Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Steamboy
After you’ve directed the most expensive Japanese animated film in history, and it’s proven to be wildly successful, what comes next? If you’re director Katsuhiro Otomo, you hole up for an entire decade making an even more expensive animated film, the result being 2004’s Steamboy. 1988’s Akira was like lightning in a bottle. Directed by Otomo who himself adapted his own enormously detailed and ambitious manga, it was a hard act to follow. Akira was almost single-handedly responsible for kickstarting the 1990s VHS anime boom in the US and the UK, and also majorly influenced my entrance into anime fandom. But we’re not here to talk about Akira. We’re here to talk about Steamboy.
Despite coming from such an esteemed director and costing ¥2.4 billion, it sometimes seems like Steamboy has been forgotten. Why is this? During the years prior to its release, Steamboy acquired an almost mythical status. It was like the Avatar of the anime world — a super-expensive, ultra-hyped movie from a renowned, perfectionist director, repeatedly delayed. It was eventually released… and had minimal lasting effect on the medium. Unlike Avatar, Steamboy never even broke box office records before fading away, and the proposed sequel never materialised either. It’s a shame, as it seems like a movie precision-engineered for mainstream success in the West.
A major problem for most anime, when it comes to gaining worldwide mainstream acceptance, relates to the cultural knowledge required to fully “get” it. Your average cinemagoer knows nothing of the tropes and shorthand commonly utilised in anime, understood by fans the world over as a shared cinematic lexicon. What do terms like “isekai” or “tsundere” or “moe” mean to non-weebs? Sometimes anime is just “too Japanese” for Western folks not steeped in online anime culture, and even with accessible dubs, the whole medium seems foreign and weird to them.
With Steamboy, Otomo constructed an elaborate, action-packed blockbuster that contains every element needed to be a crowd-pleasing extravaganza. For one, it has incredible production design. Every penny of that opulent budget (and by budget I don’t just mean money — I mean time, manpower and resources) is plastered there on the screen in terms of intricate detail, convincing engineering, smooth animation, and epic scale. It’s an imaginative steampunk tale set in Victorian England (1866), with characters that speak in real (if at times excruciating) English regional accents, there’s barely a hint of obvious “orientalism” to frighten less open-minded viewers. The story is fairly simple, the sympathetic main characters have obvious motivations. Compared to Akira, it’s much less violent — no exploding heads, no gargantuan mutated baby tentacle monsters, no overt drug use, no gang warfare, no nudity, no impenetrably weird psychic backstory and no creepily wizened children.
So what was the problem? Perhaps its length had something to do with it. At 126 minutes, it’s much longer than the average mainstream animated film. The Western version was even cut for cinematic and DVD release, with Sony pictures having the gall to market the original cut as “the director’s cut” for an inflated price on limited-edition DVD. The bastardised Western cut removes 21 whole minutes from the runtime. And then there’s the fact that, for reasons best known only to themselves, Sony refused to release the movie widely, or even market it well. What could have been a phenomenal crossover hit essentially sunk out of trace after opening in a limited few arthouse screens. It’s not that it faded quickly from public consciousness, it never had a chance to even enter it.
For me, that UK limited edition DVD set was a great purchase though. Containing a disc with not just the whole, uncut movie, but also a second disc full of extras, it also came with an extremely sturdy hard cardboard double case, 10 art cards, an art book filled with character and mechanical illustrations, and a small booklet with a humorous Steamboy manga illustrated by Tony Takezaki (AD Police, Genocyber). The art for this wasn’t retouched, so in a charming extra, the speech bubble translations were provided in a separate booklet. Such a release was great for fans like myself who already knew what Steamboy was, but was unlikely to be attractive to consumers unfamiliar with Otomo’s other works .
Those “limited edition” DVD sets are still available to buy online, and not for a high price either, as testament to how relatively unsuccessful this film was. It was even re-released in the UK on Blu-ray in 2017 by Manga Entertainment (since subsumed by Funimation, then swallowed up into the enormous behemoth that Crunchyroll has mutated into). Although it’s not available as part of any individual streaming service, it’s available for sale or rental from multiple digital storefronts, so at least it’s easily accessible.
I’m conscious that I’ve talked a lot about the film’s background and release without really mentioning much at all regarding what it’s actually about. Again, like Avatar, much of Steamboy’s reputation arises from its production, rather than any quality it possesses as a movie. I believe this to be unfair, because I like the film a great deal. It’s one of the first movies I’d show to a non-anime fan to demonstrate that it’s not all about tits ’n’ tentacles.
13-year-old James Ray Steam (known as Ray throughout) is an engineering prodigy, living at home with his mother (a teacher) in their house in Manchester, a city in Northern England. He’s voiced by Anna Paquin, who does her best to give him a perky, determined vocal delivery, but her accent doesn’t really cut it. It probably sounds fine to someone who isn’t British, though. Following in the footsteps of his father Edward “Eddie” Steam (voiced by actual British actor Alfred Molina for an extra degree of realism), a genius inventor, Ray demonstrates uncommon proficiency in designing and building steam-powered contraptions that appear significantly more technologically advanced than a Victorian setting would normally suggest.
