Shiny Shelf


By Stephen Lavington on 14 August 2006

It may be too much to say that Japanese animation is experiencing a renaissance in the UK at present (such a statement immediately conjures images of Jonathan Ross’s breathless documentary series in the early 90s), but with ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ recently big at the cinema, the NFT hosting a run of anime classics and a Hayao Miyazaki retrospective on the newly free Film Four the genre is certainly riding high. That said it seems surprising at first that the most expensive Japanese animated film to date was released with barely a whisper of publicity and made scarcely a dent on British cinema screens.

What makes this the more surprising is the creative force behind it, ‘Steamboy’ being written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, the maker of ‘Akira’, almost certainly the most famous Japanese animated film ever made – to British viewers at least. If Akira was cyberpunk, ‘Steamboy’ is – as its name might imply – Steampunk. 19th Century British schoolboy James Steam is the son of Dr Eddie Steam and grandson of Dr Lloyd Steam. Together Lloyd and Eddie discover a water of exceptional purity that – somehow – can be held at extreme levels of pressure in minute ‘steamballs’. These can then be used – somehow – to charge steam driven technology. Thus in this universe tanks, mobile armoured suits and even flying machines can be powered by steam – not to mention the great structure at the heart of the story, the Steam Castle.

This unfolds to achingly lush visuals. The flavour of Victorian Britain is evident throughout, though the tone is less Dickensian slum than greeting card bucolic, with a rather sunny urban setting for the main body of the story. Dashing locomotives, looming battleships, clanking, riveted anachronistic war machines – all are brilliantly realised on the screen. Indeed so dominant is the technology that human characters fade into the background. This is not helped by the plot, which half-heartedly paints a story of familial conflict around a moral of war – amazingly – being a Bad Thing. It seems harsh to raise this sort of criticism with regard to such an amazingly visual experience but it does handicap the movie. Even some vigorous voice-acting by English dubbing actors Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart (with authentic Northern accents as a bonus) can’t save a lukewarm plot – indeed, their efforts are largely undercut by an anodyne Anna Paquin providing the voice for James Steam. Set-pieces are handled elegantly – an attack on the British Exhibition of the mid-nineteenth century, some glorious aerial battles – but the sum is much less than the parts.

That said it is a beautiful film, and a striking contrast to the increasingly workmanlike offerings from the American CG animation studios. However, it’s nothing on a par with ‘Akira’, or the majority of Miyazaki’s work, in terms of storytelling.

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By Stephen Lavington

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