2004Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast: English Voice Cast: Robin Atkins Downes, Alfred Molina, Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart
eventeen years is a very long time. Katsuhiro Otomo finished his masterpiece Akira in 1988 and then resigned himself to writing, penning the bewildering Roujin Z in 1991, then the remarkable Metropolis a decade later. Though not the most prolific man working in Japanese animation, at least he signed himself on to projects that were, in one way or another, successes.
With the release of Steamboy Otomo returns to direction with his first feature film in seventeen years. The project apparently began development 10 years ago and has only now been completed. Long overdue films like this rarely achieve success, usually resulting in either commercial or critical failure. Take for instance, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut which, if I remember correctly, fared decently at the box office but received a lukewarm critical reception. Likewise, Jacques Tati’s decade long project Playtime, while something of a critical success (more so now than upon its initial release), was such a financial failure that it bankrupted Tati and forced him into relative obscurity and eventually an unnoticed death.
Steamboy’s fate may not be as grim as that considering its chances as a commercial breakthrough were slim anyway, but that doesn’t stop it from being a largely entertaining film.
The movie takes place in turn of the century England, where the cutting edge of scientific research is focused on steam-powered contraptions. In the opening scene we see a failed experiment conducted by Lord Steam and his son Eddie involving a mysterious metal ball. Things go wrong, causing a series of valves to explode, emitting a burst of steam that envelops both father and son.
From there we travel to Manchester, where Eddie’s son Ray spends his days inventing steam-propelled vehicles and beating up English schoolboys who criticize the work of the Steam family (given the family’s name I wonder whether they earned it on account of their tireless efforts in steam-powered research, or whether as a result of such an unusual name they were shackled to the destiny of always working with steam).
One day Ray receives a package from his grandfather containing the mysterious ball from the opening scene. At that exact moment, sinister looking men arrive on his doorstep claiming to be from the O’Hara Foundation, the American organization for which both his father and grandfather work. When they see that Ray has the device they seek, they attempt to steal it, but not before Lord Steam mysteriously arrives to fend them off and order young Ray to flee with the “steam ball” and keep it away from London.
Ray escapes, only to be captured later on and hauled off to London. There he is reunited with his father, who has been horribly disfigured by the accident. His father tells him of the development of the “Steam Tower,” a gigantic mobile battle station powered by the steam ball. If activated, the tower could ultimately be used as a weapon of mass destruction. Of course, the idea that an underground battle station that fearsome could be developed in the middle of London without drawing any attention at all is a bit ludicrous, but nevermind that.
The film features some of the most stunning animation I’ve ever witnessed; exploring each scene with the greatest of detail. But as I said before, a decade of production usually signals some sort of warning flag and Steamboy is not without its glaring faults. Most notable is the disappearing plot with an hour left in the film. At some point Otomo’s story simply (forgive the ridiculous pun) runs out of steam and he instead replaces it with an overly long (roughly an hour in length) action sequence with little exposition and a whole lot of exclamations. I’ll admit that on account of the stunning visuals I never grew tired of all this repetition, but I doubt many others will want to sit through an hour of steam-powered Victorian-era devices attacking each other.
Uh-oh, he looks angry enough to hit somebody with that...um, thing.
When the Steam Tower is finally employed, the sight of the lumbering machine floating through London recalls the ever-expanding Tetsuo monstrosity at the end of Akira. In fact, a lot of the themes explored in Steamboy are less complex reworkings of ideas first presented in Akira: men going mad with power, technology advancing beyond human control. With ten years of time riding on this, one would expect Otomo to think up something a bit more intriguing.
Still, the film rarely grows boring. Certainly it doesn’t tread into the muddled and uneventful drudgery that Ghost in the Shell 2 did last September. But it’s nowhere near the lively storytelling of Metropolis, Otomo’s last project and a film I’d recommend over this one. Maybe if Otomo had spent less time perfecting the visuals and more time weaving a narrative, Steamboy could have been a masterpiece, but as it stands for this viewer, its visual quality alone makes it a compelling enough viewing.
Note: There are two versions of the film circulating: the 106-minute English dubbed version and the 126-minute subtitled director’s cut. I happened to catch the director’s cut. However, given the tedious nature of the second hour of the version I saw, I suspect the English dubbed version might be more accessible to a great number of viewers.