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'Steamboy': Anime Powered By Hot Air

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page C01

Somehow, the new, incredibly elaborate piece of Japanese anime "Steamboy," by Katsuhiro Otomo, isn't Japanese enough.

It's a globalized version of the longer, denser domestic-Japanese version and one has to wonder, was this scrub job really necessary? We already have a Disney and a DreamWorks animation department, as well as a Twentieth Century Fox unit. We don't need more of them, boutique divisions of huge industrial congloms owned by mega-corporations that squirt out blandly streamlined works meant to appeal to the restaurateurs of Angola as well as the pawnbrokers of Bangkok and the DVD collectors of Lapland.

Young inventor Ray Steam tries to save London in a too-mechanical version of the Japanese anime film. (Bandai Visual Company)

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By contrast, the Japanese animated product has been, at least until now, uncompromisingly Japanese: haunting, high-tech, full of ideas that Occidentals can hardly express, much less comprehend -- vivid, tough as nails. Pictorially it has combined the mystical with the streamlined and the delicate with the violent. Sometimes it even seemed to make a little sense! Such films as Otomo's own "Akira"; "Ghost in the Shell" and its sequel; and the epic "Samurai X" have singularity and precision. To see them is to accept them into the cranial vault forever.

By these lights, "Steamboy" is a disappointment, albeit a spectacular one. This version of it -- for anime connoisseurs, the Japanese version will be shown at the E Street Cinema at the last screening daily -- has been internationalized into something that's both gigantic and bland. It lacks what might be called a soul: There's no sense of the intensity of Japanese culture behind it. The imagery is all hard-edged and unambiguous. The characters are cliches, the violence generic and endless, and somehow the whole thing adds up too easily. It doesn't have that exquisite Japanese insistence on not revealing itself too clearly.

The movie is set -- I am not making this up -- in London at the time of the Great Exhibition, which might be viewed as the consecration party of the Industrial Age. It marked the formal ascension of the machine over the heart, and it ultimately spelled the end of everything decent and noble that Western Civilization had ever produced (okay, we got the toaster out of it), as well as leading, inexorably, to the weapons of mass destruction the Japanese became intimately familiar with in 1945.

"Steamboy" clearly means to be a critique of Western culture: It uses issues such as industrialism, domination, mass destruction, ambition and despotism as a background to what feels like a boys' book adventure. Yet somehow it lacks conviction: These concepts are viewed from the outside in, and they never come alive to give the movie that special sense of confidence. Let the Japanese contemplate the mysteries of Bushido, the game of Go, the art of the tea ceremony, the porcelain neck of a geisha. I will follow those investigations anywhere. Here, the filmmaker is tone-deaf: He can't recognize the difference between a true vision of Western hubris and something that feels arbitrary, cliched, entirely predictable.

Generically, the movie turns out to be one of those science-fiction pieces that is drawn from a peculiar moment in science, so the fiction has a historical sense to it. "Robots," of two weeks ago, did a similar trick, essentially basing its Rube Goldberg version of reality on the engineering of 1938 or so. In "Steamboy," the key year is 1851, and the defining miracle of the age is the steam engine, abetted by the secret device that makes heavy machinery possible, the rivet.

The movie is therefore machine crazed. It is full of gigantic, steam-driven engines of destruction -- the dreadnought is a key image, although historically dreadnoughts did not come to rule the oceans until the early 1900s -- each with an assortment of grinding gears and hissing pistons. If it moves by land, add clanking tires, with valves, levers, servo-mechanisms, tubes and grease holes; if by sea, towering superstructures, belching stacks and whirling propellers. In fact, under the bland story, the true drama of the thing is whether or not director Otomo can trump himself as he keeps unveiling bigger and more unlikely devices to fill the screen.

The conceit of "Steamboy" is that in this smoky, belching, loud universe aborning, some kind of mysterious weapons-manufacturing conglomerate called the O'Hara Foundation means to control steam, and therefore the world. The stage for the takeover is the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, that glass castle on the greensward at Hyde Park where the world's industrialized nations gathered to show off their new goodies in the name of progress and nationalism. (Col. Colt had a wondrous exhibition of his ultramodern "revolving" handguns.)

As Otomo tells it, a family actually called "Steam" -- three generations of 'em in fact, a Grandpa Steam, his visionary but corrupted son and his heroic grandson, Ray -- all share genius-level engineering brains. The grandfather has uncovered some form of concentrated steam -- the physics are baffling -- and contained it in what he calls a "steam ball," a font of endless power in the form of an object that looks like a bowling ball with a garden hose nozzle attached. Plotwise, "Steamboy" is pretty simple: bowling ball, bowling ball, who's got that darned bowling ball?

The bowling ball changes hands several times after its initial delivery to Ray Steam's house. Secret agents from the O'Hara Foundation -- their leader turns out to be Ray's dark father, possibly a Darth Vader allusion -- seek it with a variety of road graders, bulldozers and threshing machines, and a wild card in the chase is the grandfather, a whiskery old goat who carries on like some kind of Old Testament prophet and keeps showing up at the most opportune moments. Then there are some boys from the British secret service or some such, originally seen as heroic but ultimately revealed as mere competitors in the game of power. Finally, and most unfortunately, a pushy little girl named -- again, I am not making this up -- Scarlett O'Hara is yet another wild card in the confusion, and she's by no means an attractive or calming influence. In fact, she's extremely annoying.

Those are the players; the game is played in increasingly gigantic action set pieces against the coming opening of the Great Exhibition, climaxing in nothing less than a pitched battle in downtown London between the O'Hara forces (steam-powered, robotic combat suits, flying machines, Gatling guns, mini-subs) and the British armed forces (rifles, steam-driven motor torpedo boats, dreadnoughts) that leaves everything in ruins and, presumably, millions dead. A strange building called "the Steam Castle," revealed to be a craft as big as the mothership in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," ultimately has a close encounter of the first kind with the most civilized city in the world. Bye-bye, Bloomsbury. So long to Piccadilly Circus. London Bridge, you are falling down.

Yet all this destruction is queerly unrooted in emotion. The movie never transcended its elaborate production work to achieve an independent reality. It's simply pictures of what never happened.

Steamboy (105 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for intense but not gory violence.

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