director Katsuhiro Otomo
Only the second feature animated film from writer/director/manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo, after his groundbreaking anime Akira (1988), Steamboy would have a lot to potentially live up to. If you compared them. Two decades apart and potentially much more, Steamboy is a Japanese animated science fiction feature film, but perhaps that is about as far as a comparison should go. Akira was a definitive breakthrough film for Japanese anime around the world. It also carried a level of cultural zeitgeist, was a thing very much of its time, definitive, defining, representative.
Steamboy is a sampling of “steampunk,” a subgenre of science fiction fascinated with the technologies of the 19th century, focused on a fantasy that technology developed around steam power, and so everything is set in a world that is partially historical and entirely fictional, fantastical. And the world of Steamboy is set in the Victorian England of 1863. While steampunk has gained popularity over the latter 30 years, it is not a science fiction focused on the technologies or problems of the present or future, but is in many ways more a speculative fantasy world.
When Steamboy came out, the kids were too young for it, so I’ve held it back for several years, waiting for the right time to watch it with them. I hadn’t been overly compelled to watch it on my own in the meantime, but I have kept it in mind all this time. I wound up watching it with Felix, who enjoyed it tolerably.
The story revolves around three generations of the Steam family, based in Northern England, all of whom have committed themselves to the exploration of steam power. Ray is the youth, who receives a mysterious metal orb from his grandfather, and is told to protect it from all comers. The ball is the breakthrough in harnessing a greater amount of steam power and various factions are after it, including Ray’s father and grandfather who are now at odds with one another. Everyone wants to weaponize the technology and profit from it, particularly the Americans. Frankly, the story is a bit convoluted on that front.
The ultimate exhibit of steam technology winds up being the massive “steam castle,” a mountainous construct that can fly and sort of walk as well as launch planes and robot weapons. It struck me funny that what we have here is another “moving castle” movie, which came out the same year as Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Steam versus magic. Both films focus on the wars against humanity, the use of power to destroy or besiege. Both film’s wind up with a bizarre contraption that can move on its own by some core crazy power.
Steamboy is no Akira. Nor is it Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s no great cultural touchstone, nor great fantastic magical story.
It is beautifully animated. Mixing traditional cel animation with a number of digital shots, the film is richly rendered and many of the contraptions are cool and interesting. But the film never has anything really meaningful going on in it either. The characters are stock, not developed in any unique way. There is no deeper resonance regarding the world, technology, humanity, anything. It’s entertaining enough. But it’s long and it doesn’t have that spark that raises it to a level of significance. As I said, Felix liked it okay, but wasn’t all that bothered about it. It’s not bad, though, either.