That Ootomo Katsuhiro, man — he likes to blow shit up.
Perhaps part of the awe of Ootomo’s films is the level of detail he puts in them. And no where is that demonstrated more fully than when everything blows up.
In one of the final scenes of Ootomo’s landmark anime film, Akira, a pipe billowing with steam breaks away from a gargantuan structure bellowing up from Neo-Tokyo’s underground. Viewers don’t really think about how big the pipe is until it crushes a large truck.
That sense of scale drives the last hour of Steamboy.
In this age of special effects technology, Ootomo could have probably CGI-ed the destruction of London, but for some reason, it feels a lot more immediate in 2-D animation.
And it’s probably because he can go to extremes. In this instance, “cartoonish” is a compliment.
It took more than a decade for Ootomo to make Steamboy. In which time, Miyazaki Hayao became the most recognizable emissary for motion picture anime by winning the Academy Award for Spirited Away in 2003.
It’s hard not to compare the two directors, even though their styles are quite different.
Miyazaki’s animated worlds are fantastical, complete universes onto themselves. Ootomo, however, grounds his fantasy with realistic detail.
Both directors, however, know how to make their stories epic.
In the case of Steamboy, the eye-opening animation pretty much crowds a film with a pretty basic storyline.
An invention arrives at the doorstep of a young boy named Ray Steam. A note from his grandfather instructs Ray to deliver the device to a man named Robert Stephenson. Some sketchy visitors show up at the same time as the package, and a chase ensues.
Most of the story is revealed in the first hour of the film, as each of the characters motives are slowly revealed.
It’s in this character development where comparrisons to Miyazaki may not be totally off the mark. Miyazaki’s later films are renowned for its multi-faceted characters. The good guys don’t have the best of motives, and the bad guys have redeeming qualities.
With Steamboy, the good guys and the bad guys are nearly indistinguishable, leaving only Ray and the bratty Scarlett as the most unsullied characters in the story.
Scarlett, in fact, is one of the most complex characters in the film. Spoiled and bossy, she wants what she wants, and she isn’t bothered by the philosophical meanderings of dueling scientists.
At the same time, she displays a naivety about her family and their role in perpetuating conflict around the world.
She has all the hallmarks of a pest, but on some level, you root for her to grow as character.
The second half of the film is where Ootomo struts his stuff, but it’s also the point where the film slows down dramatically. It’s pretty much a showcase for mass destruction, but after a while, you want things to stop blowing up so the story could continue.
I wish I had been able to catch this film in the theater. My paltry 19-inch television screen is no medium to appreciate the film’s scale properly. But I’m glad I watched it on DVD, because I could step away from it when it got bogged down.
Still, Steamboy is a beautifully impressive film, rich in detail and full of action.