Run time: 126 Minutes
Production Company: Sunrise
Brief Overview: In the age of steam-powered vehicles, young Ray Steam shows every sign of inheriting the inventing genius of his well-regarded father and grandfather. When a package arrives containing some of his grandfather's plans and a mysterious object known as a "steam ball," Ray suddenly finds himself on the run from the O'Hara company, who want to use the object for their own benefit during an upcoming World Expo.
Thoughts: This film premiered over 6 years ago in Japan, yet the first time that I watched it was to write this review. I had avoided the movie for a long time because I'd heard through both professional reviews and via word-of-mouth from many friends of mine that the film was disappointing, boring, and dumbed-down in comparison to director Katsuhiro Otomo's perennially-iconic Akira. Eventually, at least with me, curiosity tends to overwhelm questionably bad reviews, and that was the case with this film; a newly-established Netflix account and a couple of hours were all I needed to finally settle the matter for myself. I'm happy to say that the film was much better than I had expected going into the viewing and well worth the time spent watching it, though to call it "flawless" would be a distinct untruth.
Steamboy focuses on James Ray Steam, a 13-year-old boy living in 19th Century England who, like his father and grandfather, is a talented inventor and has a good handle on the technology of the day - steam power. One day Ray receives a parcel containing some plans and a small round orb from his grandfather, who writes that he should take the object to a man named Robert Stevenson and keep it out of the hands of the O'Hara corporation. He finishes reading the letter just as some goons from O'Hara show up at his doorstep, first to try and talk the object out of him, then attempt to take it by force, chasing Ray as he escapes on a homemade steam vehicle. By chance, Ray ends up on the very train that Robert Stevenson is riding while his pursuers continue to hound him, eventually using an airship to kidnap him and steal his treasured item.
The O'Hara's re-introduce Ray to his father, Eddie, thought to have perished in an accident, and use that leverage to convince Ray to join their cause. Together they help to complete the Steam Tower, a building being constructed for the upcoming London World Expo. Near completion of the building, Ray's grandfather Lloyd escapes from confinement and begins to sabotage the O'Hara operation, in the process convincing Ray that the organization he's been helping is only concerned with using the enhanced steam power to create more advanced weaponry and thus perpetuate war across the world. When Ray turns to Stevenson instead, Stevenson reveals his true colors and uses his own army of policemen to fight with the O'Hara's varied steam-powered weaponry. Eventually the Steam Tower reveals its true purpose and Ray is faced with preventing it from destroying London.
One reason that I believe this film wasn't well-received in the US is that, compared to other more celebrated (and cerebral) anime films like the aforementioned Akira and other futuristic cyberpunk fare like Ghost in the Shell, Steamboy is unabashedly straightforward in terms of both plot and central theme. There is little room for gray area in this film; once we learn of Ray's personal belief in the purpose of scientific progress as being the happiness and equality of the human race, it's easy to define those characters who wish to misuse the cutting-edge steam technology that Ray possesses as either merely misguided (Ray's father, Eddie Steam, now a pawn of the O'Hara company), or downright corrupt (the O'Hara reps, who would love nothing more than to turn a profit from the continued warring between the various world powers willing to pay for their weapons technology). Really the only semi-surprise in this regard is Robert Stevenson, Eddie's former competitor and rival, who goes from being Ray's most likely savior to a greedy turncoat, once his hidden ambitions are revealed.
