Steamboy: Director’s Cut
December 2, 2005
Steamboy (2004) is the latest entry into the Steampunk subgenre, speculative fiction that presents an alternate historical setting of the Victorian era in which modern technological advances were invented earlier in history through the assistance of steam-era technology. Early fiction like Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel, The Difference Engine and Alan Moore’s popular comic book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book are perhaps some of the best known examples of this subgenre. Gibson’s Cyberpunk fiction had a profound influence on one of director Katsuhiro Otomo’s previous anime movies, Akira (1988), one of the greatest animated films ever made. Steamboy sees him influenced by Gibson’s fiction again as he wrestles with some of the same themes, such as man vs. technology that he explored in Akira while maintaining the same level of quality animation.
1866, Manchester, England. Ray Steam is a young boy who has a tough, thankless job in a boiler room. Even when he prevents the boiler from exploding, his boss still gripes about replacing the broken parts. Ray fancies himself an inventor. He has a book filled with sketches and schematics for all kinds of technological marvels – he just needs the parts. It turns out he’s the proverbial chip off the old block as his father and grandfather before him have reputations as famous inventors.
One day, a mysterious piece of technology arrives in the mail from his grandfather. It turns out to be something called the Steam Ball that shoots out destructive jets of steam. Almost simultaneously, two men dressed in black from his father’s workplace, the O’Hara Foundation, show up to claim the package but Ray has been warned in an accompanying letter not to trust them. This sparks an exciting chase through the countryside as he is pursued by a mini-locomotive on wheels that later becomes amphibious! The rest of the film plays out a struggle between the differing worldviews of Ray’s grandfather and father with the young boy stuck in the middle.
The entire film is given a slightly sepia-toned look like an old photograph befitting the time period that it is set in. This look also gives the film a warmth, a nice contrast to all the technology that populates it. The quality of animation is on par with the best that Disney or even Hayao Miyazaki has to offer. The animation is very smooth and fluid while the attention to detail in every scene is excellent. Clearly Otomo and his crew did their homework as they vividly recreate Victorian England. It’s not realistic per se but adheres to its own rules. Steamboy is a visual marvel with one impressive set piece after another. Yet, Otomo contrasts the sepia tone look with the vibrant colours of the characters. For example, Ray meets a girl with a bright red dress and this makes her stand out from the detailed landscapes and settings.
Otomo’s film explores the differing views of science. Ray’s grandfather believes that only the fruits of advances in science should be available to the educated and the privileged while his father believes it should be shared with everyone as he says at one point, “Science exists as a power to be used in reality.” He believes it should be used to improve all of humanity, not just a small portion of it.
Watching this movie only reinforces how bad The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie is compared to its original source material and the Steampunk genre in general. Steamboy is the real deal—a wonderfully nostalgic look at a bygone era mixed with a parable about the destructive nature of technology if put in the wrong hands and how it affects the relationship between a son and his father.
“Re-Voicing Steamboy” takes a look at the Hollywood types who voiced the characters for the North American release. Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart talk briefly about the film and their appreciation for Otomo with Stewart speaking the most eloquently about the time period that Steamboy is set in.
“Interview with Katsuhiro Otomo.” he started working on the project ten years ago with actual production on the film itself starting seven years ago. Otomo found that doing a period film was a bigger challenge and more time-consuming than a futuristic one like Akira.
“Multi-Screen Landscape Study” is an interesting featurette on the set design and look of the film but conveyed via three split-screens that show clips from the movie, vintage newsreel footage of London and footage of the film’s creators talking about their movie. To recreate Victorian era London, Otomo and his team went to the city to take pictures and get a feel for the place first hand.
“The Adventure Continues” allows you to watch the artwork on display during the end credits sequence without the text obscuring it.
“Animation Onion Skins” allows you to watch several sequences in various stages of development, from rough pencil sketches to computer modeling to the final product. This gives some insight into how much work went into this movie.
Finally, there are “Production Drawings,” a montage of artwork for the film’s setting that allows you to marvel once again at the attention to detail.