Case Number 04323: Small Claims Court

STEAM DETECTIVES: CASE 4

ADV Films // 1998 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // April 29th, 2004

The Charge

Devilish fiends on the RAMPAGE!

The Case

While Steam Detectives might give the impression that it is a steampunk genre anime, it really isn't. Although Steam City (where the heroes and villains of our story live) is powered by coal, and all the machines (including the hulking Megamaton robots everyone seems to have) run on steam, this is merely window dressing for a film-noir type detective series.

Confused yet?

Basically, the steam helps to drive two ideas: what a steam locomotive might look like as a robot, and a way to cast the city into perpetual gloom and shadow, essential for setting the mood of film noir. Although this does influence other story elements, such as having an advanced society that nevertheless looks rooted in old styles of dress, cars, and furnishings, it doesn't drive the storylines, and I found that this bothered me not in the slightest -- the appeal of Steam Detective is entirely different.

Our protagonist, Narutaki, is a precocious "child detective," (he's around 15 years old) who is able to earn the respect of the citizens and police force in Steam City through his unwavering aid and thoughtful sleuthing. With his assistant, Nurse Ling-Ling, faithful Megamaton robot Goriki, and aide Kawakubo, he runs a detective agency and tries his best to protect the city and people he loves. He has attracted quite a rogues gallery of villains, including the masked collector of gadgetry Machine Baron, youthful dandy Le Bled, viciously lovely Crimson Scorpion, cunning Mr. Guilty, and ruthless, muscle-bound Phantom.

In the four episodes contained on disc four, we start to see some branching out in the storyline and get a glimpse into the lives and minds of some of the supporting characters.

* Episode 15: "The Target is Onigawara"
In this episode, police chief Onigawara is the sole keeper of the museum safe combination that unlocks a valuable collectors bear. While on guard for any foul play, he is pleasantly distracted by a beautiful new neighbor. This episode is almost entirely about Onigawara, who has a chance to be a little more human and a little less...well, spazzy.

* Episode 16: "Tears of a Black Angel"
Lang-Lang, sister to Ling-Ling, befriends a little girl who is dying from kidney failure. She postpones an important operation that is unlikely to help and even enlists the aid of Le Bled to create a diversion in her determination to help the girl see a beach again. Here again we get another chance to see the more human side of a supporting character, and we understand that, while Lang-Lang is devoted to Le Bled, she has a heart and is dedicated to preserving life as she sees it.

* Episode 17: "Go After Submarine X!"
Phantom is back, and he has stolen a high-tech Navy submarine to lure Narutaki out. Working independently, Ling-Ling learns the horrible truth about the sub, and the race is on to see if she can get to Narutaki in time. This episode is more of a straight villain face-off that features Narutaki and Ling-Ling in action.

* Episode 18: "36 Pages in a Detective's Pocketbook"
A Summary episode that takes a look at notable cases from Steam City history.

It should come as no surprise that creator Kia Asamiya, who penned the excellent Batman: Child of Dreams manga, was heavily influenced by the Batman universe and by Gotham City when creating Steam City and the characters within. It is clear that each of the villains are influenced by American style superhero comics, especially for Phantom and Crimson Scorpion. After seeing how some of the modern interpretations of Batman have been heavily influenced by anime style, it's interesting to see the process from the other way around.

Character design is key to the appeal of this series. In the film noir and traditional super hero vs. super villain elements, we really see the story come alive and breathe for the viewer. Narutaki is troubled, and doesn't operate like your standard issue hero type. He loves his city passionately, and will end anyone who tramples on it. You get the distinct impression this pint-sized detective is holding himself back from doing something dangerous in the pursuit of justice. I hope to see that resolve deteriorate over time in the tradition of all basically good heroes who get pushed to the edge.

I love the look of Steam City -- everything is outlined in chunky shadows and shrouded in mist. Characters allow their expressions to linger as bars of light and dark pass over them, the only kinetic thing on the screen. I really get the feeling that the city is alive, an important underlying theme in Batman comics, as well.

Visual transfer for disc four is clear and watchable, with only minimal graininess in the picture. Colors are deep and solid, reinforcing the shadows and light that play such an important role in setting mood. The English 5.1 soundtrack is lively and clear, but I found the attempt to be evocative of 19th century London, by having many of the supporting characters speak with English accents, didn't work for me as well as it should. The police chief sounds more Australian than anything else, a choice I don't fully understand. However, overall performances are good and make this a solid dub. The 2.0 Japanese soundtrack is also clear, with quality performances -- so compelling, you really should watch a second time with the Japanese soundtrack on. Subtitles are presented for dialogue and a separate track for song and sign translations.

There are a couple of nice extras with this disc. The first is a three-page foldout with extensive notes and an interview with creator Kia Asamiya, in which he talks directly about the influences for Steam Detectives and some of the character arcs. Although they do discuss the end episodes for the series, there aren't any earth-shattering spoilers here that put me off watching. I would say that only die-hard fans who want an absolutely pure viewing experience would need to avoid this foldout. The DVD itself has some production notes with comments from the Japanese voice actors. Again, same deal in regards to spoilers. Rounding out the package are "stock" clean opening and closing credits, a Steam Detectives trailer, and assorted ADV trailers.

Overall, I would highly recommend Steam Detectives for anyone interested in film noir animation, mecha, and adaptations of classic superhero themes. All are done quite well in this series.

Review content copyright © 2004 Sandra Dozier; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile
Studio: ADV Films
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese)

Subtitles:
* English (Dialogue)
* English (Songs and Signs)

Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Printed insert featuring interview with creator
* Onscreen text comments from Japanese voice actors
* Production sketches
* Clean opening and ending animation
* ADV Previews

Accomplices
* Fan Site
http://www.flowerstorm.net/disa/Site-Nemesis/steamdetectives.html