Steamboy (Suchimoboi)

dir: Katsuhiro Otomo
[img_assist|nid=963|title=No, I don't have any idea what's going on, either|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=380|height=222]
This is a highly anticipated animated film for many people, and not just for dope smokers either. See, it’s been so long since Akira first came out that the stoners that predominantly constitute its fanbase have worn out their VHS copies and are in desperate need of something else to tickle the fancy of their THC-addled cells.

Taking over a decade to create another full length feature which is thus far the most expensive in anime history, you’d be entitled to think that Otomo would have had the requisite time and money to craft a story entirely to his liking, something else with the potential to infect pop culture consciousness and monopolise the television at parties like Akira did.

To the credit of the people involved, they’ve started with an insane bunch of ideas and produced an impressively incredible-looking animated feature. Unfortunately, the whole production is deeply flawed by having an absolutely terrible story.

The story, the actual point of having all these elements come together is deeply retarded. Even by the standards of your average anime / manga type material. I can’t begin to express just how totally disappointed I was by this fiasco, and how bored I was after about the midpoint. Actually, I can. I was really fucking disappointed and bored by this waste of my time.

It is visually stunning in a lot of places, I can’t deny that. The integration of hand-drawn art with computer generated imagery was superlative, absolutely amazing. And for the first 20 minutes of the film it kept me genuinely entranced. Then apathy kicked in, then boredom, then an angry kind of boredom that I haven’t yet been able to place or explain. Maybe it’s the restless kind that makes you anxious because you know you’re going to be trapped in a cinema for another hour and forty minutes.

Steamboy is set in an alternate reality version of the 1860s. Manchester is, as it was in our timeline, one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution, where various industries including the textiles industry are reaching prominence with the advent of powerful, steam powered machines.

Set as it is in Britain, they replicate the look of what they think Manchester must have looked like, and populate the drama with obviously Anglo-Saxon characters. The fact that they all have Anglo names, wear Anglo clothing yet are babbling in high-speed Japanese with English subtitles at the bottom of the screen helps perpetuate some of the extreme cognitive dissonance that the average audience member could be forgiven for experiencing.

But then again it’s all about the machines and the action, surely. These machines bear some adequate resemblance to the machines of our past. Except they’ve been re-imagined by a resurrected Jules Verne plied with a large quantity of mescal and LSD. The ‘steam’ in the title should be a dead giveaway that this is clearly a Japanese example of that up-to-the-minute sci-fi subgenre known as steampunk. I’m not kidding. Katsuhiro Otomo is obviously slowly working his way through the books of William Gibson and has only just caught up to The Difference Engine.

Perhaps, perhaps not. All the same he’s taken several of the more obvious elements of the genre and situated them in an alternate history context to deliver a boring sermon about what the role of science should be in an enlightened society.

This argument has been the mainstay of Japanese sci-fi / manga / anime ever since that fateful day when the payload of the Enola Gay was dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m all up with and sympathetic to the whole ‘Never Forget, Never Again’ concept, but it makes pretty much every other story from Japan awfully fucking predictable. Yes, high technology in the hands of people without noble intentions is really, really dangerous. Stuff shouldn’t be developed or invented unless it is benign and only benefits everyone equally. Science for profit is wrong. Science for war is wrong. Science for puppies and creating My Little Pony accessories is good.

None of this is really introduced as some kind of actual conflict of ideas. The only reason it’s introduced is so there can be an excuse for some kind of bizarre war with England and for the creation of the evil Steam Tower, which threatens to destroy, um, everything somehow with the evil power of steam. See, this is steam harnessed for evil, not steam harnessed for good.

Enter Ray Steam. He’s a little boy with a knack for repairing, oddly enough, steam related inventions. He’s got a talent for it. He comes from three generations of steam inventors. Hence the name I guess. Under mysterious circumstances he receives a steam ball in the mail, which is pursued both by his mysterious and seemingly insane Grandfather Steam and bowler hat wearing agents of the O’ Hara Foundation. All sorts of insanity ensues as he attempts to evade their steam-powered clutches in a steam-powered contraption of his own.

See, this steam ball is the magical maguffin that everyone wants, which has a seemingly limitless amount of steam in it. The O’ Hara Foundation wants it for, um, Some Reason. Grandpa Steam doesn’t want them to have it, and wants some other guy loyal to the Queen called Robert Stevenson to have it for, um, Some Reason. Ray is kidnapped and introduced to a little girl who rules the O’Hara Foundation in some way, For Some Reason.

Actually I know why he’s introduced to Scarlett: it’s so we can have a female character with a high-pitched whine of a voice running around oblivious to what’s going on around her screaming the name ‘Simon!’ at three minute intervals. Why is she yelling for Simon? I assure you the answer is far more boring that you can ever imagine.

You’d think that Ray, being the title Steamboy character, would have lots to do or at least have mastered the magical power of steam to do cool things with. He doesn’t. He mostly just stares wide-eyed as his creepy looking father Eddy and his inexplicably half-naked grandfather have an increasingly nonsensical and exponentially boring argument about whether steam should be used to produce super flying fortresses or carousels and merry-go-rounds. I’m not joking.

One of the greatest problems I find with most Japanese anime, and one of the main reasons why I prefer the Studio Ghibli material from people like Miyazaki, is how intensely predictable the stuff is. Every character ‘is’ what they’re drawn to be, function follows form. Characters have desires to create absurdly gargantuan super-machines and Death Star like buildings that never work. I mean, the Occupational Health and Safety implications of these structures alone would keep them in litigation for centuries. Everything that can does blow up eventually, whether for any discernable reason or not. Female characters are usually fucking annoying, whether they’re there for the tentacles or not.

Other than that, watching people wrestling with levers, cogs and valves and running to spin wheels just in time is no more interesting that watching people press buttons or give orders to a computer in a story set in any other era. The muddle that is the middle and onwards of this film defies categorisation. The ending unfolds in a predictable manner yet for no reasons that I can fathom. It’s impossible to care about anything that happens, whether it’s the threatened destruction of London or the potential deaths of characters that despite the 134 minute running time we know nothing about and can’t remember whether we’re supposed to be cheering for them or not. What were they thinking? Honestly? Why make a film as incredibly inventive as this, produce it in such a fantastic manner and tie it to a story as dull, dull, fucking dull as this?

Steamboy does nothing that really mattered that much as far as I could tell. He does get to fly around a bit, but other than that all he lends the project of importance is his name. When the movie finishes, as a backdrop for the end credits there are these conceptual drawings of what I guess are the Further Adventures of Steamboy. Despite the fact that these are stills, they look far more interesting than most of the stuff that occurred during the actual movie. I want to see THAT movie! With an alternate-History WWII that Steamboy somehow plays a major part in, because, you know, steam’s really important and stuff to the continued functioning of this world.

I just can’t see what the point of this was. Technically it’s a marvel, but story-wise it’s a boring dud of a film which will have no way near the impact on anime that Akira did. Which is probably a good thing, since I never really liked Akira that much anyway.

4 nihonjin schoolgirls with a side dish of tentacle out of 10. Initially I was going to give it a 5 just for the technical brilliance, but then I remembered how profoundly bored I was by it whilst it was playing. So, no.

‘Simon!’ – Scarlett, Steamboy.