Unfortunately, the mostly black-and-white ideals presented in the film tend to make many of the characters come across as uninteresting people, which I found to be a limiting factor in how well I was able to connect with the story. Ray's grandfather, Lloyd, is portrayed mainly as an idealistic kook, a man so intent on preventing his own son's misguided ambitions that he resorts to extremely dangerous solo sabotage operations multiple times throughout the movie. The opening scenes help to paint a very vivid picture of just how dangerous the wielding of steam power can be, not only due to there being gaskets and pipes that are prone to explosion at the very onset of some pressure variances, but also due to the tendency of the escaping steam to inflict burns on people who are too close to it. Lloyd's acts of sabotage thus come across as poorly-thought-out and dangerous, which makes it difficult to buy the idea that he's supposedly such a genius with this technology or truly looking out for anyone's well-being. Likewise, Scarlett O'Hara (har har) is nothing but an annoying, meddling brat throughout most of the film. Her interest in Ray is difficult to believe at best, as are any suggestions of affection between them. Instead of at least giving off the vibe of being a "tsundere" character, Scarlett just seems rude and useless, just there to be saved (though she's redeemed somewhat during the credit reel, appearing as the pilot of a steam plane bearing her name). Ray himself is passable as a main character; he has all the determination, smarts and high-minded ideals of a typical hero and there isn't anything about him that's particularly annoying, but I find it quite telling that much of the last half of the film when he's constantly putting himself in mortal danger, that sense of danger isn't effectively conveyed. I simply didn't connect with the character enough to feel any sort of strong emotions at the prospect of him potentially losing his life.
While the characterization largely fails, the artistry and realization of the film's retro-futuristic style and technology pick up most of the slack. The background art is, to put it simply, stellar in every way. Done using 3D CG modeling and painted in a way that feels both real enough to have existed and also somehow fantasy-like, the extreme amount of detail and variance in the building textures and the various technological devices and elements helps to bring the movie's alternate history version of 19th Century London to vivid life. I'm not exactly a big fan of the "steampunk" aesthetic, mainly because I see a lot of folks strap on a corset and a pair of goggles and call it good. What's great about this film is that even though the level of steam-based technology presented throughout the film is far beyond what's realistic and plays into that fantasy of steam continuing to be the main method of providing power, it's still mostly believable within the film's context - the level of detail, down to the very tiniest of gears and valves in most devices, gives the film's objects a physical presence that brings them to life. The devices are usually portrayed very unwieldy and dangerous, something that makes sense when they're made of wrought iron and other incredibly heavy materials. Their very weight is portrayed extremely effectively, with the O'Hara company's air brigade members very nearly unable to keep themselves aloft and the Steam Tower's constant state of being barely moveable by its own power.
One other complaint regarding Steamboy that I've heard time and time again is that it's a boring movie. While the aforementioned disconnect from the characters might contribute to the sense of blandness many people get from the film, I'm once again more inclined to blame the film's straightforwardness - something that many people may be tempted to label as "Western-ness" - for these frequent accusations of mediocrity. Throughout my years as an anime fan, one thing that I've noticed is the tendency for Western fans (including myself at times) to mislabel an anime's obtuseness and incomprehensibility as "depth," as in, "if I can't understand this right away, it must be really deep." It's true that there are many anime out there that address philosophical ideas that don't often show up in mainstream Western animation and that these anime are consequently difficult to grasp upon only one viewing, but it's also true that many anime just simply don't make any sense, whether it be due to poor writing or being haphazardly-adapted from another source. Steamboy is easy to understand and has what I consider a fairly common theme, and so it doesn't fit the typical "ideal" of what an anime film aimed at adults should be like.
That isn't to say that the movie is a superior piece of filmmaking, of course; its lack of character development is a major flaw and prevents many of the plot's events from being fully impactful. However, I found it to be very entertaining and packed full of exhilarating action scenes, including the spectacular (though lengthy, let's be honest) rise and fall of the Steam Tower. Comparing the film to Akira does it a disservice; while both are directed by Otomo, they're distinctly different films, and putting Akira in such a lofty position while ignoring its own glaring narrative flaws is something that continues to strike me as unfair. Steamboy is fun and full of action, employs animation technology to good ends, and creates a world that feels fairly real in spite of featuring devices that could never really exist, and I was overall very pleasantly surprised by the film.
- The attention to detail in the background artwork and the technology is excellent.
- The steam technology is both fantasy-based and logical, helping to ground the film.
- The character development is lacking, which causes some events to feel less impactful.
- The film's Western sensibilities may not fit the mold of what Western fans tend to like about Japanese anime.
Recommended? Yes. For people who avoided the film like I did for so long, I would definitely recommend giving it a watch-through. It's entertaining, if a bit straightforward. For those who watched it and disliked it, I'd say that it's worth a re-watch, if only to approach it from a different angle.