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Metropolis in Japan 1929

Introduction

Fritz Lang's Metropolis premiered in Japan at the Syoitiku Kinema, Yurakucho, Tokyo on 3 April 1929, alongside the second feature Kamiyama Ara (Spray of Blood) starring Ookawati Denzirou. The movie travelled to Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya Koube, and during September of that year was screened at the Akita Yanagimachi theatre in Akita City. The cinema magazine Kinema Junpo listed it as number 4 in the top 10 foregin language films of 1929.

Metropolis was an important film within the context of Japanese cinema and popular culture, though this is not well recognised, either within Japan or outside. Osamu Tezuka's breakthrough manga of 1949 - entitled Metropolis - was based, in part, on Lang's epic production. It subsequently gave rise to the character of a child robot called Atom / Astro Boy, which has proven the most popular of all Japanese anime since the 1960s, at least in the west. The 2001 cinema release anime Metropolis makes numerous references to Lang's original film, both in the layering of the city - centred around the towering Ziggurat (aka Tower of Babel as featured in the 1927 film) - and in the main character Tima - a beautiful, innocent young girl robot who is placed in an electrified chair (again like Lang's Maria) and subject to a transformation which results in partial destruction of Metropolis amidst a worker revoluton.

The 1929 Japanese release of Lang's Metropolis was fortuitous, for the Japanese, like many advanced societies, were at the time grappling with the impact of industrialisation, especially in urban areas such as Tokyo. Science and technology were becoming a part of everyday life, and artists and writers were reacting to, and commenting upon, a myriad of societal changes. The place of 'man' and machine in the burgeoning metropolis was being discussed within the content of evolving philosophical and sociological frameworks. The frenetic pace of change seen during the 1920s and following on the end of World War I in 1918, came crashing to a halt with the economic collapse of the early 1930s. Up to that point all that was new was embraced with vigour and abandon. Lang's movie was a reflection of this, at least from a German perspective. Metropolis was a celebration of, and commentary upon, twenties excess. Beneath the simple love story of Freder and Maria was a moral tale exposing the dangers of that excess and the horror of rampant technological change. Rotwang's replacement of his lost love Hel with a sexually charged robot cyborg was visually powerful and immensely thought provoking. It preented in cinematic form debates which were already taking place and which would continue through to the next decade at least.

Timothy N. Homyak, in his Loving the machine: the art and science of Japanese robots (2006), noted: 'The year 1928 was the beginning of an exceptional time for robots in Japan. Along with Gakutensoku [the first Japanese robot, constructed by biologist Makoto Nishimura] reports of foreign automatons in the press began a robot boom that continued into the 1930s. In 1929 Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which featured the female robot Maria, opened in Japan and proved a wild success.'

The precise details of that 'wild success' are not known to the author, though the statement is obviously based upon a reading of contemporary documents such as reviews and ticket sales. The aforementioned robot Gakutensoku, though based on a Buddha-like figure, is similar in appearance to the evil Maria from Lang's film, though it is not known if Nishimura had seen images from Metropolis in the two years prior to its Japanese release. It is nevertheless likely as the movie's robot was widely reported upon, and not just in cinematic magazines of the day, but also in technical and literary science fiction publications.

The ongoing Japanese interest in robots / cyborgs  - a "collective infatuation with advanced technology" in a land also known as "robotto okoku" (robot kingdom) - mirrors some of the themes contained in Lang's landmark production of 1925-6 (released in Germany in January 1927). These include societal segmentation and class distinction; the dehumanising threat of industrialisation; imposition of scientific management and Fordism to working life via production lines and time and motion studies; open discussions of the values and impact of capitalism as against socialism or communism; and the ideal of the artificial human being - the machine man, or robot, who could replace humans not only on the factory floor, but also in the home. Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's script and subsequent book and film addressed many of these themes in literary, visual and cinematic forms. Their Metropolis is a unique film, due in part to the fact that it attempts to cover such a wide range of issues, and not all well. It remains universally relevant and accessible - perhaps the most watched of all silent era films. In 1929 the book and movie provided a rich tapestry for the Japanese to reflect upon and contrast with to their own experiences.

A number of English language studies into the Japanese fascination with the robot / cyborg have recently appeared, spurred on by the release of the breakthrough manga and anime Akira in 1982-1987. They make mention of Lang's film in passing, though with no clear statement on its influence. A 2002 essay by Yoshida Morio apparently discusses in detail how the figure of Maria in Metropolis influenced the Japanese understanding of robots, however it has not been seen by the author. It is difficult for a non-Japanese speaking Australian to fully investigate this aspect of Japanese history and events of the 1920s, though as English language studies become more common, and anime and manga more an ordinary part of Western mainstream entertainment, there is an opportunity for better understanding the impact of Lang's Metropolis upon its Japanese audience, in 1929 and beyond.

The Japanese release

Metropolis was announced for release in Japan by the German production company UFA during late 1928. Two full page spreads in the Tokyo-based The Movie Times magazine of 11 and 21 September 1928 announced its exhibition, alongside other UFA film such as Berlin: Symphony of a City. However, according to the Metropolis around the world web site, UFA closed it's Japanese branch shortly thereafter and the film was subsequently released by US studio Paramount in February 1929 and exhibited throughout the remainder of that year. Some of the images on this website come from the local release campaign of 1929.

