Steamboy, the ambitious new animated feature from Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo, plunges into its epic and bizarre story with absolute conviction, filling the screen with spectacularly imaginative visuals, unleashing a barrage of impassioned monologues about the omnipotent and transformative power of science. The movie is so engrossed in its own flights of fancy that it rolls right by its deficiencies instead of attempting to neutralize them. It serves — it’s charming and inventive enough — but greatness consistently eludes it, and by the end, even goodness escapes it.
Superficially, the material is not the usual anime fodder, set neither in the distant future nor the distant past. Instead, Steamboy takes us to 19th Century England, where the pioneers of steam technology are apparently embroiled in a life-or-death conflict about how that technology will be used. Our hero is the appropriately named James Ray Steam, a ceaselessly curious boy whose father recently decided to make himself a sort of pre-warp Borg, with a robotic arm and a head that’s half metal. His ambition is to “unleash the kinetic forces of the Steam Castle” — to make people tremble in awe before the power of science and “advance humanity” at all costs. Pitted against him is James’ grandfather, an old-fashioned inventor who believes that science should be dedicated to discovering the principles of the universe and making people happy.
I describe the plot so that you will have some context for the imagery that Steamboy presents in typically spectacular anime fashion. The Steam Castle itself is a magnificent creation, a towering behemoth of pipes, gears and ladders, imposing even in its stationary state. When it starts to float, late in the film, watch out. The movie unexpectedly sends its characters soaring through the sky, unleashes Steam Troopers on London, and contains one absolutely spectacular chase sequence eventually involving a train and a zeppelin. It is something to behold, occasionally rivaling some of Miyazaki’s best work in sheer scope. I was particularly reminded of Castle in the Sky, though Steamboy is considerably less mystical.
Unfortunately, the non-visual aspects of Otomo’s film are a far cry from Miyazaki’s elegant plots and spare dialogue. The screenplay is full of clunky, straight-up exposition, with characters bizarrely soliloquizing to the camera to the effect of “I will pull such-and-such lever and all your plans will come crashing down upon your metal head!” In a film as visually sumptious as Steamboy, it is rather irritating to have characters who are so desperate to verbalize at every turn; toward the end of the film, a character screams at the bickering principals that “this is no time for your annoying philosophies.” Truer words have not been spoken.
Some of the characters are fairly grating in their own right, in particular a snobby aristocratic little girl without much reason to exist. She is introduced as an unbelievably obnoxious brat, and somehow becomes an outright hero without changing a bit. As much as the American distributors may hope, I doubt that “It’s horrid!” will become a catch phrase anytime soon.
There is far better mainstream anime out there than Steamboy (Otomo’s own Akira, for one), but it’s appealing enough to merit a recommendation. To look at it, at the very least, is a treat.