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Where Akira more or less established the cyberpunk techno mysticism, flaming urban dystopia, and apocalyptic post-Blade Runner ambience that continues to dominate sci-fi anime, Steamboy is deliberately anachronistic in its setting. Otomo has credited novelist William Gibson as an influence on Akira; with Steamboy, Otomo executes the same switch pulled by Gibson when he went steampunk with the alt-Victorian 19th century of his 1991 collaboration with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.
Akira's Neo-Tokyo was a thicket of brooding skyscrapers and enormous vid screens, home to a motley collection of youth gangs, terrorists, gadget-happy military thugs, and psychokinetic mutants. Steamboy's world is no less techno-driven; indeed, its sense of industrialized nature may be even more redolent of what Frederic Jameson termed the Hysterical Sublime, except that soot is the new (or rather old) neon. In the opening sequence, the movie feasts on the vista of mid-19th-century Manchester, surrounded by satanic mills and wreathed in the smoke of an encroaching industrial landscape.
Life is near bucolic for little Ray Steam when a sinister gang of spies invades his parlor and attempts to seize control of the mysterious "steam ball" that is sent to Ray by his inventor grandfather Lloyd. A steam-powered tank attacks the house; a mad railway chase, complete with monstrous dirigible strafing the train, takes Ray to London, where he is kidnapped by the minions of the O'Hara Foundation. This sinister operation's most visible representative is a hilariously imperious little girl known, at least in the movie's dubbed English-language version, as Miss Scarlett.
Steamboy's narrative, such as it is, has something to do with the O'Haras, a gang of WMD-building, war-profiteering capitalists conspiring to exploit a rival gang of technologically advanced anti-capitalists (you couldn't really call them socialists), including old man Lloyd. Ray's father, Eddie, is on the other side, but the main thing in this boy-centered universe is that all grown-ups are inherently treacherous. More compelling than the plot, of course, is Otomo's animated mise-en-scène. Steamboy is almost monochromatic in its brown tones. Ubiquitous vapors only accentuate the elaborately detailed background and amusing pastiche of Victorian London.
In any case, the story ceases to matter once events come to a head with maximum pomp and ceremony at the Great Exhibition of All Nations, here transformed by the unscrupulous O'Hara gang into an international arms bazaar. Destruction of the famous Crystal Palace, the 19th-century acme of British modernity, is only part of the collateral damage that's inflicted on London once war breaks out between the local bobbies and the rampaging steam troopers unleashed by the O'Hara mob.
This mayhem, to which the movie devotes most of its second hour, is not without its comic aspectand not just because the actual Great Exhibition was the most documented event of the 19th century. Otomo makes much of British understatement, even as the Thames ices over and central London is destroyed, while giving near equal weight to Miss Scarlett's petulant outbursts. But mainly Steamboy is about technology. The imaginary steam-powered hardware includes one-man bombers, bathyscaphes, and enough elaborately clanking contraptions to keep the world's plumbers in business for the rest of this century.
Steamboy doesn't have the deep melancholia or the visionary élan of last year's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Consistent in its graphic invention from first to last, however, it's a sensationally designed piece of work. (The retro stylistics are comparable to Brazil, David Lynch's Dune, and The Iron Giant.) Steamboy glosses the most resilient scenario in Japanese pop culture. The movie may be set in the world of David Copperfield and Little Nell, but it conjures a spectacle of urban destruction worthy of Godzilla.
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