Steamboy: Collector's Gift Set Review

A lot has happened in feature animation in the 16 years since Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s Akira introduced the wider world to the wonders of Japanese anime, revitalising and reinventing what had been principally seen in the west as a format for children’s Saturday morning television into a format that could develop realistic characters and tackle adult themes in a new arena that held no boundaries for the limitless imaginations of creative directors. Ôtomo was seen as being a leading light and the visual style and themes of Akira were hugely influential, dictating for a long time the apocalyptic, action-adventure, science fiction content of much that subsequently followed, but there has been little to match the visionary quality of the director’s approach. Even with huge advances in computer generated animation over the intervening years, the surface content hasn’t greatly advanced, with more often than not, tired action plots that fail to do justice to the sumptuous visions the animation format is now capable of. Although he has not directed a full-length feature since Akira in 1988, Ôtomo’s reputation remains intact and flashes of his brilliance have been seen in his scripting and directing one segment of Memories, and a fabulous reinvention in his script of Osama Tezuka’s Metropolis for director Rintaro. Consequently, expectation has been high for his return to full-length animation feature directing, perhaps too high for Steamboy to come anywhere close to meeting.

Set in 1866 at the height of the expansion of the industrial revolution, Ray Steam is a boy inventor and dabbler with junk following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who are working in America for the O’Hara Foundation in researching and developing the capabilities of combinations of steam and steel. Ray returns home one day to find a package from his grandfather containing a mysterious spherical mechanism. The arrival of the package is soon followed by the appearance of two tall, dark strangers who claim to be from the O’Hara Foundation, who demand the return of the object they say belongs to them. But Ray has been warned to protect the ball from falling into their hands and has been charged with delivering it safely into the hands of Robert Stephenson. The Foundation needs the Steam Ball, which allows them to harness the compressed power of steam into a concentrated high-pressure container. They intend to demonstrate the power of their discovery and its numerous militaristic applications in a grand demonstration to influential world leaders at the 1866 London Exhibition.

Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s hand is clearly visible here in Steamboy and thematically it’s not far from the director’s usual anti-militaristic concerns. Comparisons with Akira are inevitable and right from the start there are many parallels with the director’s masterpiece with scientists working on an infernal device of incredible power in the cold environment of an underground facility (this imagery and theme is also developed in Ôtomo’s script for Metropolis, which other than the character designs has little resemblance to Tezuka’s original story). Eddie Steam bears more than a passing resemblance to the Colonel of Akira, both in appearance and in the function of his role as both adversary and father figure. Also noticeable is the corporal disfiguration caused by the unleashed power of their experiments and a biomechanical reconstructed arm. Although set in the Industrial Revoluton era, the Steampunk environment of Steamboy mirrors the post-apocalyptic world of Akira, where the values of a rapidly changing world are questioned and technology is progressing at a quicker pace than the moral conscience behind it. “An invention with no philosophy behind it is a curse”, Ray’s grandfather warns, and this is the essential theme that lies behind both the industrial age world of Steamboy and the futuristic Neo-Tokyo landscapes of Akira, where powers “want to make commerce out of human stupidity”. It’s a message that remains relevant and has application to the modern world no matter where the cinematic setting or period.

Admittedly, it’s not a particularly deep or original theme, nor are the characters particularly strong (although Scarlett O’Hara is an intriguing presence) but like the similar simplistic moral of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, it’s the imaginative and visual brilliance that the theme is treated to that makes Steamboy a great film to watch. The character and set designs are superb, capturing the fine character traits of Kaneda and his adversary Colonel in Ray and Eddie, but endowing them with the additional physical solidity of the character designs for the Ôtomo scripted (but not drawn) manga, The Legend of Mother Sarah. The characters dominate the frames with their presence and are never overshadowed by the elaborately detailed and impressive technical backgrounds and industrial cityscapes (architecturally reminiscent of François Schuitten’s work on the Cités Obscures series). Every frame of the film is exceptionally well designed and balanced in this respect, not aiming for spectacle (although it is often stunning) as much as packing in as much visual storytelling information as possible. 3-D digital effects are appropriately deployed for flames, steam, water and machinery, and in many other areas seamlessly integrated into the traditional cel animation. The pacing may seem erratic and unusual, but this is closer to the episodic nature of serialised manga with its multiple cliff-hangers, building up to a mid-point showpiece and then (rather like Akira) cumulatively and relentlessly piling on additional rolling, destructive, apocalyptic events for much of the second half of the film. This could be as potentially wearisome as it is in most action movies, but Steamboy has a relatively solid foundation upon which to unleash its subsequent twists and revelations.

