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Steamboy

by Saul Symonds


Saul Symonds lives in Sydney, Australia. He has recently established the online film journal Light Sleeper: Late Night Writings on Cinema.


There is steam present in almost every scene of Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s new anime: it shoots up and out of machines and factories, emanates from trains and smokestacks, and floats in and around the frames. Unlike the parade of steam, cloud, rain and snow appearing throughout Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) which basically serve to give a layered three-dimensional effect to an otherwise bland CG animation, Ôtomo uses steam as an important thematic and expressive element. On a narrative level, steam-driven devices act as catalysts for all of the important events in Steamboy; on a metaphoric level, steam represents power, especially in the form of new technologies. But rather than construe technological developments simplistically as either good or bad, Ôtomo’s interest lies in how humankind will use these technologies.

Japanese directors have seen in animation a cinematic medium which allows them to freely choose historical and cultural settings, and to transcend the limitations imposed by using actors and locations. If the technique of animation has forced them to stylize their representations, it has also given their films an unexpected concision and impact. In Steamboy, 19 th century England serves as a setting in which Ôtomo can explore the relationship between humans, machines, and power. The film begins with Loyd Steam (voiced by Katsuo Nakamura) and his son Eddy (voiced by Masatane Tsukayama) at work on a project in a factory. A dispute arises – Eddy thinks the experiment too dangerous to continue – Loyd disagrees – the pressure of the machines escalates – and steam explodes from pipes covering everything and scalding Eddy. