1866, England: Ray Steam is a young boy with a fascination for machines and a scientist’s curiosity. So imagine his surprise when he receives a package from the States sent by his grandfather, Lloyd Steam: an invention called the Steam Ball. Soon after, he is being chased by the O’Hara Foundation, and they want this ball before the first World Expo in London. The chase is on as Ray tries to find out what this creation is capable of.
summary by Ender
Highs: Jaw-dropping production values; wonderful music; likeable characters; imaginative story and world
Lows: A bit too long
It’s a known fact that I enjoy good epics. And what better place to find modern epics than the magical big screen? The problem is, when an epic tries to be nothing more than a Hollywood knock-off, you lose a lot of interest very quickly. Thankfully, Otomo Katsuhiro’s latest venture (ten years and ¥22 billion in the making) doesn’t fall into that trap. What we get is a film that deserves to be seen on the biggestscreen you can find.
When a movie brandishes the title of “most expensive anime production,” you had better hope it delivers. Steamboy delivers. From the opening shot, you know where all this money went. The animation and art is miles beyond anything seen before, surpassing most Ghibli films and Otomo’s own Akira. This film has a wonderful steam-punk style embedded in Victorian England. Early industrial machinations from tiny pipes and valves all the way to gargantuan castles and cranes contain the same sense of wonder you would find in your dreams. The action sequences (and there are plenty of them) feel like the science-fiction novels of the time with excitement and charming violence, which will probably remind audiences of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars. Steve Jablonsky (a Japanese-American composer trained by Hans Zimmer) adds a complimenting score to Ray Steam’s world… the kind of epic score that flirts with dreams and dangers.
On the story side of things, this film was penned by Murai Sadayuki (Kino’s Journey, Perfect Blue), and I iterate my liking of his style. His easy-to-follow story is a multi-generational tale of fathers and sons whose lives are consumed by the idea of man’s scientific progress. You grow a fondness for his characters, as well. There is strength and beauty in having the main character be a young boy with a fond curiosity for machines and watching him grow into a Buck Rogers-style adventurer.
This is a production spawned by love, maybe too much love. If one thing hinders this anime, it’s that Otomo really did not want to cut out anything from the final product. The result is an overextended stay in Steamboy‘s world that may have people look at their watches as the climax comes thundering in. Even then, this movie still proves to be a joy to behold. I have been waiting for a movie to come along that would fully showcase Otomo’s prowess as a cinematic master. This is the type you go to with a bucket of popcorn and walk out with the same feeling little kids get when they’ve realized a world of possibilities is in front of them.
Highs: Intricately detailed in every respect; characters fit their roles well
Lows: Finale went on far too long
Steamboy is an extremely confident movie that knows exactly what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. The audience can feel its brashness oozing from it from beginning to end, and the camera angles and panning are inspired and bold in approach. This unwavering self-assuredness is as much an attractive quality in a work of art as it is in a person… but there’s a fine line between confidence and narcissism, and Steamboy straddles that line just fine nearly to the end.
Director Otomo Katsuhiro has never met an epic he hasn’t liked, preferring expansive backdrops and colossal devastation as the canvas on which to paint what he thinks will become masterpieces. Otomo comes close to perfection with Steamboy, much closer than he had with his revered/reviled Akira, but he again gets ahead of himself during the final scene involving mass destruction by inundating the audience with sensory overload; explosions and death-defying acts saturate the last half-hour, offering an abundance of eye candy but with zero calories.
But don’t let the grandiose finale derail your enjoyment, for this anime makes a strong case to be remembered as a classic. The artwork and animation cannot be considered anything less than beautiful, inspiring awe at times even from myself (and believe me, I have seen it all). Every character, from the comedic to the annoying to the tragic, plays his or her role in perfect unison with the others, functioning together as well as the steam-powered machinery themselves. And few anime have been as successful in incorporating an earthy theme to give a rustic appearance with strokes of bright colors thrown in as stark contrast.
Steamboy is sexy and lavishly dressed, strutting down the runway knowing full well that onlookers are gawking with mouths agape. But the desire to flaunt its great looks comes across as an overly developed sense of vanity in the end.