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    Same artist, different 'toon

    "Steamboy," from the maker of "Akira," transports the anime concept to industrial-age London, with strange and intriguing results.


    (Reviewed at the Hawaii International Film Festival in November 2004.)

    Otomo Katsuhiro's "Akira" is widely credited with bringing the anime craze to America. Its fans and detractors have equal passion (a Japanese roommate of mine at NYU apologized to me when I said I had seen the film) but there is little question that it figures large in any discussion of this genre, the popularity of which seems to be increasing continually and exponentially. Sixteen years later, Katsuhiro has returned with "Steamboy," a film that makes explicit the degree to which Japanese and American animation styles have influenced each other over the past couple of decades. Given its East-meets-West focus, the Hawaii International Film Festival was a fitting setting for "Steamboy" to make its U.S. premiere.

    Directed by: Katsuhiro ´tomo.
    Produced by: Shinji Komori, Hideyuki Tomioka, Shigeru Watanabe.
    Written by: Sadayuki Murai, Katsuhiro ´tomo.
    Cast: Kiyoshi Kodama, Manami Konishi, David S. Lee, Katsuo Nakamura, Ikki Sawamura, Anne Suzuki, Susumu Terajima, Masatane Tsukayama, Susan Turner-Cray.
    Edited by: Takeshi Seyama.
    Music by: Steve Jablonsky.
    Art direction: Shinji Kimura.

    Related links: Official site | Japanese site
    Hawaii Film Festival 2004
    • Overview

    • Baytong
    • Clean
    • In the Realm of the Unreal
    • South of the Clouds
      • Steamboy
    • Take Out
    • Tarnation

    • Official site
    Set against the backdrop of the World Exposition in 1850s London, "Steamboy" is the story of Ray Steam, the youngest in a family of inventors who seek to transform Steam Power into a nearly limitless source of energy. Not surprisingly, this technology becomes the focus of a military and industrial struggle that divides even the once-unified Steam family, and Ray is caught in the middle. Unsure whom to trust, Ray leads the audience through a cast of characters and a set of struggles that echoes those in other anime but is hung with a decidedly Western patina.

    There are no explicitly supernatural forces at play here, and no real sense of mysticism. The industrial-military complex isn't trying to harness the power of demons, and no one is having visions of London's (standing in for Tokyo's) destruction, though the possibility of that destruction still permeates the film's second half. Still, the elaborate machines, the generational struggles, the wide-eyed reaction shots and the behavior of the "comic" characters all mark this as anime.

    There's more Western influence here than just character names and steam power, though. The pacing of the action, the approach to montage and, most obviously, the musical score all lend to the impression that Katsuhiro has been studying American blockbusters and has set out to make one of his own. It'll be interesting to see how the film plays commercially in the U.S., but judging by the reaction of the sold-out house at the festival, it will at least do well among its core audience.

    Of course, some of the weaknesses common to much anime and American action films are also present here. Character development is a little wacky, with reversals of attitude and poorly explained relationships. Spectacle trumps character and story, even when the film tries to hammer home a somewhat didactic "message." None of this keeps "Steamboy" from being thoroughly entertaining, though. Despite running a little too long and glossing over some important moments in favor of blowing things up, Katsuhiro has produced a significant achievement; "Steamboy," like "Akira," will have its detractors but, also like "Akira," it is unlikely to be ignored.

    NOVEMBER 9, 2004

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