Retro Review: Steamboy (2004).
Steamboy is a sumptuous steam-punk adventure from the creative mind behind Akira.
Although it failed to entrance me with its story, this weekend’s animated feature Leap! had a visual style that felt very familiar. Its renditions of industrial evolution Europe, including painstakingly vivid architecture and machinery, reminded me of an underappreciated Japanese classic: Steamboy. Despite being the long-awaited second film from creative genius Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and being the biggest budgeted film out of Japan in its day, Steamboy failed to make as big a wave in the US as other Japanese animated features released around the same time – most notably the works of Hayao Miyazaki.
In an alternate history, the era of steam power continued to dominate Europe instead of giving way to oil. One family of inventors, with the apt last name of Steam, has revolutionized this source of energy, making it commercially viable for daily use. While researching a purer source of steam in Alaska, the elder Steam, Lloyd and his ambitious son Edward suffer a reversal and are assumed missing…or worse.
The youngest member of the Steam family, Edward’s son Ray, follows in the tradition of his grandfather and father, tinkering and making small discoveries until one day a package arrives from his missing grandfather. It is an experimental steam ball, capable of storing immense steam power. Akin to the discovery of atomic energy, it could change the world, and many shadowy forces converge on young Ray in hopes of stealing his family’s secret.
A Visual Masterpiece of Painstaking Effort.
Steamboy is a work of art. Otomo and his team labored for ten years to layer hundred of thousands of hand drawn cells with bleeding edge CG enhancements. The result is an animated film that feels like the culmination of decades of Japanese animation blended nearly seamlessly with the new digital effects that would become the lifeblood of the industry. Like other films that radically redefined what is possible visually, it was a sensation at the time but may not have the same visual impact 13 years later. Think The Matrix, Jurassic Park, or Avatar: they were watershed moments that may not seem nearly so groundbreaking now that the technology they pioneered is commonplace.
Luckily for modern audiences, Otomo’s careful eye for detail resulted in a movie that zips along at a breath-taking pace while still feeling like a feast for the eyes. While it may be a relic of another decade, it remains stylish and beautiful to behold.
Some contemporary criticism of the film is that is a bit messy as a story, relying on its pace and visuals to smooth over a muddled plot. I have to say that I disagree, but there is a localization problem that could have lead to this critique. The Japanese version with subtitles is the complete version, and the American version with dubbing is shortchanged by 15 minutes. Bad translation and missing elements could turn any story into tatters.
I found the story to be rich and rewarding. There is a subplot of generational strife as Lloyd, Edward and Ray all see steam in a different light and wish to use it for different ends. There is also a brave decision by Otomo to dwell in a moral gray area. Much like Akira, you have villains who are sympathetic and not all bad, and you have a hero who is flawed and accidentally causes evil. The story of a young wunderkind on an adventure isn’t novel, but Otomo never suffers a cliche to live in his project without immediately twisting it to his own ends.
English or Japanese.
The choice between subtitles and English dubbing is a fairly easy one here. While the American voice cast has such wonderful talents as Sir Patrick Steward and Alfred Molina, it isn’t terribly memorable. It certainly isn’t as rich and deep as Princess Mononoke. In fact, I found it rather forgettable, in that I totally forgot Stewart was in this picture. The Japanese version retains the full flavor of Otomo’s story and has the benefit of additional scenes. Unless you abhor reading during a movie, go with the subtitled version.
A Forgotten Wonder.
The reasons for Steamboy’s lackluster debut are manifold. First, while Otomo was a legend amongst manga and anime fans for Akira, nearly 20 years had passed since his last feature film. Second, the style and tone of Steamboy is a marked departure from Akira, coming across to some fans as too childish. Third, the American distribution company (Sony, once again showing their miserable track record at supporting creative films and film makers) gave it a tiny release in the States, and chose to show at art house theaters. This relegated the film to a niche audience instead of grabbing mass appeal like Hayao “The Disney of Japan” Miyazaki’s animated features. Lastly, the American localization was not as strong or vaunted as other films newly arrived from Japan.
Standing the Test of Time.
Steamboy is a masterpiece of the art of animation. Even decades later, it is a hallmark, despite how far Japanese animation has come in the intervening years. More than just a museum piece, it is as refreshing and enjoyable today as it was in 2004. The obvious love and attention to detail, in both the visuals and the story, stand out loud and clear. Many seminal films in the Japanese canon of anime can seem weathered and dated. Steamboy is still a pioneer and visionary in the genre, no matter what era you view it from.