If any director’s work deserves a blind buy, it’s Katsuhiro Otomo; the man who arguably brought Japanese animation to serious Western attention with his 1988 cyber-punk thriller AKIRA.
His dystopian vision of Neo-Tokyo made a worldwide impact thanks to its racy subject matter but more importantly, its gritty post-apocalyptic animation; it was a chilling and brutal yet beautiful and genuinely innovative film and aside from his limited involvement with the Memories anthology, Steamboy is Otomo’s first theatrical effort in over a decade. It cost $20 million to produce and nearly 10 years to animate, so suffice to say, expectation amongst anime fans was reaching fever pitch by the time this movie finally debuted in Japan in 2004.
At this point in my anime reviews, I will usually begin by explaining the story but Steamboy is anything but normal; it is a movie that defines visual storytelling, a rare work of art where every frame is as meticulously drawn as the last.
Aside from the talented Studio Ghibli, there few out there who can produce animation at this consistently world-class level. It’s easy to throw around phrases like “epic” or “awe inspiring” but the look of Steamboy is an inspiration.
Ever the perfectionist, Otomo has nailed Victorian England with aplomb. He has finely captured the era’s sense of scientific wonder, a time when near enough anything was possible for a man with a dream.
His love of steam-powered machinery is obvious, evident in every wild invention and rusty iron pipe. These exciting visuals are steeped in the basic rules of physics but rage in some bizarre and imaginative directions. Nothing is perfect in Otomo’s world, every machine chugs along on the brink of collapse, banging into surrounding buildings with a life of their own; a perfect way to illustrate a time when man was on the brink of mastering science but still struggling with the basics!
Steamboy has a sense of romance that could only be created by a foreign artist with an idealistic view of Victorian Britain. Without an ounce of cynicism, Otomo has allowed his imagination to run wild with the famous setting and created a visual feast of grimy brick houses, charcoal steam and smoky landscapes. Hues of dark red, lush green and muddy brown jump out of his homely English countryside and create the perfect back drop for Steamboy’s vintage roller coaster of a story to take off.
While comparisons to AKIRA are getting tired, Steamboy’s most obvious similarity is in the story’s central struggle with scientific progress. Ray Steam is a kid caught between his father and grandfather. All three are self taught scientific geniuses but each represent a different moral point of view.
The year is 1866 and the story is set in Victorian England. Lloyd Steam (Ray’s grandfather) is the inventor of the Steamball, a powerful new technology that can change the world for good or aid rich tyrants in wielding terrible new weapons. When Lloyd realizes his folly against nature, he attempts to destroy the technology he helped pioneer but Eddy Steam (Ray’s father) stands in his way.
Eddy is willing to sacrifice lives in order to push science (and hence, mankind) forwards and will stop at nothing to achieve his dreams. Thus, he accepts the blood money of the military inclined O’Hara Foundation in order to continue his research.
Ray’s point of view is balanced (if quite irrelevant) until one strange day when he receives a mysterious package from his Grandfather which notably contains a round iron device.
Moments after opening the package, two strange men from the devious O’Hara Foundation are knocking on his door and it’s not long before the steam-powered action rolls onto centre stage.
With a running time of just over two hours, Steamboy’s plot feels stretched and begins to stutter in its second half.
Ray’s personality is heroic if a little bland and the scenes with the movie’s pretty girl Scarlett (daughter of the founder of the O’Hara Foundation) seem tacked on to provide the viewer with a humorous rest from the near constant barrage of action.
Pretty much from the moment Ray receives the cursed Steamball, Steamboy jumps from one elaborate action scene to the next, each time escalating in terms of sheer epic scale until the colossal climax that near enough levels half of London. The problem here is that there is little time spent building these characters into personalities worth caring for; beyond their titular names and some inventive character design, Lloyd, Eddy and Ray lack a compelling family dynamic to define their relationships with one another.
All this leads me to question if Steamboy is an expensive exercise in style over substance, but upon further thought, it becomes obvious that the beautiful presentation of Steamboy is all the substance I needed.
During this movie, a bygone era jumped out of my screen and threw me head first into its rip-roaring period adventure, a world filled with limitless possibilities, bizarre mechanical contraptions and sentimental landscapes.
It was pleasure to watch Steamboy because on a purely visceral level, it is one of the most pleasing films to have been produced in recent times; regardless of whether or not the story lacks compelling characters, it is a stunning work of art that will grasp your heart first and your brain later.