Review for Steamboy
We are in for a treat! The UK is the first English speaking territory to get Steamboy on Blu-ray, Katsuhiro (Akira) Otomo’s steampunk family friendly epic action adventure that took ten years to bring to screen. It’s a double treat as well, as we’re getting the director’s cut on Blu-ray. Previously the film had a standard DVD release from Sony with the 100 minute dub only theatrical version which wasn’t received well; the version that most anime fans probably saw. I can understand why, as I managed to snag one of Sony’s Collector’s Edition Director’s Cut releases on DVD, an expensive and exclusive box full of gorgeous stuff, and also the film in dub and sub format running to over 2 hours. And for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how cutting out twenty minutes would leave a coherent film. Thankfully Blu-ray fans won’t have to worry about that, as Manga are debuting the film in high definition in its complete form, and you get all of the Collector’s Edition on disc extra features as well.
Steamboy chronicles the lives of three generations of the Steam family, set at the height of the Industrial revolution in 1866. Ray Steam is a young inventor who lives in Manchester with his mother. His father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd have long been absent, absorbed in their research working for the American O’Hara Foundation. That’s until the day that a parcel arrives from his grandfather, containing a mysterious black sphere. Hot on its heels are two agents from O’Hara, intent on recovering the sphere. But Ray has read the letter enclosed from his grandfather, and realises that he is not to let the sphere fall into dangerous hands. His escape from the house is the start of an adventure that will take him to the Great Exhibition in London. The sphere is a revolutionary new form of steam power that delivers infinitely more energy than traditional means, and there are those that will stop at nothing to possess it.
Steamboy gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, and the image is clear and sharp for the most part, which is impressive in a film with a lot of smoke, steam, and particulate matter in. I certainly didn’t notice any problems with compression or indeed digital banding, but I did notice some flecks and scratches on the print, which make me suspect that this transfer is accomplished using the same HD master as that DVD. Once again, the image, while filmic, is somewhat subdued, detail levels lacking. It’s at this point I cut and paste my previous perception of the film as that is still valid.
If you look at the clips in the bonus materials, as well as the trailer, you’ll see a bright, colourful image that evinces it CG origins. However the film proper is completely different. While the image is clear and sharp, it certainly isn’t bright and colourful. Either something happened to the transfer, or the image was altered in post-production. If it was the former, then it is one of those fortuitous accidents.
From what I have seen of the film in the supplementary materials, detailed as it is, the CG stands out, and the characters and backgrounds don’t mesh well. The film on the feature disc has distinct grain, is dimmer and even a little dull. It’s very much a filmic look, complete with a couple of spots of minor print damage that gives it a greater realism. The palette is muted, reflecting the grime and dirt of a polluted Industrial Victorian cityscape, and there are scenes where the film almost becomes sepia toned. The characters, machinery and settings all blend in well, there is nothing that jars or stands out of the frame and the film looks very good indeed. Unfortunately, a price has to be paid, and in this case it is detail, especially in the darker scenes. The deep bowels of the Steam Castle are almost lost into shadow, and on occasion it can be hard to make out what is occurring. But given that the alternative was some very obvious looking CG elements, and unnaturally sharp edges, I think this is the preferable way to watch the film.
Steamboy looks superb. The character designs are top notch, the detail in the world design is extravagant and the machinery of this Steam Age is lavishly designed and brought to life. The animation is fluid and dynamic, and the film is packed with jaw dropping action set pieces. It’s a wonder to behold.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and Japanese, with optional translated English subtitles. It’s a great soundtrack, really immersive and bringing out the action well, while the film’s music is suitably triumphant and heroic. I was getting overtones of James Horner’s score of the Rocketeer, which given one of Ray Steam’s inventions in perhaps apropos. Steamboy is the oddity when it comes to dubs and subs for me. This is one film where I think the English dub is a lot better. After all, a movie set in England, with Patrick Stewart, Al Molina, and Anna Paquin in the cast is going to sound a lot more natural than the Japanese, and even given a few dodgy ‘Mancunian’ accents, this is a strong, well-written dub with excellent performances. The Japanese just doesn’t match up, even given some of the talent on board. But for this viewing I watched it in Japanese to keep an eye on the subtitles, and once again you get Manga’s tendency for subtitles to jump to the top of the screen apparently at random. The subtitles are timed accurately and free of typos, and look to use the same script as the DVD release, and once again, only primary foreground dialogue is translated.
You just get the discs of the combo release here; no physical extras, but you do get most of the Collector’s Edition DVD disc extras on the Blu-ray, scaled up to 1080i 60Hz. The disc boots to a steamy animated menu.
The Voyage Of Steamboy lasts 34:18. This is in Japanese, and is a making of the film, with interviews with the cast and crew.
