Director Katsuhiro Otomo has long been hailed as one of the greatest of all animation directors in Japan. The seminal 1988 Akira sealed his reputation as anime's answer to Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa. His output has been somewhat limited since then, with one of the main reasons being the 10-year odyssey that led to his latest masterpiece, Steamboy. The story follows young Ray Steam in England, 1866, whose father and grandfather have developed an infinite source of super-steam energy that makes an infinity of wonders. Naturally, everybody on Earth wants it, most of them to create new ways to blow stuff up.
The tale begins with a moment of horrific carnage, which presages the mayhem to come. Then it switches to the idyllic Manchester countryside. But before long we're blasting off into one of the most nail-biting chase sequences ever put to film, and a climactic hour-long battle that careens through incredibly imaginative war machines, bloody battle and the near-destruction of all of London. (Seems to be a recurring theme for Otomo, who blew up Tokyo - twice! - in Akira.)
The imagery in the entire film is staggeringly creative. But Otomo's work also shines in the slower moments, the moral ambiguity of nearly all the characters and sudden moments of intense and unexpected quiet beauty.
Much like Akira, Steamboy deals with the themes of science run amok, the truly terrifying nature of technology when you examine it too closely and the incredible fragility of the human body when placed next to highly rickety technology. The sort of thing you try not to think about when you're on a plane and it occurs to you that you're basically in a metal sausage being propelled by explosive force.
An excellent vocal cast, including Anna Paquin (sounding flawlessly like a British boy as Ray), Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina, round out the proceedings. The English dub is one of the best I've ever seen in an anime film, flawlessly synched to the point you can't really tell it was written and animated in another language.
Unfortunately, it's been cut down somewhat for American release, running about 20 minutes shorter than the original version, and as a result a few subplots seem to get dropped. Nonetheless, it's an exceptionally entertaining ride, not nearly as grim or depressing as Akira but, I suspect, destined to be equally remembered.