Judge Joel Pearce examines Katsuhiro Otomo's long-awaited follow-up to his groundbreaking Akira.
"Watch now, as the world bows down to science." -David
It's exciting when an anime film comes out with this kind of pedigree. With Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira, at the helm, and some of the world's best animators, this ten year production ought to be one of the most exciting events of the year. Depending on how it is approached, Steamboy can be viewed as either a modest success or a bloated failure.
Facts of the Case
It is 1886, and the world is changing. Steam power has allowed for industry to blossom, doing wonders for wealthy business owners. When Ray Steam of the influential Steam family—which has produced three generations of inventors—receives a package from his grandfather containing a mysterious little engine, his life is turned upside down. He finds himself under attack from all sides, and doesn't know who to trust. The agency that his father and grandfather work for want the steam ball, as do some men who work for other companies.
For all of its flaws, there are a number of things that Steamboy does really well. For one thing, it might be the nicest looking anime film ever produced. Every detail has been carefully attended to, from the small parts of each of the machines to the expressions of the perfectly rendered characters. This is the best recreation of 1860s London that I have ever seen, whisking the audience into a slightly different version of our own world. So much anime looks good at a glance, but most of it begins to fail under closer scrutiny. After several viewings, the shortcuts that the animators have taken begin to show, and the illusion of the animated world starts to crack. As far as I can tell, the creators of Steamboy didn't take any shortcuts while designing its visuals. If someone bumps a table, every object on it moves accurately. Glass refracts objects accurately and believably. Taking in this film is a stunning experience, even blowing recent anime blockbusters like Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence out of the water.
This is also the first time that CGI has been believably incorporated into cel animation. Animators have been blending the two techniques for years, but despite some truly breathtaking visuals, it has always been easy to spot which technique is being used. With Steamboy, you have to guess much of the time because the CGI never stands out or draws attention to itself. Akira is remembered as a turning point in the quality of feature animation, and I have no doubt that this film will be remembered in the same way.
Also impressive is Steamboy's thematic purity. So much of anime has ecological and technological themes, but Steamboy wants to bring something slightly different to the table. Instead of speculative technology used to reveal the weaknesses of humanity, this film looks back to the technology of the last century to accomplish the same thing. Humans have always embraced new technology too quickly, hoarding it and using it to dominate. The 19th century exemplifies this truth. The end of British colonial power, it is a time of relative peace, but the world is quickly heading towards the 20th-century technological wars that would completely change the nature of war forever. The fight over the unlimited power of emerging technology is a familiar one, and I am fascinated by the way that it plays out in Steamboy. Most men can be moral and compassionate until power is at their fingertips. Faced with that level of control, few will do the right thing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The best art design, ten years of hard work, and a massive budget mean nothing unless a project begins with a good script. That turns out to be Steamboy's downfall. Although there are a couple decent action sequences, much of the film gets bogged down by endless exposition and moral debate. The train chase sequence early in the film is exciting and well constructed, but the battles and action scenes in the second half of the film lumber along awkwardly, the spectacle swallowed up by continual discussion. We only see the battle from the perspective of the people who control them from the sidelines, never from the perspective of the city being destroyed. Because of that, we are always separated emotionally from the impact of what is happening. The climactic battle reminds me of the wars at the end of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, but in both of those stories we knew so many of the people and cared deeply about what happened to them. In Steamboy there are only special effects and empty buildings.
Aside from the plodding script, there are problems with the characters as well. I like Ray's transition from childhood as he must become a hero and make the right choices, but he is the only character that is fleshed out. His potential love interest, Scarlett, is a useless character, little more than a catalyst for a sudden, last-minute redemption. Ray's grandfather is lots of fun, but I struggle with his father's transformation to evil, even after all the discussion about it. Most of the smaller characters are slaves to the plot, merely present to keep the story lumbering forward. The surprises aren't very surprising and the twists aren't very clever, as though the script had flown out of Katsuhiro Otomo's drawings, not the other way around.
Also, whoever came up with the idea of creating armored warriors and calling them "steamtroopers" in a serious movie should be immediately fired and never allowed to work in the industry again.
I would be interested to see the (unavailable) theatrical cut of Steamboy. Otomo's added scenes in this version of the film could be one of the reasons it feels so bloated. I did enjoy the film more on a second viewing, when I could ignore the story and simply take it in as a visual experience. It's not a terrible film, it's simply one that emphasizes so many of the problems that people have raised about anime for years. It is a dazzling world in a dull film, with an over-written script that doesn't leave any breathing room for the exquisite visuals.
Sony has released the film on a disc that does justice to Steamboy's incredible artwork. The video transfer is sharp and clear for the most part, with a good black level, clear lines, and good color representation. It's not perfect, though, as high compression rates create some pixelation and haloing. Also, there are a few instances of dirt on the print. I'm surprised that Sony couldn't get a digital print of the film to work from. If they had released the film and extras as a two-disc set, many of these problems could have been avoided. The sound transfer is better, with great Dolby 5.1 tracks in English and Japanese. The dub track is decent (aside from some odd accents), and feels natural because of the British setting. The Japanese track is strong as well, though, and some viewers will prefer the more faithful translation of the subtitles.
There isn't much in the way of extra features on the disc. There are some interviews with voice actors Alfred Molina, Patrick Steward and Anna Paquin (who refers to anime as "Japanime" at one point). There is also a dubbed interview with Katsuhiro Otomo about the production of Steamboy. This is followed by a three-screen production demo, showcasing the animation and some additional interviews with the crew. Taking a cue from other anime producers, there are also textless end credits. Equally interesting are five segments presented as "onion skins," showing how sequences evolved from rough drawings to the completed film. There was a lot more CGI than I realized in the film, a testament to how well it was crafted. Last up are a set of production drawings.
If you splurge on the gift set, you will find several other items in the box. There is a short manga based on Steamboy, which might make more sense if it was in English. It also comes with ten postcards. The real value, however, is in the 166-page book of original drawings, which makes an attractive companion to the DVD.
Is Steamboy worth picking up? I would say, yes, if only for the animation and spectacle of it all. It works as adventure entertainment, although with this team working on it, I wonder why it didn't turn out a lot better. This is a technical turning-point for animation, but Steamboy is not destined to become a classic. It's simply too long, too dull, and too generic to live up to the hype. I hope we don't have to wait another ten years to see more work from Katsuhiro Otomo, and I hope that his next film will do more to defend his reputation.
Steamboy is guilty of tripping over the high expectations it set for itself. Next time, less chat and more action, please.
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