Dragged into a conspiracy to steal and then harvest the power of Ray’s grandfather’s (Lloyd Steam’s) invention “The Steam Ball”, Ray finds himself bouncing from one faction to the next, with each adult in his life attempting to convince him that their ideology is correct. The Steam Ball is an improbably, almost infinite, source of power. Originally designed by Lloyd, and built in conjunction with Eddie, much like the original nuclear fission technology, The Steam Ball is set to alter the world’s balance of power and multiple agencies attempt to seize it for their own ends.
Eddie represents the ideology that unfettered scientific advancement will lead to the betterment of mankind, no matter the cost. He receives backing from the stupendously rich, North American O’Hara Foundation who have greedy, militaristic designs of their own — they’re essentially global arms dealers, think late 1800s Lockheed Martin. Despite being Ray’s father, and displaying (somewhat confused, distracted) affection for his son, Eddie plays an ambiguously antagonistic role. He brings Ray to his side by sending creepy goons to kidnap him with a massive mechanical monster with an enormous metal claw and netting. Hardly father-of-the-year material.
Lloyd, Ray’s grandad, is voiced by a slightly manic Patrick Stewart. It’s hard not to imagine Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X every time he talks. Lloyd spends much of the film raving and dancing around half-dressed, his eyes bulging, wiry chest exposed. Lloyd’s ideology is softer — he claims that the only reason science and technology exists is to make people happy, to improve their lives. If it doesn’t do so, then it needs to be destroyed. It’s intentionally difficult in the early film to know which of his elders Ray should trust.
Throwing a spanner into the works is the seemingly sensible, trustworthy Robert Stephenson (real life famous railway engineer, son of George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways”). Stephenson represents the ideology that new technology benefits the people by foremost serving queen and state. His measured demeanour, practical support and sensible arguments, at least at first, appear to Ray to be the voice of reason, somewhere between his fanatical father and ranting grandfather.
It’s the conflict between these three ideologies that for me makes the film so much more than a basic popcorn flick. Although these themes aren’t explored as deeply as I would have liked, they add a welcome dilemma for Ray to battle with, we feel his anguish as he agonises over which way to turn. Adding to the complications is the only female character of note, the spoilt, imperious scion of the O’Hara Foundation, 14-year-old Scarlett O’Hara St. Jones, granddaughter of the Foundation’s chairman. Yes, she’s apparently based on the character from Gone With the Wind.
Scarlett isn’t portrayed, at least initially, as a very positive character. She physically abuses her tiny pet dog (I’m not sure if this is meant to be funny, I didn’t find it funny, it’s horrible), speaks down to Ray constantly, and struts around as if she owns the place. (She kind of does…) Ray rankles at her spoilt rich girl antics and refuses to change his tone or personality to be subservient to her. Through her myriad interactions with Ray, she begins to mature as a human being, and when she learns of the horrendous atrocities planned (and performed) by her Foundation, she reacts with righteous indignation. She’s not that bad a kid, really. There’s even a little romantic tension between Scarlett and Ray, but they’re still very young, so it’s barely even a subplot.
No, the main focus of Steamboy is on overbearing, constant, overwhelming spectacle. Once every plot component is in place, all ideologies explored and choices made, the movie erupts into an exhilarating, exhausting, nonstop action sequence set around London’s Crystal Palace World’s Fair where everything explodes, war is raged with mechanical soldiers on land, air and water, a huge metal fortress transforms and rampages its way through the city, causing massive devastation. The fortress is powered by a trio of Steam Balls, so Ray steals one and fashions it into a makeshift steam-jet-propelled flying platform, hurtling through the air like The Rocketeer, 72 years too early.
It’s not hard to see why Steamboy took ten years to complete. The sheer insane level of detail in the action animation outmatches almost anything else made before or since. Otomo has always been a stickler for obsessive detail, as even just a brief glimpse of the countless pages of intricately drawn urban destruction in his Akira manga demonstrates. This is his vision writ large, for better or for worse. If you’re in the mood to watch stuff constantly blow up, for mechanical monstrosities to evolve even more ridiculously overblown designs and functions, for the plot to be subsumed beneath mountains and mountains of perpetually erupting eye candy, you’re in for a good time. The average viewer may come to the conclusion that it’s all just a bit much. For animation otaku who live for their next sakuga hit, Steamboy is potent enough to to make everything else pale in comparison.
I’ve never watched watched the cut-down version, so perhaps some of this bloated spectacle is reduced somewhat, but I love this movie, even if it is a bit too long and exhausting. The end credits montage teases a tantalising glimpse of what could have been, had Otomo been able to realise his visions of a sequel. Sadly, that’s unlikely ever to happen now, but the movie stands very well on its own. Perhaps it isn’t “edgy” enough for the Akira crowd, it is essentially a children’s movie — my 11-year-old son was enthralled by it, and there’s very little objectionable content, hence its relatively low BBFC PG rating. It’s the sort of film that’s worth rewatching every few years, for that pure bonkers bubblegum indulgence. Yeah, it’s not that satisfying in the end, but it’s a lot of fun during the experience, even if it doesn’t leave much more than the fading memory of its god-tier animation work.
Director, original story: Katsuhiro Otomo
Screenplay: Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Production: Sunrise and Bandai Visual
Japanese cinematic release: July 17th, 2004
UK DVD release: March 27th 2006
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 100 minutes (standard edition), 121 minutes (director’s cut)
UK Blu-ray release: October 30th 2017
Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC rating: PG
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