Title: Steamboy (2004)
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Akira (1988) was the Japanese animated film that got me started in my love for ‘Japanimation’ films. I don’t know if the term ‘Japanimation’ is used anymore. I think that the term has fallen into disuse (replaced with the term ‘Anime’) but back then, during the late eighties and early nineties, that’s what they were calling Japanese Animated films. Films like Vampire Hunter D (1985) Ninja Scroll (1993) and Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994) were the talk of the town, these were the films that my friends and I talked about when conversations about Japanese animation were sparked. But Otomo’s Akira was always the king of them all, and still is in many ways. I first saw Akira way back in the 90’s when it was starting to get its acclaim as one of the greatest animated films ever made. And it had every right to be called that, the animation was excellent, it had that cyberpunk attitude about it, it was futuristic, nihilistic, cutting edge, epic. There was no denying that this wasn’t just any old anime film, this was something special. Then Ghost in the Shell (1995) came along with the promotional backing of American distributors and opened a whole other door to the genre. Producers were realizing that there was a market for these kinds of films out there, and they were making sure the world knew it.
Thanks to the interest in Japanese animation that was originated with these films, Anime films are now stronger than ever. They still don’t open to huge box office numbers, but they sure do sell a bunch of DVD’s. Things have gotten so good for Anime films that now, it's Disney who distributes Studio Gibli’s productions in America and so now Hayao Miyazaki’s films get theatrical releases. The latest example being Ponyo (2008). Akira will have a special place in heart as the first one that got me to love Japanese animation. These weren’t cute little animals talking; these were post apocalyptic teenagers riding their super charged motorcycles in a post apocalyptic ‘Neo-Tokyo’! So of course I was excited to hear about Steamboy, a film that was also directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira. Interesting fact: Katsuhiro Otomo is the creator of both the comic book and the film adaptation for Akira. Don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Akira manga (Japanese for comic book) but it’s a colossal work of comic book art. It consists of 6 Volumes that cover 2,182 pages of artwork and story! It is an epic tale. Its film version takes that story and compresses it, while still retaining the themes of the epic manga tale. Both the comic and the film broke new barriers in animation and story telling. So of course, my expectations where set high for Steamboy. After all, this was the creator of Akira were talking about here!
I’m happy to say that my expectations were met. At first I had my doubts about this movie being as awesome as Akira. There was something about the period setting that turned me off somehow, apparently, the same happened with mass audiences everywhere. Because of its Victoria era setting, I thought it wasn’t going to be as exciting. This was the primary reason why I took so long to finally watch this film. But, thanks to my Japanese Themed Summer Blog-a-Thon, I decided to finally give this one a watch. I’m glad I did because as it turns out, I was missing out yet again. This happened to me for judging a book by its cover, or rather a film by it’s trailer. Or what I thought the movie was going to be like. Granted, I prefer a futuristic cyber punk science fiction films over those set in the 1800’s, but Mr. Otomo managed to make things interesting in Steamboy none the less.
Steamboy takes place in 1860’s Manchester and tells the tale of a family of inventors called The Steams, three generations of the Steam family have their efforts sets on creating something they call the ‘Steamball’; a gadget that compresses steam and creates tremendous amounts of power. James Ray Steam is the youngest of the Steams; a 13 year old boy son to Edward Steam and grandson to Lloyd Steam. Edward Steam decides that he wants to use the power of the Steamball’s to build a giant Steam Castle. It’s ultimate purpose? To sell it to a bunch of military leaders as the ultimate military weapon. Problem is that while Edward Steam thinks that steam power can be used for war and destruction, his father Lloyd Steam thinks it should be used to help mankind instead. So there’s a battle of wits as to how the Steamball’s should be used in the world, and little James Ray Steam is caught between this battle of wills; a battle of ideologies between his father and his grand father. Who will James ultimately side with?
