October 27, 2004 on 6:42 pm | In Steamboy | Comments Off on Steamboy

Steam punk is one of anime’s more interesting genres. The 1800s was a time of great creativity and diversity in inventions. Because there were so many people interested in inventing things, Japanese writers take this as a cue to create characters who can make whatever invention that they desire, simply saying that it was made possible by the awesome power of steam. Steam, it would appear, is the most powerful of all fuels. For the most part this involves very little suspension of disbelief, although the genre was pushed to the limits of good taste in Nadia. Steamboy is the latest, and perhaps greatest, example of the romance of this genre.

In 1866, young inventor Ray Steam is living in Manchester with his mother while his father and grandfather toil in America for the O’Hara foundation. One day, a package arrives for Ray, containing none other than the mysterious “steam ball”, that contains and pressurises the strongest fuel known to man. Ray’s grandfather, Lloyd, implores that he keeps the ball away from the O’Hara’s cronies, lest they use it to wage war.
It’s not long, however, before Ray is abducted by the O’Hara foundation and made party to their plans to build the greatest tower of Babel the world has ever known, and to design and sell weapons to fund it. What follows is a two hour examination of the meaning of science, the wages of progress and, of course, science as God. Steamboy is, in effect, a pastiche of several of the most popular anime stories – stories in general, for that matter – and it succeeds because director Otomo Katsuhiro loves his work.

Steamboy is an ambitious project and, as with practically everything, not for everyone. There are few who would deny that it is well crafted, but there are many who would argue that it plods or “disappoints”. The first thing that must be noted in order to even begin to enjoy this film is that it is not Akira despite being written and directed by Otomo. Steamboy is so far removed from so much that has come before it that it has to be looked at based on its own merits.

The setting is initially boring – but then, so is Manchester. Otomo can not be blamed for accurately recreating the bland, brown weather of Britain in the 1800s and the very traditional architecture. This place is too steeped in tradition to accept the Steam family’s creativity, and so Ray does not really fit there. When Ray cracks out his kettle powered wheel thing, all bets are off. The movie begins to touch on the ridiculous – a blimp with a crane clamping onto a train carriage, throwing a net onto an unsuspecting Ray (in the finest Team Rocket tradition) – and soars into the joyous area of uninhibited innovation.
London seems the perfect place to set the action, especially at this historical juncture: consider that the Crystal Palace is a chief location for the film’s action. The Crystal Palace was symbolic of the British empire’s decadence; Steam Tower, by comparison, is humanity’s. These two places lead to some wonderfully designed action sequences and a chance to see large chunks of London destroyed.

Characterisation is admittedly not the deepest, but the three generations of Steam men are interesting in their portrayal. The older men are set in their ways, but Ray still has an open mind. His views are shaped by what the two men he looks up to believe, and because they contradict he has to find his own way. The innocence of childhood not realising the evil of weapons, the near-sighted practicality of those creating them for money: all angles are covered.
The idea of trust is also prominent – it’s entirely predictable that prominent inventor Stephenson will tell Ray that science is for making people happy, but then suffacing it with the fact that sometimes it has to be used for destructive purposes. Power is a corruptor, but not in the hands of those who know what it can do, or have impossibly high moral standards, like that of a child who doesn’t want people to explode. Ray isn’t pointlessly optimistic, and he actually gets his chance to consider his options in the time given to him. The spoiled heiress of the O’Hara corporation, Scarlett(!), is allowed to become something more than an animal abuser and, while she doesn’t change her core, she is adaptable – which is a good thing to ask for a character.
Interestingly, the promo material skews rather older than the characters. As in Metropolis (also scripted by Otomo), the hero and heroine are only about ten or twelve years of age. Many things about the campaign behind Steamboy ar misleading, which will make it either a surprise or a disappointment dependent on state of mind.

I am still not a fan of CG work, and the stuff in this film is obvious: but it appears that this will be lessened in impact when played on a television and will ultimately play smoother. That’s my misgiving, though; it should work well for most others. The character designs are Otomo’s normal style, although he has learned a bit about making his characters look aesthetically pleasing over sixteen years. The animation is always good, as you would expect from the traditional marketing line (I am refraining to go into that aspect as it detracts from enjoyment of the film). The production values are of the highest standard and make for an incredible visual delight – particularly with the use of moving fore and backgrounds.
The scoring was done by Americans and initially seems to be a bit too pat – making the first ten or so minutes of the film seem underwhelming and, admittedly, quite suitable to the boring Mancunian atmosphere. Afterwards it’s simply steam powered fare that doesn’t bother anyone but is not as memorable as some other big films.
Columbia Tristar has done an interesting job of the subtitles, going for some “Britticisms” along the lines of “cripes!” and the questionable use of “crikey!” for “sugoi“. It’s kind of authentic, but also kind of distracting.

Steamboy is a great film that addresses the questions that are, to so many anime fans, bread and butter. There are some interesting questions raised, and it doesn’t really get mired in its own ideas of “importance”. Watchers should note going into Steamboy that it features an hour long climax rather than the traditional ten or fifteen minutes. If you’re cool with that, and you like the theme, you should be cool with Steamboy. This is a heavily traditional anime, told with flair and style. It’s easy to dismiss, but surely it’s far easier to enjoy.

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