Metropolis Japan 1929 release
Fritz Lang's classic German silent film Metropolis premiered in Japan at the Syoitiku Kinema, Yurakucho, Tokyo on 3 April 1929. It was shown with a local second feature Kamiyama Ara (Spray of Blood) starring Ookawati Denzirou. The Japanese release took place two years after the German premiere in Berlin on 10 January 1927. It appears that the version seen was that edited by American playwright Channing Pollock and released by Paramount, rather than the longer UFA director's cut. During its initial Japanese run in 1929 we know that the movie travelled to Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya Koube. In September of that year it was screened at the Akita Yanagimachi theatre in Akita City, with the renowned benshi Izumi Tenmine narrating.
The cinema magazine Kinema Junpo later listed Metropolis as number 4 in the top 10 foreign language films of 1929, pointing to its popularity. Metropolis proved 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. Tezuka's work 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. The 2001 cinema release anime Metropolis was based on Tezuka's manga. It made numerous references to Lang's original film, both in the demographic social layering of the city - centred around the towering Ziggurat (aka Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's 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 the city of Metropolis amidst a worker revolution. The 2001 anime is the nearest thing to date of a remake of Lang's original classic of 1927.
The 1929 Japanese release of Metropolis was fortuitous. The Japanese, like many advanced societies, were at that time grappling with the impact of industrialisation and the introduction of the production line, especially in urban areas such as Tokyo. Science and technology, through mechanisation, were becoming a part of everyday life, and artists and writers were reacting to, and commenting upon, a myriad of societal changes. Local instances of Expressionist and Modernist art movements such as Dada and Russian Constructivism were being adapted locally and flourishing, especially in the area of the graphic arts. This was seen in much of the promotional material that accompanied the release of Metropolis and other films of the day. The place of humanity and machine in a burgeoning metropolis such as Tokyo was being discussed within the content of evolving philosophical and sociological frameworks. The frenetic pace of industrial 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. Fritz Lang's movie was a reflection of this, at least from a German perspective, but it also resonated internationally and in developed and developing countries such as Japan. Apparently the film caused a sensation when it was released in China around the same time as the Japanese release (Ye 2019).
Metropolis was a celebration of, and commentary upon, the excesses of the 1920s. 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 presented in cinematic form debates which were taking place across western societies and which would continue through the following decades. Japan had only been opened to the west since the 1860s, yet by the 1920s its expansionist policies into China, for example, pushed forward its industrial and technological development, alongside the social turmoil and engagement in conflicts outside of Japan. Lang's Metropolis was an account of a revolution contained within a singe locale, but nevertheless violent and disruptive, and brought about in large part as a result of technological upheavals and the failure of capitalism to have a social conscience or display compassion. The Japanese fascination with robots and technology can be seen to date from the early years of the twentieth century. Metropolis was to feed that fascination in a very public way. For example, in 1926 Dada artist, playwright and novelist Tomoyoshi Murayama published a book entitled Ningen Kikai (Machine Man) which, apparently for the first time in Japanese literature, described the transformation of a man into a robot (Murayama 1926). In the 2006 book Loving the machine: the art and science of Japanese robots, the author 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 in 1929] 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. (Homyak 2006)
The precise details of that 'wild success' are not known, 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.
