TIFF Report: Steamboy
As I came into this final day of the Toronto Film Festival I toyed with the idea of jamming three more screenings in, just to be sure that I'd taken maximum advantage of what the festival had to offer. In the end, though, OldBoy was rejected on the grounds that I already own it on DVD and have seen it several time and I passed on Trauma due to pure fatigue. The one film that I absolutely refused to miss out on, however, was Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy.
I was greatly anticipating both major anime films in this year's festival but where Ghost in the Shell crippled itself by employing too much technique and not nearly enough story or character Steamboy delivered on all fronts, and delivered large. Otomo has been silent since 1988's Akira, leaving anime fans to wait sixteen long years for a new story from the universally acknowledged master. To say that Steamboy is very likely the most anticipated work of animation ever comes nowhere close to exageration. Fans were obviously hoping to have access to the master animator himself - I saw more than a few toting sealed Akira collectibles in hopes of an autograph - but he was sadly not in attendance, leaving the Sony studio exec in charge of the film to do the introduction for him. Though this certainly would have been better had Otomo been on hand to present the film himself what Sony-man gave us was a textbook lesson in how a studio should shepherd a sensitive project like this. Are you listening, Miramax? He talked about how the studio was careful not to overextend themselves in their acquisitions, choosing only a few of the best projects out there so they could be sure to have the manpower available to treat them right. He talked about how the film's theatrical run - due for early 2005 - would feature both the original Japanese director's cut of the film and a dubbed version personally supervised by Otomo on screens across the continent so fans of both options would be able to indulge their preference. And, of course, both options will be available on DVD. After bad experiences with Miramax both Steven Chow and Zhang Yimou have moved to Sony for their next projects and it's easy to see why. These people understand the films and value both the director's and audience's feelings.
But on to the film itself. Steamboy is the story of Ray Steam, a young boy growing up in Victorian England and the third in a line of gifted inventors. Ray's father and grandfather have been away in America working on a secret project for the O'Hara Foundation, and when Ray's family receives a metal sphere in a package from his grandfather he is quickly drawn into a power struggle between American and British forces who both will stop at nothing to acquire the sphere as a power supply for their weaponry.
Steamboy is a marvel on all levels. Akira has a well deserved reputation for being one of the most detailed works on animation ever and Otomo has easily surpassed his earlier work here. The level of detail in his take on Victorian England is simply staggering. There's not a single frame of film that isn't just packed with visual information and yet Otomo has such a firm sense of scale and place that his images never feel busy and never threaten to swamp the main thrust of the story with sensory overload. The design work is flawless, believable both as historical England and as a fantastic alternate history.
Where Oshii's characters in Ghost in the Shell were essentially flat automatons being made to voice Oshii's fairly obscure philosophical points Otomo's cast of characters in Steamboy are fully fleshed out humans, instantly identifiable and familiar with layers of cross generational conflict on both the personal and political levels. Yes, there is an undergirding philosophy here, a point Otomo wants to make, but where Oshii's philosophy absolutely crushed his characters Otomo's rises organically out of them. It's a very important distinction as it is only those films that make their points without ever feeling that they're particularly trying to make a point - Hayao Miyazaki is the absolute master of this - that go on to be branded classics of the genre.
Steamboy works magnificently on a surface level as a straight out adventure tale that will immediately lock in audiences of all ages - several sequences had the audience breaking out in spontaneous applause - while also working on a deeper level as a cautionary tale about the misuse of science and technology and delivering a strongly anti-war message. Otomo clearly had Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind as he wrote this - it is pretty much impossible to spend any significant amount of time with Japanese culture without bumping into the fact that they are a literal post-apocalyptic society - but by setting it in the distant past using a technology old enough now to mostly appear quaint and non-threatening he is able to make his points without raising what must still be a painful topic in his home country or politically alienating western viewers.
Steamboy was my twentieth screening of the festival and heading in to it I was starting to wonder if I had perhaps reached a high enough degree of burn out, if I had been so completely saturated, that even a great film would just bounce off of me. The answer is no. Steamboy is a fantastic film, an animated classic, and I fully expect this to leave just as large a shadow on the world of animation as did Akira. Here's hoping Otomo doesn't wait nearly as long before making his next film.