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From Cyber Punk to 'Steamboy'

Jerry Beck ponders Otomo, anime and the state of art since Akira.

Katsuhiro Otomo reinforces his reputation as one of the leading creative figures in Japanese animation with his latest cinematic epic, Steamboy. All Steamboy images © 2004 Bandai Visual Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

Katsuhiro Otomo reinforces his reputation as one of the leading creative figures in Japanese animation with his latest cinematic epic, Steamboy. All Steamboy images © 2004 Bandai Visual Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

When we last left our hero, he was submerging Toyko in an apocalyptic telekinetic holocaust

The hero I speak of is Katsuhiro Otomo, the acclaimed Japanese animator, writer, filmmaker and comics artist. His destruction of a futuristic Tokyo was the unforgettable climax to his groundbreaking anime classic, Akira (1988).

Otomo is back on theater screens this month with his latest cinematic epic, Steamboy his first full-length feature film since Akira redefined the anime genre 17 years ago. Steamboy reinforces Otomos reputation as one of the leading creative figures in Japanese animation.

The retro science-fiction epic set in Victorian England, follows 19th century boy inventor Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin in the English version) who, who is entrusted with his grandfathers invention, a steamball, capable of great power caused by high-density compressed steam. He is chased, and later kidnapped, by sinister forces connected to the Ohara Foundation at the London Great Exposition.

Ray soon learns that his father, Eddie (voiced by Alfred Molina), is behind a plan to use the power of compressed steam to turn the pavilion into a menacing moving steam castle and prove himself a mechanical genius. Ray finds himself torn between his loyalties to his pacifist grandfather ((Lord Steam voiced by Patrick Stewart) and his power hungry father at the same time using his wits to stop the steam castle, which begins a destructive climactic journey through London town.

Otomos vision has been the anti-Disney option for teens who had outgrown Nickelodeon and Saturday morning cartoons. His storytelling and direction brought theatrical animation into the new century.

Otomos vision has been the anti-Disney option for teens who had outgrown Nickelodeon and Saturday morning cartoons. His storytelling and direction brought theatrical animation into the new century.

Some would argue that Otomo is the most influential Japanese animator since Osamu Tezuka more so than his prolific colleagues Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) or Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue). This is reinforced by the fact that his 1988 cyber-punk epic has become the enduring symbol of the anime genre the alternative to the singing princesses and dancing teapots that Hollywood once considered state-of-the-art.

Otomos vision has been the anti-Disney option for teens who had outgrown Nickelodeon and Saturday morning cartoons and adults who would never consider The Swan Princess a Saturday night choice at the multiplex. His storytelling and direction brought theatrical animation into the new century and it, for many years, had Hollywood scratching its head, and trying to play catch-up.

Akira s strength at the box office (in the U.S., Europe, as well as in Japan) had single handedly put anime on the international map and forced movie critics, film scholars and animators to take the genre seriously. It encouraged U.S. distributors to import further titles for direct home video release and inspired several cable networks (Cartoon Network, the Sci Fi Channel, G4 and MTV, among others) to run anime programming blocks. The Pokémon fad and Disneys distribution deal for Miyazakis films have brought further financial success and prestige to the genre in the subsequent years.

But despite the growing success of Japanese animation in the last two decades, a funny thing happened to Otomo on his way back to the movie screen. Computer animation emerged to become Hollywoods new cup of tea commercially successful high tech, cutting edge feature animation, developed in the states, which even the suits in the boardroom can understand and control.

In the years since Akira s debut, the entire landscape of theatrical animated features had changed. The Disney contemporary blockbusters of the 1990s (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, etc.) caused a tidal shift in Hollywoods business plan for animation. The major players jumped in to the game some finding success (DreamWorks, Paramount/Nickelodeon), others having less luck (Quest for Camelot at Warner Bros., Titan A.E. at Fox). Pixar entered the scene and created a new direction for the medium, and an insatiable desire for cartoon movies on DVD, worldwide, caused a demand for product unprecedented in film history.

Akira, Otomos 1988 cyber-punk epic has become the enduring symbol of the anime genre. Courtesy of Pioneer Entertainment. Produced by Akira Committee Kodansha. © 1987 Akira Committee.

Akira, Otomos 1988 cyber-punk epic has become the enduring symbol of the anime genre. Courtesy of Pioneer Entertainment. Produced by Akira Committee Kodansha. © 1987 Akira Committee.

Pokémon, Digimon and Dragonball Z brought anime to Saturday morning TV and into the home of every parent in America. Videogames and the Internet spread the word even further, legitimizing anime in a way never dreamed.