During the silent era the Japanese developed a unique way of presenting film, with emphasis placed on the role of the narrator, or benshi. This was a highly specialised profession which continued through to the sound era - the brother of the famous producer Akira Kurosawa was himself a silent film narrator. Metropolis was seen during its initial release with narration, though elements of the original score by Hupperitz and various sound effects may also have been utilised.

Whilst no contemporary Japanese posters are known to the author, there are a number of film magazines which include advertisements for the release of Metropolis. The art within these magazines is, in many instances, stunning and unique, perhaps reflecting part of the larger poster campaign. The Japanese distributors also made use of the German visuals available to them, as is evidenced by the advertisement featuring the helmeted head of a green-faced Maria, with yellow graphics for the Japanese word Metropolis presented diagonally across the page. This is derived from one of the original German posters.

The Japanese also produced their own artwork, with a definite Russian constructivst movement edge. The multicoloured image at the top of this page is an example of the perspective brought to the release by Japanese graphic designers, as is the pale green and brown image of towering skyscapers superimposed with planes flying over them. These two images are in some respects similar to the work of the graphic artist Boris Bilinsky who produced a number of posters and promotional items for the French release of Metropolis in late 1927. The Japanese advertisements are a mix of elements from two of Bilinsky's most famous posters, though whether the Japanese were aware of these is not known.

The mixture of design elements is strong in these advertisements, though the use of colour is usually limited, due to production costs and the nature of the film magazines from which they were taken. Once again, a second image has a Russian constructivist movement tone, though not being fully aware of art movements in Japan during the 1920s it is difficult to make any more specific comment. Further research will obviously reveal some of the provenance and context of these Metropolis images.

One of the strangest of the Japanese promotional items is the image of the robot, presented in a dark yellow with green text. In all ways, apart from the face, it is a straight copy of the robot from the film, however the face has been transformed from the original which was of a beautiful, strong young woman, to that of a rather forlorn and ageless individual. The face is rather blank and decidedly less powerful than the original from the film. The image appears almost photographic, but it is not, and the question arises as to why the robot was redrawn in such a way instead of making use of the original form. This would suggest that the artist was copying from a photograph, rather then the actual film.


Japan in Metropolis

There are a number of Japanese elements in Metropolis, the most obvious being the use of the term "Yoshiwara" in reference to the entertainment sector of Metropolis. It was here that Georgy went astray and failed in his task of meeting up with, and assisting, Freder. It was here that the evil Maria indulged in excess and instigated murder and suicide. It was also from here that she led a boisterous crowd into the streets of Metropolis, meeting here end at the hands of a crazed mob when burnt on a pyre as a witch.

Yoshiwara was the traditonal red light district of Edo / Tokyo and a focus for art as seen in woodblock prints which became so popular in Europe following the opening up of Japan to foreign trade in 1853. Fritz Lang himself was an artist and had travelled to Asia as a young man. He claimed to have visited Japan, possibly between 1911-13, though the precise details of his journey are not clear. Lang's apartment in Berlin featured artworks from his travels, and the large Chinese dragon tapestry hanging on his wall - as seen in photograph taken around 1923/4 with his wife Thea von Harbou - is evidence of this. The artworks to the right of the picture are most likely Japanese woodblock prints, which were very popular collectibles in Europe during this period. Lang's first major production was the Japanese-themed Harakiri of 1919, based on the Madame Butterfly opera. It features a high level of detail suggesting Lang, or members of his production team, had first hand experience with Japanese society and culture.

Apart from the reference to Yoshiwara and the use of "foreign" faces in one of Lang's montages to reflect the bebauchery engaged in by Georgy, Japan as such does not appear in Metropolis. It is in the film's influence upon that country's literature, art and cinema that the most profound effects are seen..

An original poster

On 26 May 2014 the Yahoo Japan auction site sold an original, first release Japanese Metropolis poster for 1.9 million Yen ($20,000 Australian). The work was 45 x 62 cm, offset lithographed on paper and Modernist in design.


References

Yoshida Morio et al., Ninshin suru robotto: 1920 nendai no kagaku to genso (Robots that become pregnant: Science and the fantastic in the 1920s), Shunpusha, Tokyo, 2002, 8-59.

Timothy N. Homyak, Loving the machine: the art and science of Japanese robots, Kodansha International, 2006, 159p.

C. Bolton, I. Csicsery-Ronay and T. Tatsumi (eds), Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 269p.

Lee Makela, From Metropolis to Metoroporisu: The changing role of the robot in Japanese and western cinema, in Mark W. MacWilliams (ed.), Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Armonk, NY, 2008, 91-113 .

Steven T. Brown, Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 272p.

Metropolis 1929 [blog] url: http://20century.blog2.fc2.com/blog-entry-369.html (18 April 2011).

Acknowledgements

In the compilation of this page I must acknowledge my good friend Aitam Bar-Sagi who, through his scanning of Japanese Yahoo auction sites, uncovered a number of references to the initial release of Metropolis in that country and who recently uploaded relevant imagesto the German Expressionist Underground Facebook site.

Last updated: 26 May 2014.


Metropolis Bibliography - IntroductionMetropolis Bibliography - Books, Articles and ManuscriptsMetropolis Bibliography - Internet Web SitesMetropolis Bibliography - Artwork, Posters and PhotographsMetropolis Bibliography - MusicMetropolis Bibliography - FilmMetropolis Bibliography - Videos, Quicktime, DVDMetropolis Bibliography - Reviews 1927Metropolis Bibliography - Australia 1928Metropolis Bibliography - Posters