Re-Voicing Steamboy lasts 18:38 and takes us through the ADR process with Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Al Molina.
There is a 5:13 interview with director Katsuhiro Otomo, voiced-over in English.
The Multi-Screen Landscape Study lasts 19:06, as the Japanese artists talk about the concepts ideas and inspirations used in the film.
There is a textless credit sequence for the final three minutes of the film (from the Theatrical Cut of the film), where the adventures of Steamboy continue
On this disc, you’ll also find Production Drawings, which is a 5:42 slideshow of background art used in the film.
Animation Onion Skins peels back the layers that go into creating a finished animation from the initial sketches and storyboards. This lasts 4:27.
If you come to Steamboy expecting Akira redux, you’re in for a disappointment. Steamboy has little in common with its illustrious predecessor, aside from a couple of core themes. Steamboy is a rip snorting action adventure, very much in the mould of Indiana Jones or The Mummy, and there is little room in the run time for extended explorations of philosophy or the implications of technology. Instead, there are plenty of action set pieces and death defying (animated) stunts, designed to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat, rooting for the hero and relatively oblivious of the shortcomings of whatever plot there may be.
That isn’t to say that the film is totally devoid of thought. We are talking about Katsuhiro Otomo here, and the message, simple though it is, quickly becomes apparent. Also this being anime and not Disney, there is no simple good guy bad guy dynamic to untangle. The three main protagonists, the family Steam drive the moralistic heart of the film, and its exploration of how humanity and science should interact. Grandfather Lloyd believes that science is there to make people happy, that it should be controlled and monitored, and kept out of the wrong hands. Eddie on the other hand, sees science as the key to freeing humanity, that it should be embraced by people, unleashed in its entirety to mankind’s betterment and for all to use. Ray is torn between the two, and it’s his decisions that will determine which side of the argument prevails. The bad guys are basically everyone else, the profiteering arms merchants that are the O’Hara Foundation, and the power hungry governments of the world who want to exploit the family’s talents to fuel their war machines. It’s a simple message that is difficult to miss. There is even a philosophical exchange between father and son, but as it takes place during an action sequence, it’s easy to turn one’s attention to the pretty explosions instead.
In fact for an anime, Steamboy plays very much like a Hollywood blockbuster, down to the emphasis on action, the regularity of the set pieces, the pacing of the film and the very western music soundtrack. Of the anime that I have seen, this will probably be the one that appeals strongest of all to Western audiences, it’s made very much with that sensibility in mind, and aside from the character designs, there is very little that you would associate with your average anime in this film.
The story is thin, with Lloyd and Eddy creating the secret of ultimate steam power, the proverbial weapon of mass destruction, and Ray having to stop it falling into the wrong hands. This is just the excuse the film needs for some stunning action set pieces, some ingenious mechanical designs, and a dénouement worthy of a James Bond movie. It’s the sort of action adventure worthy of many a Saturday morning serial, and it is very easy to enjoy this film.
The characters are well written too, with the dynamic of the family Steam (not the most original name) driving the heart of the story. I also loved the spoilt brat Scarlett O’Hara (Yes, well…) who actually remains resolutely obnoxious throughout, where you would normally expect a major epiphany to turn her into a sweetie.
I’ve probably already mentioned this, but the animation is sublime. This vision of Victorian England is radiantly brought to life, and the grimy and polluted feel to the cities seems very authentic. The detail is astounding, although I must admit that it’s fun pointing out the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. Characters, events and architecture have been reshaped to fit the story, rather than vice versa, but it all adds to the film’s charm.
Steamboy is no Akira. It’s also hardly an instant classic. However, it is unreservedly fun. It’s the sort of action adventure that thrills and entertains. It has excitement, action, and a rousing soundtrack, and reminds you of why you started watching movies in the first place. I’ve watched it several times over the years and it grows better with repeat viewing. It’s delicious eye-candy of the best sort, as there is a little nutritional value to it as well. If you like the odd Hollywood blockbuster, then this is the anime for you.
It should be an easy recommendation. Steamboy is a fun action adventure, and on Blu-ray it looks and sounds great. And given it’s being released in its superior, director’s cut form you have no excuse not to give it a try. But the question is, should you double dip? If all you’ve seen is the Theatrical Cut, then by all means, you must get the Blu-ray, but if like me you have the Collector’s Edition brick stopping your shelves from floating off into space, it’s a different question. After all, the on-disc extras are the same, the very nature of the film, its image quality (and the stellar transfer on that DVD) means that you’re not going to see as dramatic an improvement in AV as you might have done in other films like Akira and Ninja Scroll. But, the Blu-ray is scratchproof, and there’s no PAL speed-up.