Steaming Beauty


Over a decade and a half ago, Katsuhiro Otomo brought futuristic Neo-Tokyo to life in the cyberpunk anime classic Akira. His latest, Steamboy (opening March 18), skips back a couple centuries to Victorian England. The mad inventions of his alternate history are born of iron gears and superheated steam engines, and the Jules Vernian setting allowed Otomo to stretch his powers of invention well beyond anime gloss. “I set the movie in the 19th century because of the technical aspects,” Otomo told the Voice via e-mail from Japan. “Rather than using digital animation for a ‘shining future’ like Akira‘s, I thought it better to use tangible materials like steel and oil. I was attracted to the look of real steam engines, as well as the drama of their inventors.”

Steamboy‘s story is what sci-fi aficionados would call an Edisonade, reminiscent of dime-novel boy’s tales of plucky young boffins who use ingenious contraptions to outwit evil masterminds. In Otomo’s film, a Mancunian lad is drawn into a corporate scheme to foist new weaponry upon the world, promoted with an attack on London’s Great Exhibition. “The Great Exhibition was where the newest technologies from around the world appeared, so don’t you think it seems perfect for a story of inventors?” Otomo asks. “Also, I was very interested in drawing the Crystal Palace.”

Conceived in 1995, Steamboy took almost a decade to complete, and the kid-friendly film’s militant themes seem resonant with events of the past four years: In the finale, a mobile fortress lays a cloud of steam over London’s Gothic Revival skyline, billowing through street canyons like the debris storms of 9-11. “There’s no direct connection,” Otomo demurs, “but the movie might have reflected something unconsciously. The catharsis of destruction is just one enjoyable factor, and it’s a way to explore new forms of expression in animation. For me, the smoke and explosions were actors, and I could direct their performances as well.” Nevertheless, Otomo thinks “there are parallels to today. Steam engine systems flourished until they were everywhere, and then became naturalized. But they were supplanted by internal-combustion engines. We’ll face the same thing. Computers are everywhere today, and gradually they too will disappear as something else replaces them.”

“I wanted to finish the film sooner,” Otomo says, “but there were so many trials. I was driven to complete it just so I could see it.” He’s already at work on Steamboy 2. “I can’t tell you too much. The next one includes New York as one of the settings, so please look forward to it.”