Adventure, Mystery, Love, and…Steam Detectives.
Based on an ongoing manga series by the renowned Kia Asamiya (author of the critically lauded, manga-nized Batman story Batman: Child of Dreams, and best known for his Silent Möbius and Martian Successor Nadesico titles), Steam Detectives is a kid-oriented anime in the steampunk genre, which imagines an alternate world powered by steam rather than electricity. Released by A.D. Vision, Steam Detectives: Case 1 collects the first five episodes, which originally aired in Japan in 1998.
Facts of the Case
Steam Detectives is set, appropriately enough, in Steam City (just down the interstate from Nuclear City and Hydroelectric City), a sprawling metropolis in the style of Victorian London that is a magnet for an unending parade of colorful villains. Fighting the good fight against the bad guys is boy detective Narutaki, sort of a cross between Robin and Encyclopedia Brown. Aiding the precocious young sleuth is Ling Ling, a beautiful teenage nurse (why a nurse, I'm not sure) who's Narutaki's Girl Friday, and his butler, the ever-capable Kawakubo. The workhorses of this industrial-age society are hulking, quasi-sentient steam-powered robots called Megamatons; one such Megamaton, Goriki, acts as Narutaki's assistant and protector.
The five episodes on this first volume are mostly standalone mysteries. "Go! Steam Detectives" sets up the premise, introducing us to Narutaki's detective agency and giving us a glimpse of the boy detective and his team in action; "Challenge of the Crimson Scorpion" centers around a mysterious meteorite made of a substance that could replace steam as the world's main power source; "Machine Baron's Abnormal Love?!" introduces a Dr. Doom-like villain named Machine Baron obsessed with collecting rare mechanical objects, who poses as a journalist to uncover Goriki's secrets so he can capture the celebrity robot; "Rival, His Name is Le Bled" has a masked bad guy pitting his own Megamaton against Narutaki and Goriki; and the final episode, "Shadowbolt," involves the disappearances of prominent scientists and a powerful Megamaton that may be more than a match for Goriki.
It took me a couple of episodes to warm up to Steam Detectives; the series initially comes across like a steam-powered Pokémon, its characters throwing their pet robots into battle with each other for no other reason than the sheer coolness of watching clanking iron behemoths duking it out. At first, there seems to be little point to the whole steampunk premise other than to capitalize on a trendy style—the boy-and-his-robot story could be set in any time period or universe with minimal alterations.
With the third episode, though, the series begins to display an engagingly daffy sense of humor; the initially imposing Machine Baron, a standard-issue cackling über-villain, goes undercover and infiltrates Narutaki's agency in search of Goriki's secret weaknesses. As he spends time with Goriki, however, Machine Baron begins to feel affection for the big mechanical lug…an affection that blossoms into love! There's something about the sight of the metal-masked villain mooning over Goriki and drawing sketches of him that is goofily disarming.
ADV brings this first volume of Steam Detectives to DVD with a full-frame (original aspect ratio) transfer. The traditionally-drawn animation is a little too static for my tastes, with muted colors and backgrounds that feel like an afterthought. I do like the angular look of the character designs, though a more organic style would have been more suited to the old-fashioned premise of the series. The image itself is grainy and reproduces the flaws in the source material, but otherwise is free of defects.
Audio is a bit of a mixed bag; the English track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the sound is vibrant, with good depth and active surround channels. Unfortunately, the English language dub is pretty lame, with the cheesiest British accents I've heard since L/R (Licensed by Royalty). The Japanese track is much easier to take, but is only presented in 2.0 stereo, with the expected drop in audio quality. Given how unbearable some of the English voice acting is, it's a worthwhile tradeoff.
Extra features include a "clean" Japanese opening sequence, a collection of production sketches, and some trailers for Bandai titles. Eh. There's also a paper insert included with the DVD case that offers some pre-production sketches and a smattering of info.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I got a kick out of Machine Baron and his hapless infatuation with Goriki, the other villains in Case 1 aren't quite as memorable and tend to be drawn from a familiar well. As a result, some of the stories in this collection veer towards the generic side, with ho-hum action scenes and overwrought, clichéd dialogue.
Improving from a slow start, Steam Detectives definitely has its charms, though they're not as evident in this first volume as I'd like. I can see the series growing on me, with its quirky humor and appealing, if somewhat familiar, characters and an offbeat and quirky protagonist in the kid genius Narutaki. If Machine Baron comes back, I'll definitely be there.
Steam Detectives: Case 1 is found not guilty by reason of villain-mecha love insanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Production Sketch Gallery
• Fan Site
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