|Gakutensoku robot, Japan, circa 1929.|
This is, however, likely as the movie's production and 'machine man' scenario was widely reported upon in the international press prior to the German release. This not only occurred within cinematic magazines of the day, but also in technical journals and literary / science fiction publications. As was noted in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams:
With the translation of early Western science fiction like Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1920), and the Japanese release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1929, mechanical objects like robots and cogwheels became ubiquitous in literature. Japan saw a “robot boom” during which popular science magazines like Kagaku gaho (Illustrated magazine of science) and satirical writers like Mizushima Niou began to feature robots in their texts. The image of jinzo ningen (literally, “artificial humans”) was popularized through works like Mizushima’s “Jinzo ningen jidai” (1923, The age of artificial humans). These early Japanese “robots” were also not awkward tin men. Rather, they resembled what we might now identify as androids, with bodies indistinguishable from those of human beings.... After the release of Metropolis, machines and robotic figures were inseparable from the image of “the proletariat” in the popular imagination. Numerous works of proletarian literature began depicting machines as threatening forces that brutally murder factory workers, and it is this type of fearful imagery that was appropriated by the Shin seinen detective fiction writers like Edogawa Ranpo and Unno Juza (1897-1949) - the latter often referred to as “the father of Japanese science fiction” (Bolton et al., 2007)
|Metropolis advertisement, Japan 1929.|
Yoshiwara was the traditional red light district of Edo / Tokyo and a focus for art as seen in woodblock prints which became popular in Europe following the opening up of Japan to foreign trade in 1853. Fritz Lang himself was an artist, and had also 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.
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 as a film maker was the Japanese-themed Harakiri of 1919, based on the Madame Butterfly opera. It features a high level of detail suggesting Lang, and/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 debauchery 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.
* Anonymous, [Review of Lawrence Bird, Saving Metropolis: Body and City in the Metropolis Tales], Japanese Language and Literature, 45(2), 2011, 567-568.
* AOI Weekly, 2(17), Tokyo, 1929, 8p. [Film magazine featuring a 2-page spread on Metropolis.]
* Bird, Lawrence, Saving Metropolis: Body and City in the Metropolis Tales, PhD. thesis, McGill University, 2009.
* Bolton, C, Csicsery-Ronay, I. and Tatsumi, T. (eds), Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 269p.
* Brown, Steven T., Tokyo Cyberpunk: Post humanism in Japanese Visual Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 272p.
* Eiga Hyoronsha, Tokyo, 6(5), 1929. [Film booklet referring to Fritz Lang and Metropolis - relevant pages illustrated below]
* Makela, Lee, 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.
* Metropolis 1929, Japanwaw [blog], 18 April 2011. Available URL: http://20century.blog2.fc2.com/blog-entry-369.html.
* Metropolis - Era 2000, Shochiku, Tokyo-Osaka, April 1929, 12p. [Movie program for the release of Metropolis. Cover illustration by Sewge.]
* Metropolis Japanese Release Timeline 1924-2010 [Japanese]. Available URL: http://www.kaibido.jp/metp/m_nenpyo.html.
* Morio, Yoshida 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.
* Murayama, Tomoyoshi, Ningen Kikai [Machine Man], Shun Yodo, Tokyo, 160p. Volume 2 of the Bundan Shinjin Sosho collection.
* Shochikuza News, Tokyo, 1929, 8p. [Film magazine featuring a page on Metropolis. Cover illustration by Sewge.]
* The Sibuya [Picture Theatre], Tokyo, April 1929, 8p. [Theatre program from the Sibuya-Kinema, featuring Metropolis.]
* von Harbou, Thea, Metoroporisu [Metropolis], Kaizo-sha, Tokyo, 1928, 560p. Translated by Toyokichi Hata. Issued as volume 15 of the World Literature series. Illustrated with 10 b/w stills, plus 1 coloured photo and 1 page with head shots and music score extract.
* Yasar, Kerim, Japanese Visions of Fritz Lang's Metropolis [Review of Lawrence Bird, Saving Metropolis: Body and City in the Metropolis Tales], Dissertation Reviews, 25 February 2013. Available URL: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/2343.
* Ye, Michelle Jia, Between Science and Fiction: The Transmission of the Film Frau Im Mond (1929) in Chinese Periodicals, 1929-1933, Journal of Translation Studies, 3(1), June 2019, 69-96.
#2 - Cover featuring an orange circular machinery pattern, plus brown and black text and an image of the Metropolis robot.
#3 - Cover featuring a lifelike drawing of the Metropolis robot in olive, plus light blue text. Internal pages feature a red / black / olive colour scheme comprising text. The rear cover features four images from the film.
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 images to the German Expressionist Underground Facebook site.
Last updated: 20 October 2022