While the film was cut by about 20 minutes on its US theatrical release, the Sony Pictures Region 1 DVD release of Steamboy contains the full Director’s Cut. The edition reviewed here is the Collector’s Gift Set, which appears to be identical to the regular Director’s Cut edition, but presented in a boxset with 10 full-colour postcards, an impressive 166-page booklet of character designs, mecha designs and selected storyboard sequences and a bizarre 22-page Japanese language manga adaptation. An additional Ôtomo print is also included within the DVD case. I’d recommend accessing the film directly from the scene selection, thus avoiding the otherwise mandatory multiple copyright screens in numerous languages.

Mastered in High-Definition, you would expect the picture quality to look good, but it’s not that impressive. Contrast is low, the image is soft and it the transfer often looks rather hazy and sepia toned, particularly in the early industrial scenes of Manchester. The muted tones are undoubtedly intentional to a certain extent to convey the dusty quality of the period, but they nevertheless don’t come across well on the DVD transfer. Later “outdoor” scenes look much brighter and more colourful, but show grain, cross-colouration in solid blocks of colour and pixilation, with lines of faces frequently breaking up during movements. There are one or two dustspots, but nothing serious and they are really hardly discernable at all. For the most part the transfer looks fine and stable, but it’s hard to tell if it reflects the true colour scheme of the film or whether it just hasn’t transferred across well to DVD. The comparison below shows a scene from the feature above, and the corresponding scene from the film's trailer below (as seen on the Memories DVD), and gives an idea of the kind of contrast that ought to have been expected here.

The original Japanese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, as is the English dub. The mixing on the Japanese track is unusual. Well, it’s rotten really. Dialogue is pitched very low on the centre speaker and often dull and muffled. The sound effects on the other hand are pounding, loud and deeply vibrating, but with no crispness or detail of tone and no real dynamic range, swamping both dialogue and music score. Achieving a comfortable volume level that suits all the different elements is therefore extremely difficult.

An English dub is provided, again in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and it is professionally acted by the likes of Patrick Stewart (Grandfather Steam), Alfred Molina (Eddy), and Anna Paquin as Ray. It’s a nice change to hear British accents on a Japanese anime dub, particularly as it is appropriate to the Manchester origins of the characters, but the Northern accents are sometimes a little bit forced and not quite authentic, sounding rather like Daphne on Frasier. The sound mix isn't noticeably different from the Japanese 5.1 mix.

English subtitles are optional. They are adequately well placed on the screen, but – particularly since Ôtomo makes full use of the frame in his layouts – they inevitably ruin the effect of the composition. They are additionally distracting as they are coloured yellow and are much brighter than the muted tones underneath. The font colour is not solid either showing variations of colour and brightness across the letters. On one or two occasions they randomly and without reason jump to the top of the screen. If you can be happy listening to the English dub, which is perfectly adequate and in being set in Victorian London more appropriate than having all the characters speaking Japanese, then these distracting subtitles should be avoided. A sample is provided below.

A number of featurettes are included and can be played separately or all together. The quality and informational content of these features is very good, well presented and of reasonable length without going into overly technical detail. The Revoicing Steamboy (18:33) which includes interviews with Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Alfred Molina is perhaps slightly over-long if you’ve seen similar features before, but takes an interesting look at the English dubbing process. In the Interview with Katsuhiro Ôtomo (5:11), the director talks about the film’s 10 years in development and some of the film’s themes, but as usual, prefers not to force the viewer to think of the film in any particular way. A Multi-screen Landscape Study allows the production team to talk about the making of the film from the perspective of the art design and background layouts, and gives some indication of the amount of hard work and attention to detail - not to mention expense - that went into the film. The Adventure Continues (3:07) presents the End Credits without text, which, since it is a beautifully rendered mini-movie sequel in itself, is certainly worthwhile.

Animation Onion Skins (4:24)
5 scenes are seen through the various developmental stages, not in-depth, but enough to give you an impression of how the whole film was similarly constructed.

Production Drawings (5:39)
Again this look at the detailed studies for backgrounds and set designs is worth seeing on their own and of sufficient quality and length.

I’m not sure why the critical response of the anime community has been so muted towards Steamboy. This is exactly what should have been expected from the creator of Akira and scriptwriter of Metropolis in terms of theme, structure and pacing and Ôtomo directs the film well with good balance of message, action and adventure. I have to admit that my attention to the plot wavered towards the end, partly because it is not a great plot, but mainly because my attention was drawn away from the subtitles by the stunning visuals (another reason perhaps for choosing the English dub). This is how many hoped and imagined the Victorian Steampunk vision of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would appear on the screen, which leads one to speculate (perhaps pointlessly since it was obviously never considered) that perhaps if we had had a combination of Moore scripted character studies and imaginative brilliance of Ôtomo’s visual sensibility, this could have been a truly great film. As it is, Steamboy is still a very good film from one of the masters of animation, with a strong conceptual theme, visual presence and plenty of exciting pulp action and adventure. The audio/visual qualities of the Sony Region 1 DVD do not however live up to the spectacle.

8 out of 10
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