Katsuhiro Ôtomo has been called the god of Anime, and it seems fitting, even if in his long career he’s only directed two full-length animated films.
Akira seems almost the font that all later serious anime came out of, a film whose look, plot, characters, pacing and just about everything else has been borrowed, reworked and re-used by countless other films. Even a work of total nonsense like Project A-Ko was not afraid to throw in a few Akira references.
However, Otomo played an even larger role withing the world of anime than this suggests. His story ideas, scripts and character designs grace many a film, and he has served as producer for many more. He created a series of anthology films that showcased the work of other, younger directors. He almost directed Roujin Z and served as “supervisor” for Spriggan, and even had his name attached to Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue to help its foreign sales, but his personal influence on the generations of Anime artists who followed him go even deeper.
Which makes it strange that his second full length animated film came out to decidedly mixed reviews.
Steamboy is perhaps the most extravagant and beautiful Steampunk film ever made. Otomo created a densely detailed Victorian world where history took a decidedly different turn and a new, even more powerful machine — the Steam Ball — could change the world.
The design work here is incredible, from steam powered suits of armor, flying machines, tanks and zeppelins to a re-imagined version of the Crystal Palace and a steam-powered fortress.
But there’s more to the film than that: Otomo gives us a complex story of mystery and intrigue; a young hero thrust into the middle of a struggle he doesn’t understand; and a series of remarkable action sequences featuring trains, ships, a steam powered one-wheeled bike and anything else he could conceive up and put on the screen. The pacing of the film is near perfect, his editing is flawless, his characters interesting and nuanced (I particularly like the aggravating Miss Scarlett), and the film has a driving force that makes it seem far shorter than it actually is. It is, by any standard, a truly great anime film.
So why wasn’t Steamboy received well by the critics? I honestly don’t know: it may have been because they expected something far more like Akira. However, I suspect that it may have been because, when it first ran in this country, the English dub was actually a shortened version of the film. Admittedly, at slightly over two hours it is long for an animated film, but it carries its weight easily, and one can see how hard it would be to cut much from the film without hurting it. I’ve never seen that version — in fact, the U.S. DVD release features the uncut Japanese version with a full-length dub track.
But perhaps by that time they’d figured out that they’d made a big mistake.
Fortunately, unlike most anime films, it isn’t hard to find this one. In fact most movie rental places carried it and it seems to have sold well, too. And no wonder, whatever the reviewers might have said, this is an incredible, one of a kind film, the sort of film that only a true master of animated film could possibly make.
It isn’t Akira.
But then, you hardly expect one of the great directors of anime — the man who almost singlehandedly reinvented the medium back in the Eighties, the creator, writer, producer, director, supervisor, designer and inspirer of untold numbers of great anime, the god of anime, himself — to merely repeat himself.
After all, none of his short films was a retread of Akira. Nor was the film he nearly directed, Roujin Z. And, let’s face it, the truth is that you could hardly call a film just like his first one a “new” film.
Instead he chose to make something bold and different, something unique and unlike any film ever made before.
Which is exactly what we should expect from Otomo.
And, with him hard at work on a new film, Orbital Era, it is still what we should expect of Otomo: something bold and original that doesn’t just keep doing the same tired things over and over again.