics of large-scale historical events have been rendered, in part, by assimilating them to the personal [End Page 171] motives of a small group of people. The external social realities of class warfare and robot rebellions are made personal in the actions and feelings of Ken'ichi, Tima, Rock, and Duke Red. And that makes Metropolis art, not political science and not sociology.

We find a similar assimilation in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). Early in the film, a renegade U.S. Air Force general defies orders and commands his bomber group to proceed to targets in the (then) Soviet Union and release their nuclear payloads. When Washington learns of this, officials begin a desperate dance that succeeds in recalling all but one...


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