Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy had a hefty weight of expectation on its shoulders, at least in my eyes. When Akira exploded onto cinema screens at the end of the 1980s, it was heralded as a Trojan horse for the launching of anime to a widespread Western audience. Writer/director Otomo crafted a dazzlingly complex, apocalyptic sci-fi yarn that could not be ignored: if you haven’t seen, you’re in the minority even now. Does Otomo’s unleashing of Steamboy, the most expensive Japanese animated film ever made, rekindle the kind of excitement in me that Akira stirred nearly two decades ago? Well, sort of.
Otomo has become obsessed with two things: steam power and England – Victorian England, that is. These are hardly the most jaw-dropping scenarios, but he uses the dawning of the industrial revolution to inject his own piece of fanciful thinking: a metal ball that holds steam at such high pressure it can power an entire nation. Ridiculous? Yes. Properly explained? Of course not. This “Steam Ball” is the work of a father and son partnership: the elderly Dr Lloyd Steam and his son Eddie. After they are supposedly killed in an accident, Eddie’s son Ray receives a Steam Ball from granddad Lloyd warning him not to let it fall into the wrong hands. Not only are both Lloyd and Eddie still alive, but also Eddie is plotting to put the Steam Ball technology to disastrous effect. It is up to Ray to get from Manchester to London and stop his father in his delusional advancement of science.
If you’re hoping for another graphical wonder like Akira, you are in for a treat. The neat touches such as the reflections in the River Thames and well-placed use of CGI to enhance the visual style makes it well worth the $22 million budget lauded on it (making it the most expensive non-Western animated film). Otomo has certainly done his homework: look closely and you’ll spot Coronation Street’s famous pub The Rovers Return in the early Manchester scenes and contemporary political figureheads Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wandering around. The action is equally eye-popping. A thrilling chase aboard a speeding train and a steam-powered, Death Star-like weapon decimating London at the film’s climax kept me stunned in amazement. As an anime fan, I loved it.
Less amazing is the turgid pacing of the first half. Beyond Ray evading his capturers, Otomo gets bogged down in family arguments and discussion of how advancements in technology threaten the world. There’s no trippy, Tetsuo-like dreams here, just a lot of shouting. When he does decide to jack up the action as Queen Victoria launches London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace, the wow factor of steam-powered armoured soldiers and flying machines laying an assault against Royal Navy battleships and the army in a spectacular 45-minute battle kicks in. It stirred me out of a premature sleep and kept me glued to the fight.
If Otomo had only made the story behind Steamboy back up this dramatic finale better. The Steam family fued is a turn-off I won’t endure again. I came away disappointed that 10 years of Otomo’s work resulted in little more than a bit of soap opera followed by impressive, but soulless, action. I kept thinking: “What was going through your mind, oh lauded Akira-creator? I had so much hope in Steamboy!” I’m going to go sulk in the corner. Then I might watch those last 45-minutes again, but it will be a bitter enjoyment.
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