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Steam punk
A kinder, gentler Akira for the Machine Age
Directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo. Written by Ôtomo and Sadayuki Murai. Featuring the voices of Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart. A Sony Pictures release. At the Avon.

Long before the eulogy for traditional, hand-drawn animated films had been written, Japanese animation, or anime, was still an emerging art form in the West. In 1988, Katsuhiro Ôtomo, an illustrator-turned-animator, had just one feature to his credit. That was the seminal Akira, a dystopian epic of cyber-punk futurism that merged out-of-control youthful rebellion with telekinetic, apocalyptic rage. Based on his serialized comic, or manga, of the same name, this was the film that introduced anime to a worldwide audience.

In 1995, Ôtomo released Memories, an animated science-fiction anthology that he conceived and supervised, and he directed the third and final segment, "Cannon Fodder." A studious observation of a vaguely European metropolis whose sole purpose is the firing of massive, industrial cannons toward an unseen enemy, this Orwellian experiment served as his testing ground for an unfinished computer system used to give rudimentary depth and motion to the film’s numerous backgrounds.

Fueled by an affinity for the early-industrial mise-en-scène of "Cannon Fodder" and a desire to explore more fully the emerging possibilities afforded by computers within an animated feature, Ôtomo greatly expanded his ideas into Steamboy, a labor of love nine years in the making. Given that the final budget was ¥2.4 billion ($20 million — reported to be the largest budget in anime history), much of this time was spent raising money rather than crafting the screenplay. The product of a detail-oriented auteur, Steamboy suffers a tendency toward preciousness over narrative flow and cohesion. But the same can be said of Akira, and coming on the rusty heels of the recent Robots (a soulless CGI exercise in celebrity-voice-driven pop nostalgia), Steamboy stands as a remarkable artistic achievement, a near-masterpiece of visual marvels that evokes a bygone era with its digital arsenal of tricks while retaining an organic, handcrafted feel.

Traditional animation may never again exist as it once did (the old term "ink and paint" no longer refers to either "ink" or "paint" but rather to a series of ones and zeroes), but after viewing this film (or anything from the thriving Studio Ghibli, creators of Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away and his forthcoming June release, Howl’s Moving Castle), you realize that the reports of the death of 2-D animation have been greatly exaggerated. Although Steamboy is set in the past (Victorian-era London), an early title card gives the first hint that this might not be 1866 as we know it. During a prologue set in "Alaska: Russian America," father-and-son scientists Lloyd and Eddie Steam (a pair of nuanced performances by Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina) busy themselves with mining a new energy source, a highly concentrated form of steam of "extreme density and extreme pressure." An explosion erupts; as Eddie’s fate hangs in question, the action moves to Manchester, where we’re introduced to his son, Ray Steam (well-voiced, in true anime fashion, by a girl: Anna Paquin), the hero of the story. Ray shares a natural genius for mechanical invention, so when his grandfather calls upon him to protect this new energy source at all costs, he has nothing but his wits to keep the "steam ball" out of the wrong hands. Since those wrong hands might just belong to his father, what’s a boy to do? Why, take to the sky!

The action moves to the opening of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, where Ray makes the acquaintance of shrewish Scarlett O’Hara (by way of Paris Hilton) and Robert Stephenson, a former colleague of Lloyd. As the true nature of the film’s plot reveals itself (think: Death Star), you might find the simplistic message (can a capitalist society function without violence?) and relative lack of character development a step or 12 backward after the mind-bending philosophical questions posed by Akira. Yet as Ôtomo’s paean to the Machine Age keeps building steam, you could as easily find yourself transported to a kinder, gentler time — the age before technology. Or before CGI animation.

Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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