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Steamboy: Director’s Cut

Steamboy is an incredible visual journey into the world of 19th century science and adventure. It’s a stunning piece of work that proves hand drawn animation is not only alive and well, it’s more beautiful and exciting than anything Disney has ever done. What it lacks in heart it makes up for in artistry, capturing your senses and entertaining your imagination. Too bad most people will, out of shameful ignorance, dismiss it as a children’s film simply because it’s animated. The year is 1866 and the steam engine is revolutionizing the world. Scientists all over the globe are testing the limits of the new source of power, inventing everything from the locomotive to the steam powered automobile. It’s an era of pistons and gears, boilers and levers and everyone from world governments to private foundations are in a desperate race to best harness the technology. Naturally, they’re all only interested in its military applications.

Like so many anime films, Steamboy pits mankind against his greatest foe: himself. The technology may take center stage but it’s the battle of wills between men that drive the relatively thin story. While the movie avoids most of the preachiness anime films are famous for, there are still plenty of distracting moments where the director refuses to let the situations speak for themselves. Instead characters launch into trademark self-righteous diatribes explaining why their use of steam power is for the best. Fortunately those moments don’t last long and movie quickly returns to what it does best: massive action sequences and breath taking panoramic views.

Two of the leading scientists in steam technology are Dr. Lloyd and Dr. Eddie Steam. A British father and son team funded by the ridiculously wealthy O’Hara foundation, they have invented an incredible new way to harness the power of steam into a device unimaginatively called the Steam Ball. It is a source of almost limitless power, capable of driving any steam based piece of machinery regardless of size. Everyone from Lloyd, to Eddie, to the British government to the American O’Hara foundation has a different idea on how it should be used. Chaos ensues.

Right from the start director Katsuhiro Ôtomo indulges his audience with stunning visual design and exciting action sequences. The story truly begins when young Ray, son of Eddie Steam and mechanical genius in his own right, receives a Steam Ball from his grandfather Lloyd. The only message: protect it from the O’Hara Foundation at any cost. Goons from the foundation show up immediately in search of their company’s prized possession. An exciting chase featuring trains, steam automotives, and zeppelins sets the pace for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately the excitement and stunning animation of the movie’s action is all the audience really has to look forward to. Like some kind of Japanese Michael Bay, Katsuhiro Ôtomo has a gift for creating over the top sequences that defy physics but entertain all the same. Beyond that, Steamboy has little to offer.

The characters and plot play second string to action and effects. Ray, who is easily the most multi-faceted person in the story, serves as the audience’s “blank slate”, the only character with a truly unbiased perspective. Everyone else is a stereotype of some sort making any kind of character development unnecessary. At first the lack of a true protagonist to root for didn’t bother me, but as the beauty of the animation unfolded I really hoped something would happen to make me care about at least one of the characters. It never happened and I was left watching the film's finale (essentially a forty-five minute long explosion of Death Star proportions) not really being concerned in the least what happened to anyone.

While the story and characters of Steamboy remain flat, their extra dimension is transferred over to the animation which unfurls with a dramatic three-dimensional flair. Without caving to full CGI, Ôtomo and his team of artists have blended computer graphics with traditional hand drawn style and artistry to create a movie that moves in 3D but feels like its been painted with a brush. It’s a spectacular effect resulting in the most detailed, luxurious and flawless animation that I have ever seen in any genre. Steamboy dazzles, setting a new bar for hand drawn animation. Too bad there’s no one left in America to answer the challenge.

The voice acting deserves mentioning as well. An exceptional cast including Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina and Anna Paquin turn in some impressive work despite the flat dialogue they are given to work with. Paquin is particularly good behind the microphone, taking on the mantle of the thirteen year old Ray and making her own voice impressively unrecognizable. As with most anime films, the cast spends as much time oohing, aahing and grunting as delivering actual lines, but they do it with gusto resulting in some of the best re-voiced dialogue since Princess Mononoke.

Steamboy is a visual banquet, worth a watch even despite its unimaginative moral diatribes. Instead let your brain’s intelligent side indulge itself in the subtle jabs at Americana and British society (for example, the heiress to the O’Hara foundation is named Scarlett). Turn the sound all the way off if you have to (though you’ll missing a beautiful sound track and lush sound effects), but give Steamboy a once through for the artistry. Your eyes will thank you. Steamboy’s imagery and style speak for itself. Unfortunately whoever crafted the DVD took that fact a little too seriously and left us with far too little in the way of background materials and special features. That said, what is there to enjoy is well thought out and covers most of things you might hope to see.

The movie is touted as the “director’s cut” despite the fact that an original theatrical version doesn’t seem available in American markets. As well, there is no theatrical version available on the disc. It’s a slightly confusing moniker that you may as well ignore.

The international appeal of this film is clear. While the default language track is, appropriately, the original Japanses dialogue, there are alternative tracks in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Both the English and Japanese tracks maintain the beautiful sound effects work and the rich digital sound is a beautiful opportunity to indulge yourself and your sound system.

Several features concerning the making of the film are scraped together to lightly spackle you with background information on this impressive body of work. The most extensive is piece on the re-voicing of the film. Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Alfred Molina all reflect on the film and their involvement and the voice director and sound designer chime in with their thoughts.

Another feature sits director and writer Katsuhiro Ôtomo down for a brief interview to talk about the process of bringing Steamboy from imagination to screen. His insights shed a little bit of light onto the theme of the film, giving the whole thing a little more depth than one might perceive from just watching the movie. If you watch nothing else, take a few minutes to view this feature. Although brief, it’s the most valuable in understanding the mind and mentality behind the movie.

The closest thing the disc can offer in the way of a true “making” of featurette comes in the form of a montage style round table discussion between the members of the film’s artistic team leaders. Presented in a three-way split screen, it was originally designed as something to run on a display screen at some filmmaking conference exhibition. More of a series of advertsising sound bytes than a bonus feature, it’s the closest thing you get to seeing inside the process of how the film came together. It leaves a lot to be desired.

If you watch the end credits to the film carefully you’ll notice that the images behind the credits aren’t simply images, but actually a graphic continuation of the character’s stories. If the text is too busy for you the DVD makers have cleverly included a version of the ending with the words removed. It’s worth a watch to see this mini-sequel unfold as the film’s inspiring sound track plays in the background. In true Japanese style the sequence almost feels like the ending to a video game you’ve just labored hours to complete. It’s almost as satisfying. Be sure to watch the version with text credits though. The non-text version mysteriously removes some key parts of the sequence. I have no clue why.

Pre-production artwork for the film is proudly displayed in what is quickly becoming one of my favorite formats. Instead of just giving you still shots to flip through the disc offers a montage of the images. As the artwork dramatically pans past, excerpts from the soundtrack set the mood. It’s a great way to enjoy the artwork that inspired the film.

Presented in an aptly titled “onion skin” view, several of the movie’s more interesting sequences are played out in various pre-production and mid-production formats giving you the inside track on just how much work and detail went into the movie. Unfortunately no one is there to explain each level of work making it more of an eye candy experience than anything else.

Despite all of the above, there’s plenty missing to make this a satisfying DVD experience. Ôtomo doesn’t offer any kind of commentary on his work. It’s easy to understand his reluctance. He seems slightly uncomfortable in his interview which only last a couple minutes. Talking about his work for the full two hours might have been too daunting for him. To boot, he comes across as the kind of guy who would much rather let his work speak for him. Nevertheless, some kind of commentary from someone would have been a nice addition.

There may be too few bonus features for my taste, but what is there is worth the half-hour it will take you to peruse the lot of them. Enjoy them. It’s doubtful we’ll see anything else on this film in the future.