At first I thought the movie was going to be a huge bore because truth be told, it does start out kind of slow. I was thinking to myself that my fears were becoming true, this one is going to be boring…but I gave it a chance. I was happy to discover that not only would I be treated to enormous amounts of action, but the film would also go on to explore some interesting themes as well. A lot of critics gave this film a tough time because supposedly it wasn’t as deep, or the story wasn’t as good as Akira. And I’ll admit, it is a simpler film in some ways, but this doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have something to say. It is a film of war vs. peace, of greed and power vs. humanity. What will science be used for? To advance military practices? To bring forth weapons of mass destruction? Or will it be used to make mankind happier and the world a better place to live in? These are the films main themes. Edward Steam is the power hungry inventor who thinks weapons will usher humanity into a whole new era. He ends up creating what he calls the ‘ Steam Castle ’, a gigantic flying fortress that runs thanks to the power of the Steamballs.
Grandpa Steam is all against his son war like mind, he wants to use steam to create a floating amusement park for children to enjoy. You see, Grandpa Steam’s original plans for The Steam Castle were to create a flying amusement park, complete with a Merry Go Around and a gigantic Ferris Wheel. Grandpa Steam asks: “What would men do with this new technology? Plunge the world into war and chaos?” His son Edward replies: “That very chaos would transform us. The heart adapts to reality” and Grandpa Steam says: “But the heart comes first Eddie!” This interchange between father and son shows us just how against each other these two mentalities are. Same as many films that pit the old vs. the new, or vice versa, it’s always in the hand of the youth to change things. In this case, it’s in 13 year old James Ray’s hands to decide how he will use previous generations’ discoveries. It’s that old idea that hope rests in the hands of future generations who can and should benefit from the accumulated knowledge of their predecessors. Newer generations can learn from their ancestors’ mistakes and improve on society and quality of life. The main idea being that we can’t forget the mistakes of the past, we must learn from them in order to improve our future. This ideology can be applied to different areas of life, including politics, religion, science and philosophy. So you see, this film does have some meat to it after all.
But aside from that, the film is one awesome spectacle of animation! The movie takes a while to really take off, setting up its characters and their different ideologies. The filmmakers really wanted you to know where each character stands, so that you could later know what they are fighting so much about. But once the action gets going, it doesn’t stop! The last half of the film is made up of none stop action and destruction! Dr. Edward Steam organizes a demonstration to show the arms dealers of the world just how much they can benefit from his inventions which include all sorts of military weapons. From flying soldiers, to submarines, tanks and men in armored suits; all powered by steam. The Steam Castle turns into this monstrosity that goes around London destroying important historical landmarks and freezing everything that comes into its path! Then it’s a race to the finish to see how they can stop the Steam Castle from destroying all of London . Now that I think about it, the ending with the Steam Castle destroying every building in its path was not unlike a Godzilla film. This film also had elements in common with Wild Wild West (1999), because that one is also a film about a crazy inventor constructing gigantic steam powered machines used for military purposes. Some scenes also brought to mind The Rocketeer (1991) because at one point James Ray straps on a steam powered back pack and flies through the skies!
Steamboy cost 20 million dollars to make, and 8 years to complete! American actors were brought in to dub the English version fo the film. The English dubbing was performed by the likes of Patrick Stewart as Grandpa Steam, Alfred Molina as Eddie Steam, and Anna Paquin as the voice of James Ray Steam. That’s right Anna Paquin plays the role of a boy, but if you’ve watched anime, you’ll know that this is a common practice in Japanese animation; women do the voices of young male characters. So the film was prepped for an international release. Unfortunately, this film didn’t set the anime world on fire, and it wasn’t a box office smash. Not even in Japan. This was a huge let down because this was the most expensive Japanese animated film ever made, actually, as I write this is still holds that title. But it didn’t garner enough attention from audiences to make its budget back. I think audiences reacted the same way I did, thinking it would be boring because it took place in the 1800’s. As it is, this movie was actually action packed! As I recently discovered, once Steamboy takes off, it really takes off! Some critics where criticizing the film for the same reasons I loved it. Some said it was an empty action spectacle, with no depth to it. But in my opinion, the film had a healthy balance of ideologies and action. Give Steamboy a chance, I think you’ll be surprised.
Rating: 4 out of 5