Katsuhiro Ôtomo's 1988 film Akira set a high-water mark for anime, while intoducing the Japanese animation style to a wider audience than it had yet received in this country. Sixteen years and one live-action feature later, Ôtomo unveiled Steamboy, a pet project that began production in 1995, halted in 1998, and rumbled back to life. Eight years in the making—eight years in which CGI changed the face of animation and, therefore, Steamboy, Ôtomo's vision is now submitted for your approval. Expect plenty of hot air, but Steamboy is also a sight for sore eyes.
In 19th Century Manchester, young Ray Steam (Anne Suzuki) is a chip off his father's old block. A gifted mechanic and incipient inventor who happily toils on steam-powered machinery, Ray dreams of a glorious future paved by science. So too do his father Eddie (Masane Tsukayama) and grandfather Lloyd (Katsuo Nakamura), but generational conflict is in the air (at times, literally). Eddie's plans include the colossal Steam Tower, powered by three "steam balls." Egged on by his grandfather, Ray spends much of the time attempting to keep at least one of the steam balls out of his father's hands. Should Ray fail, his father and his conspirators will lay waste to London's "Great Exhibition" in a supreme demonstration of the Steam Tower's mobilization.
It doesn't take a literature professor to detect the masculine brooding behind Steamboy, with its monolithic, steam-spewing tower, powered by balls, constantly rumbling out of control; three generations of men troubleshoot the built-up pressure and discharged destruction their creations have wrought. Early on, Ray's mother shrugs, "You can't fight blood, I guess." Ôtomo also kicks around the proper application of science in the world order. The grandfather cautions against tampering with natural order, insisting, "An invention with no philosophy behind it is a curse." Eddie can't wait to demonstrate his erected might in a so-called "product demonstration" that's actually an explosive conflagration (the satire of the business of war is sharp).
Consequently, Ray spends much of the film unsure what to think, not unlike Luke Skywalker trying to reconcile the conflicting impulses toward grandfatherly Obi-Wan Kenobi and paternal Anakin Skywalker. Ôtomo fails to fully explore the ramifications of a willy-nilly young hero, but he does craft plenty of eye-popping action, beginning with a top-notch escape scene and climaxing in a virtual war in and above London: "Steamboy" tumbles and shoots through the sky, grasping a steam pack. As suited to a story with a lad lead and a prissy, money-minded lass named "Miss Scarlett" (Manami Konishi), the anime style (consciously) resembles Miyazaki's Spirited Away more than Akira, but the detail given to the war machinery is prodigious indeed.
In the end, the action quite simply swallows the story. The American cut, dubbed and shorn of twenty minutes, st(r)eamlines the plot and cuts to the chases (that version—which I haven't seen—features Anna Paquin as Ray, Alfred Molina as Eddie, and Patrick Stewart as Lloyd). Purists should obviously seek out the "Director's Cut," but since the characters are English and the plot at times needlessly unwieldy, the American cut is a safe choice. As symbolist anime action-dramas go, Steamboy is, in any version, the one to see.