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STEAMBOY: Working with Fire & Steel...*

By alicebg, Jun 1 2016 06:24PM

(*China Crisis reference, in case you're wondering)


'Steampunk' is an ill-defined genre at the best of times, but one of its unquestioned nodal points is the extraordinary feature-length anime Steamboy. Visually stunning, thematically complex and erratically plotted, it represents almost all that is best about Japanese animation, as well as demonstrating why such productions can never penetrate the western mainstream.

The unimaginatively-named Ray Steam (brilliantly voiced in the English dub by Anna Paquin) is a third-generation engineer in an alternate 19th-century England. His father and grandfather jointly discovered a new, all-powerful 'super dense' form of steam, which can only be contained in unfortunately-termed 'steam balls'. When one of said balls falls into Ray's hands, it naturally becomes a macguffin of desire for various hostile parties.

Steamboy's only overt pandering to prevailing anime tropes comes in the form of steam-powered mechs, but otherwise the film is hugely imaginative and ravishing to look at. The rendition of England at the peak of the Industrial Revolution is exquisite, though there are a few bloopers (the Midland Railway's engines morph from authentic red to wholly inaccurate green for no reason; the Crystal Palace is mysteriously relocated to the banks of the Thames). Against this visual splendour the characters struggle to make an impact (especially Patrick Stewart's crazed Grandfather, who spends most of the movie more-or-less naked), and the narrative line meanders all over the place.

Thematically, though, Steamboy is unexpectedly current. Its musings on the uses and misuses of technology, and the urge of both commercial and national interests to weaponise absolutely everything, are apposite and surprisingly fierce. Mostly, however, the film is a wild sci-fi riff on the Age of Steam, akin to Jules Verne writing Transformers, and about as daft. But you won't soon forget it.

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