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Story Woes Offset Anime Pair's Dramatic Visuals

'Metropolis' and 'Escaflowne' focus on heroines with hidden powers, but the plots remain problematic.


"Metropolis" and "Escaflowne," two anime features opening today in limited release, showcase the diversity of Japanese animation. Both films offer dramatic visuals and a sense of scope rarely seen in American animation--or live action. Both center on diffident heroines who discover they possess enormous hidden powers, and both suffer from story problems that may limit their audiences in the U.S.

Based on a 1949 manga (graphic novel) by anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, "Metropolis" (in Japanese with English subtitles) is a sumptuously beautiful film that reflects the influence of the original "Metropolis," "Blade Runner" and "Akira," but fails to match its dazzling visuals with a coherent or compelling plot.

Sinister Duke Red (voice by Taro Ishida) has just completed the construction of Ziggurat, a glittering Art Deco tower from which he intends to rule the world: His henchman Dr. Laughton (Junpei Takeguchi) is perfecting a new robot that will control all the machines on Earth. Detective Shunsaku Ban (Kousei Tomita) and his nephew Kenichi (Kei Kobayashi) arrive in Metropolis to arrest Laughton and are plunged into the city's underworld. Like Neo Tokyo in "Akira," Metropolis is built on injustice. Robot labor supports the city, and crowds of unemployed workers huddle in subterranean slums.

When Duke Red's deranged adopted son, Rock (Kohki Okada), attacks Laughton's secret lab, Kenichi and the waif-like android Tima (Yuka Imoto) flee through the slums and fall in love. A drawn-out series of chases and gun battles ensues but generates little excitement or suspense, despite the considerable violence. The characters don't grow during these adventures, although Tima gradually becomes aware of her latent powers.

Director Rintaro's staging often makes the action difficult to follow, and he clutters the screen with unnecessary details. Things fall apart--literally and figuratively--when Ziggurat collapses to Ray Charles singing "I Can't Stop Loving You."

Much of the film is drop-dead gorgeous. The computer-generated vistas of monumental statuary, soaring towers, interlocking gears and gargantuan airships challenge even Fritz Lang's celebrated visuals. But it's a strangely underpopulated world: Duke Red and the corrupt President Boon (Masaru Ikeda) seem to be the only inhabitants of the skyscrapers, and there's little sense of a privileged elite living on the backs of the toiling robots.

With their snub noses, huge eyes and oddly bulbous feet, Tezuka's characters look too simple and too flat to fit into the three-dimensional city: Seeing them there feels as incongruous as spotting Hello Kitty on the set of "Blade Runner."

If "Metropolis" suffers from a lack of plot and character development, "Escaflowne" overwhelms the viewer with too much story. The film is a reworking of the 26-part TV series "The Vision of Escaflowne," which aired briefly in the programming slots known as Fox Kids. The tangled story line has been simplified and some of its weirder elements eliminated, but there are still too many conflicts, prophecies and relationships to resolve satisfactorily in 96 minutes.

"Escaflowne" infuses sword-and-sorcery and mecha (giant robot) elements into the "magical girl" genre: An ordinary high school student is called to save a situation (or an entire planet) using her newly discovered powers. Hitomi Kanzaki (Kelly Sheridan) is a withdrawn loner who wishes she could just vanish, leaving everything behind. Her wish is granted when she's transported to the alternate world of Gaia, which is wracked by a war between the dashing Van (Kirby Morrow) of the White Dragon Clan and his evil brother, Folken (Paul Dobson), leader of the Black Dragon Clan. The victor will determine the fate of Gaia. Hitomi is greeted as the long-awaited Wing Goddess, and discovers she has special powers over the invincible dragon-armor suit, Escaflowne.

In contrast to the opulent Deco-dystopia of "Metropolis," Gaia is an odd mixture of medieval European and samurai cultures--with high-tech touches. Van wears a kilt and leggings and dispatches his enemies with a traditional Japanese sword, but he travels in a huge airship. The final confrontation with Folken takes place in an airborne castle the size of Manhattan.

Kazuki Akane directs the action sequences with panache. In the spectacular opening sword fight, Van single-handedly dispatches a cadre of enemy soldiers. American animated villains either fall to their deaths or get knocked unconscious in comic takes; Van beheads the enemy leader with a sword stroke Toshiro Mifune might envy.

The characters in "Escaflowne" are more complex than the one-note good guys and bad guys in "Metropolis," but are not always likable. Hitomi whines, and American viewers are more likely to snicker than sympathize when she compares her teenage angst to the wars Van has survived.

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