It should be noted that there are two versions of the film being released in the States: Otomo’s original 126 minute cut presented in Japanese with subtitles, and a version shortened by twenty minutes and featuring an English-language soundtrack using such actors as Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina and Anna Paquin. Having only seen the Otomo cut, my personal choice, this will be the version discussed here.
Steam as a method of transportation began more than a century before our story begins, deep into the Industrial Revolution which changed the world. Steam was powering locomotives and creating production lines, but the boilers required to power the factories were massive and prone to regular breakdowns, being pushed past their limits by greedy owners wanting higher production output. At one factory deep in the heart of the English countryside, the best boiler repairman is Ray Steam, a pre-teen inventor born of a family of great scientists who enthusiastically waits the return of his father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd from their Alaskan research facility. The young boy’s life takes a dramatic turn when he receives a parcel containing a peculiar metal ball from his grandfather. With the arrival of the package comes two shadowy representatives from the Ohara Foundation, the group who has been funding Eddie and Lloyd’s research, who are searching for the ball. The two men get hold of the ball, if not for the swift arrival of Lloyd Steam, who urges Ray to take the ball to a man named Stephenson. A wild goose chase between Ray, in a homemade mechanized unicycle, and the Ohara men, in menacing steam machines, through the countryside and across train tracks just ahead of a steaming locomotive, where Ray is saved, at least for the moment, by Robert Stephenson, who happens to be on the London-bound train, to attend the upcoming Great Exhibition. And thus begins an intriguing game of cat and mouse which pits family members against each other for control of the one item which could become the next great step in the Industrial Revolution.
The most expensive anime project ever, with a budget of more than $22 million, “Steamboy” is one of the most beautiful works in the anime field, but, like “Akira,” worlds away from the warm and fuzzy feel-good films of Hayao Miyazaki, obsessive about detail and more than a little remote in the emotional department. Otomo engages his audiences viscerally and mentally, celebrating the progress made in that golden age of industry as it condemns the evil borne from that evolution, creating one of the most powerful representations of war ever presented in animated cinema, as various forces destroy London (including an amusing nod to a famous nursery rhyme about a certain bridge in the region) for control of the mysterious Steam ball. And the sound of “Steamboy” is just as impressive as its visuals, fully taking advantage of today’s six channel digital sound systems with an onslaught of sonic fury that attacks from all directions.
“Steamboy” is an exhilarating action film, a stunning and singular work from one of the best animation directors in the world. One can only hope Otomo does not wait another sixteen years to make his next film.Rating: A+