Ahead of the curve in 1988, Otomo simply bided his time in considering his follow-up project. Since the release of Akira, hes only directed several short anime segments (for the feature length omnibus Memories, 1995), wrote the feature length screenplays for Roujin Z (1991) and Metropolis (2001), participated as a supervisor and consultant for several notable anime projects (including Perfect Blue, 1997, and Spriggan, 1998) even directed a live-action film (World Apartment Horror, 1991) but had not conceived an animation project worthy enough to follow-up Akira. None, that is, until Steamboy began to brew.

Otomos efforts to bring Steamboy to the screen now seem as heroic as efforts the films protagonist, Ray Steam. Ten years in the making, at a total budget of $22 million the most expensive Japanese anime production to date Otomo spent much time conquering technical details to combine traditional drawn animation techniques with computer graphics and digital filmmaking; creating a seamless blend of visuals to serve his vision of epic fantasy.

But instead of futuristic Neo-Tokyo, the setting this time is Industrial Age Victorian England. I thought we could show the technology to its best effect, not in a futuristic world of science fiction, but by going back in time to the past, says Otomo. The director and the principal members of his team spent weeks traveling across Britain, scouting locations and soaking up the atmosphere and seeking traces of this lost era.

To make the fantasy believable, Steamboy would have to reflect a world that really was. His team sought out and found many original steam engines, factories and samples of early technology, as well as visiting museums and old neighborhoods in Manchester, to help recreate the feel of living in 19th century England. Otomos creative brain trust soon found out that creating a science fiction film set in the era of Jules Verne was a greater challenge than building a totally imaginary future world that never existed.

Steamboy began in Otomos mind in 1994 while on production of Cannon Fodder (a segment of the Memories anthology). The idea of a world of mechanical steam machines captured his imagination. But the ideas he had for it in creating realistic animated steam, concocting scenes using long takes without cuts, and combining CG with traditional hand-drawn work were considered revolutionary at the time. Story development continued throughout the 1990s until Bandai Visual selected Steamboy for its Digital Engine Framework project in 1997.

Now Otomo could bring his steampunk vision to life, and quickly allied himself with some of the top talent in Japan, including animation supervisor Tatsuya Tomaru (Memories), art director Shinji Kimura (Catnapped!) and composer Steve Jablonsky (Spirit).

American musician Jablonsky, a protégé of Hans Zimmer, had some Japanese ancestry in his blood, but his affection for animation, and prolific experience in scoring everything from Disneys Blood: The Last Vampire, compiled over 30,000 sounds, using 900 tracks (compared with the 40 or 50 usually used for Japanese films) to build up a great depth of sound.

Shinji Kimura art directed Steamboy in muted colors beige, brown, tan and gray tones dominate using a limited color palette to mirror the limited technology of the time.

The end result, a staggering 2:20 epic, which premieres this month across the United States in a limited run from Triumph Releasing, displays Otomo at the peak of his powers. Initial reaction from critics and fans has been positive and enthusiastic.

Steamboy is an artistic triumph  a thrilling rollercoaster ride filled with compelling characters and startling action set-pieces. But the nagging questions remains: can anime crossover to reach wider audiences?

Steamboy is an artistic triumph a thrilling rollercoaster ride filled with compelling characters and startling action set-pieces. But the nagging questions remains: can anime crossover to reach wider audiences?

Artistically, Steamboy has proven to be a triumph a thrilling rollercoaster ride filled with compelling characters and startling action set-pieces. There is no question the film has connected with its fanbase. But can the genre ever truly crossover to reach wider audiences?

Original (non-TV based) anime has yet to prove itself commercially as a box office attraction in the United States. Even Miyazakis celebrated Spirited Away could not muster much past a $10 million gross in theaters despite superb marketing (by Disney, no less), rave reviews and winning an Academy Award.

Anime is a hot item in animation circles in fact, its never been bigger than it is today. But its still considered a niche market in the U.S. a growing niche to be sure and one that endures despite its relation to (and reliance on) flat, hand-drawn cartooning. While American studios race to abandon this traditional art form, the Japanese are still there, pioneering the medium, pushing the dramatic elements, exploring adult themes and expanding the audience with mature story material. If Americans ever decides to get back to its traditional animation roots, itll be Japanese animators led by Otomo theyll have to beat.

Animation historian, industry exec and cartoon producer Jerry Beck has a well known website, a popular blog and several new books including Animation Art (Harper Design International) and the forthcoming Animated Movie Guide (Chicago Review Press).

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