Steamboy starts with two shots of the world distorted by water. The first is through a droplet. The second is workers reflected in the radiating ripples as the droplet disrupts a pool of water. Welcome to Katsuhiro Otomo’s latest creation Steamboy: a world altered by another form of water — steam.
Whenever a major league hitter like Otomo steps up to the plate it is almost inevitable that a new benchmark in anime will be set. The PR machine is gushing about Steamboy’s ten year timeline and a squillion dollar budget, (which honestly suggests a juggernaut rather than proof of concept). Well it’s all up there on the big screen. Otomo’s steam-driven world is perfectly realised in its detail. The animators have run amok with copper piping, gears, rivets, cogs, dials and widgets. The mechanical designs are jaw-droppingly magnificent from Da Vinci-esque flying machines to submersibles and tractors.
Otomo’s preoccupation with the dangers of emerging technologies is again evident in Steamboy. The likable, young hero Ray is caught between the push for the expedient global expansion of steam power and the naïve idealism of his grandfather. When one character, while preaching the virtues of steam power, is surrounded by a corona of sun that casts him into shadow, one can certainly detect the smell the hubris in the air.
I never thought I’d be comparing Japanese anime to the documentary, The Corporation but the evils of global corporatisation is one of Steamboy’s refreshingly original themes. In a moment of deeply black humour, the American weapons manufacturer, the O’Hara Corporation shows a criminal disregard for human life when demonstrating its latest product line to potential clients
People familiar with Otomo’s work on Akira, Spriggan and Metropolis will find his lengthy climaxes present here. Surely someone, somewhere has determined the critical duration for a film’s climax and that it is not forty-five minutes. Steamboy’s particularly fat back-end halts any character development in favour of spectacle, and although truly impressive, it is paradoxically hard to maintain interest.
Steamboy is an action adventure in which the term ‘rollicking’ and ‘rollercoaster’ seem easily grafted. It is epic in its scale and grand in its themes while its boys’ own adventure style means that it can be enjoyed by anyone. A new film by Katsuhiro Otomo is an event. You have to see it.