In mid-19th-century London, Ray Steam (voice of Anne Suzuki) is a teenage factory worker who has inherited his mechanical genius from his father and grandfather, both away in far-off America. One day Ray receives a package from his grandfather containing a newly invented "steam ball". Soon he is embroiled in an adventure that takes him to London on behalf of the O'Hara Foundation, the multinational organisation which has been financing his father and grandfather to work on the "Steam Tower", an invention with the potential to transform the world.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Jules Verne would have liked this movie. So would Buster Keaton. So would Michael Moorcock, whose novels set in an alternate fin-de-siècle Europe helped define "steampunk" as a science-fiction genre. Or Joan Aiken, whose earlier 19th-century fantasies (written for children) share Katsuhiro Otomo's delight in wacky inventions, like a gun that shoots across the Atlantic or a plan to put Westminster Abbey on wheels and roll it into the Thames. But for sheer joyful incongruity, nothing beats the chase in Steamboy's first reel, with our hero careening across the countryside on a proto-unicycle built from salvaged factory gears, till he finally comes afoul of a locomotive: Thomas Hardy meets Indiana Jones.
Some comparable incongruity arises from a 19th-century Britain where everyone speaks Japanese - though of course, similar considerations have never bothered Hollywood. Otomo's grasp of the period is inevitably more abstract than one would expect from a British or European director (where's Queen Victoria?) but that's his personality as much as his cultural background. Lacking the charm and magic of, say, Hayao Miziyaki's films, his style of animation has a harder, more technological edge. When the wheels start turning and we move into the amazingly elaborate climax that takes up half the movie, the whole plot is revealed in retrospect as a kind of infernal machine, a largely pessimistic allegory about modernity and the limits of reason.
As Otomo would have it, it's not just that science may be put to evil purposes; a potentially destructive will-to-power is present in science itself from the beginning, in its drive to master and transform its materials. Yet Otomo, like his hero, remains in love with machines and their possibilities - to the point where the human characters are ultimately reduced to cogs in a system (as in Fritz Lang's Metropolis). Thus a key revelation about the design of Steam Tower doesn't carry nearly the emotional weight it should; similarly, the relationship between Steamboy and the snobbish Scarlett O'Hara (sic) (voice of Manami Konishi) is intriguing but barely developed.
Hopefully these gaps will be filled in the sequel promised by the closing credits, which I can hardly wait to see. Though its philosophical ambitions may not be entirely fulfilled, I still rate Steamboy as one of the most entertaining films of the year. In its mythical return to the beginnings of the modern world, it restores to life not only the fantasy of technology overcoming nature - but also a certain traditional mastery over storytelling itself, a secret which we in the West now seem to have lost.
Review by Louise Keller:
With its extraordinary detailed representations of Victorian Britain, Steamboy is an invigorating sci-fi adventure from Japanese anime master Katsuhiro Otomo, about a young inventor who weighs up the responsibility that the power of science brings. It's been sixteen years since Otomo's groundbreaking Akira, and Steamboy is sure to satisfy not only the fans, but introduce a whole new audience to the world of dense animation.
The blending of two and three dimensional graphics and computer technology is seamless, while the complexity and detail of the visuals astonishing. This is the most expensive Japanese anime ever, taking ten years to make and using 180,000 frames for its 126 minute running time. The result is a unique and darkly entertaining film that works on a visual level as well as through its storytelling, with its themes exploring of the principles behind innovation and discovery. Music glues the images together as we buckle up with our young protagonist, who is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. How should knowledge be used? And at what price comes progress? These are the key questions asked, and while the action sequences are spectacular, they never outweigh the narrative. What I found especially incongruous, is the notion of a Japanese filmmaker meticulously recreating the Tudor-style houses and rolling hills of Manchester and London's celebrated landmarks, while the characters converse in Japanese.
Set during the industrial revolution when Britain was considered to be a leading force, scientific innovation was considered to be the key to achieving industrial, military and economic superiority. Steam played a major role.
Ray is a perfect hero - he is not only a gifted inventor, but a plucky lad with a good sense of what is right and wrong. When he clutches onto the all-important steamball and soars high into the skies, we are right behind him in every sense. We understand his confusion as he is torn between the conflicting beliefs of his father and grandfather. 'An invention with no philosophy behind it is a curse,' says Lloyd, 'Science should reveal human principles, not endorse follies.' A fine voice cast depicts the characters - from Ray's obsessed mad-scientist father, his Moses-like grandfather and the pragmatic, strong-willed Scarlett who owns a Chihuahua called Columbus.
This is one film that doesn't run out of steam, and there is a myriad of imagery to savour. I especially like the way water is depicted and how reflections of characters are seen in fragments of shattered glass. Although the film may be set in the 19th century, there is nothing old fashioned about the style and animators have let their imaginations run wild in their design of gee-whizz machines. Steamboy is sophisticated animation offering plenty to keep young and old enthralled.
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VOICES: Anne Suzuki, Manami Konishi, Kiyoshi Kodama, Katsuo Nakamura, Masane Tsukayama, Ikki Sawamura, Satoru Saito, Susumu Terajima
PRODUCER: Shinji Komori, Hideyuki Tomioka
DIRECTOR: Katsuhiro Ôtomo
SCRIPT: Sadayuki Murai, Katsuhiro Ôtomo
EDITOR: Takeshi Seyama
MUSIC: Steve Jablonsky
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Art Direction: Shinji Kimura
OTHER: Animation Director: Shinji Takagi
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane: October 21, 2004