January 11, 2012

Suchîmubôi (2004)

In the year 2004, Katsuhiro Ôtomo, writer and director of the enormously influential anime, "Akira" (1988), returned to film-making after almost 10 years since his last directorial effort ("Memorîzu" or "Memories"), with another epic story of action and science-fiction named "Suchîmubôi", literally "Steamboy". In this film, Ôtomo dives into the sci-fi sub-genre commonly known as "Steampunk", stories often set in the 19th century where highly advanced steam machines are the fantastic technology of the time creating alternative history and settings. The Steampunk sub-genre shares many similarities with its "literary parent", cyberpunk fiction, so the idea of having the creator of one of the most celebrated works of cyberpunk fiction, "Akira", tackling a steampunk story is particularly interesting. Ôtomo's background and these similarities between the sub-genres force an inevitable comparison to "Akira", but while "Steamboy" won't revolutionize anime the way "Akira" did, it's one of the best feature length animated films of the decade.

Set in Victorian Britain, "Suchîmubôi" is the story of Ray Steam (Anne Suzuki), a young kid from Manchester who spends his free time working at a factory and inventing steam machines following the example of his father Dr. Edward Steam (Masane Tsukayama) and his grandfather Dr. Lloyd Steam (Katsuo Nakamura), both renowned inventors working in America. One day, he receives a box from his grandfather containing a small spheric steam machine, with explicit orders of not giving it to anyone except to famed inventor Robert Stephenson (Kiyoshi Kodama). The young Ray marvels at the device, and wonders about his grandfather's mysterious instructions. However, soon he finds his answers when he receives the visit of agents from O'Hara, the company where his grandfather works, violently demanding the spheric machine. Ray's grandfather appears too, and helps Ray to escape with the sphere, making Ray to realize that the small machine contains a power beyond his imagination. And everyone wants it.

"Suchîmubôi" is by all accounts a classic example of Steampunk fiction as it takes a historical setting and gives it a spin by adding the element of fantastic super science. Written by Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Sadayuki Murai, "Suchîmubôi" uses the sub-genre's setting and elements to tell a story about science, its possibilities and specially its consequences if handled in a bad way. Ôtomo uses the characters of the Steam family to describe what he sees as the two possible uses of science, and makes a sharp (although heavy handed) criticism to our modern capitalist society. In this way, it shares some of "Akira"'s themes, but "Suchîmubôi" has a decidedly more optimist tone, as it's essentially a story about the birth of modern science (in an exaggerated fantasy way of course) where mankind is still on time to learn the enormous responsibility of using science. Overall it's a pretty straight forward story of action and adventure, but the use of this themes through the movie makes the story really captivating.

As expected, the animation of the film is flawless, with a great (and often unnoticeable) combination of both traditional 2-D and 3-D animation that bring the incredible Steampunk machines to life. The movie has an exiting visual design, mix of real classic Victorian designs and Ôtomo's very own sci-fi style, paying honest tribute to the pulp adventures and Victorian literature that form the basis of the Steampunk sub-genre. Despite his limited output since "Akira", director Katsuhiro Ôtomo's visual narrative seems to be in top form, as "Suchîmubôi" has an exciting rhythm, pretty much in tone with the adventure inherent in the story. And this is another of the differences with "Akira": subtexts aside, "Suchîmubôi" is first and foremost, a tale of adventure, and to this effect Ôtomo keeps a fast pace that for his set pieces. And those set pieces truly showcase Ôtomo's great eye for visual flare, particularly in the epic finale, which is one of the best staged scenes in an animated film of the last years.

The voice work is of great quality, as director Katsuhiro Ôtomo has reunited a particularly strong cast for his film. Anne Suzuki makes an outstanding job as Ray, not only because the character is male (and she is female), but because the character is old enough to his voice be "manly". Suzuki makes Ray very convincing, as the young kid discovering the benefits (and dangers) of science. Masane Tsukayama plays Ray's father, giving a certain dignity and power to the character and avoiding most of the clichés this kind of character tend to have. On the same tone is Katsuo Nakamura, who in turn plays Ray's grandfather. Nakamura's eccentric character is effectively portrayed by the experienced actor, and is one of the highlights of the film. Finally, Manami Konishi plays Scarlett O'Hara, the young heir of the O'Hara company, making this spoiled little brat (by the way, a more than obvious reference to "Gone with the wind") annoying yet likable enough to make her a fine counterpart to Ray.

Probably the film's biggest flaw is that it's simply not "Akira", meaning that given that Katsuhiro Ôtomo's 1988 movie was such an important landmark in the history of anime, the expectations generated by "Suchîmubôi" were probably impossible to live up to. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that "Suchîmubôi" is a bad movie, it's simply a different experience than "Akira". In a way, "Suchîmubôi" is a simpler tale than "Akira", but this doesn't mean it's less remarkable. "Suchîmubôi"'s epic scope, apparent optimism and upbeat, colorful atmosphere doesn't mean it's only for kids. It simply reflects the timeframe in which it's set. A time where science is seen as the future, with great optimism and faith. And yet, despite this optimism, deep inside "Suchîmubôi" deals with the same dark subject that "Akira": Man must learn to use the science before it's too late. In this aspect it could be seen as a prequel of sorts (set several centuries before) to the world of "Akira", as the science in "Steamboy" seems to be getting advanced at a very fast pace.

In the end, the only real flaw of the movie is that despite having a runtime of 2 hours, the film feels rushed, and leaves one wanting for more; as if Ôtomo had not been able to condense his story in a tighter way, and often it seems that the plot is too complex for its own good. Anyways, while certainly less impressive than "Akira", there's a lot to enjoy in "Suchîmubôi", which stands as a fine piece of animation by its own merit. Director Katsuhiro Ôtomo spend almost 10 years conceiving and developing "Suchîmubôi", and the effort certainly payed off. With its excellent animation and captivating story, "Steamboy" is an excellent introduction to Katsuhiro Ôtomo's work. It's not going to change anime again, but Ôtomo's movie is still definitely one of the best.


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