Above all else, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis is a triumph of production design. From the intricately detailed miniature models and matte paintings to the elaborate costumes and soundstages to the charming Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion creature effects, every cent of the enormous budget is clearly evident. Hell, even the lighting—the radiant shimmer of sunlight reflecting off the surface of turbulent water, the eerie pale glow of the full moon peering through a blanket of dry ice clouds, the ominous neon glare of supernatural power—is absolutely immaculate.
The film’s spectacular imagery perfectly matches its themes, which revolve around the conflict between tradition and modernization. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Japan’s cultural leaders have become increasingly obsessed with urban redevelopment as a means of competing on the world stage. Rich industrialists, for example, propose the erection of towering skyscrapers that rival the gods in stature—ostentatious symbols of material wealth (as well as hubris, considering the country’s frequent earthquakes). Nationalistic, xenophobic militarists, on the other hand, argue for “practicality” over hollow aesthetics—borders, walls, and fortifications have far more strategic value than gaudy architecture. Scientists, meanwhile, prefer technological advancement to politics and commerce, embracing the logistical challenges of constructing a vast subterranean railway system. Those attuned to spiritual matters—monks, mediums, practitioners of geomancy—urge these various parties to exercise caution and moderation in their pursuit of the “future,” warning that such unrestrained expansion risks irrevocably tarnishing the sanctity of the land, thus provoking the wrath of ancestral ghosts and guardian deities. “Progress,” after all, can be a destructive force; occasionally, building something new requires burning down the old. These concerns, however, are dismissed as invalid and irrelevant—as obsolete as magic and mysticism in the era of automobiles, engineering, and electricity.
Despite this compelling premise, the plot is rather jumbled, disjointed, and unfocused. Among the sprawling (and bloated) ensemble cast, no single character ever really emerges as a true “protagonist”; vaguely sketched archetypes are introduced rapidly and vanish just as abruptly, only to reappear at seemingly random intervals. In terms of personality and motivation, they’re nearly indistinguishable; consequently, the audience has little opportunity to form a proper relationship with them. Basically, they’re merely props, existing for the sole purpose of communicating exposition and propelling the story from one set piece to the next—they’re functional, but not terribly memorable.
Fortunately, the central villain alleviates this flaw to a significant degree. With his dark, sunken eyes and sharp, almost skeletal facial features, Yasunori Kato is instantly iconic—the epitome of “screen presence.” He exudes menace, personifies malice; every deliciously diabolical line of dialogue that he delivers in his deep, gravelly growl is pure poetry, sending chills of terror down the viewer’s spine. Any scene that excludes him suffers for the omission—though even when he’s absent, his implicit threat still lingers, haunting the frame like a lurking specter, a whispered promise of calamity and impending doom.
Ultimately, director Akio Jissoji’s competent craftsmanship compensates for the movie’s minor formal and structural shortcomings; some mild narrative incoherence notwithstanding, Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis rarely fails to entertain. At the very least, it deserves credit for sheer ambition; precious few blockbusters nowadays dare to be this defiantly audacious and unconventional. Indeed, its superficial blemishes simply make its stylistic virtues more obvious and admirable. Warts and all, it is an essential genre masterpiece, worthy of being ranked alongside such horror classics as The Exorcist, Phantasm, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.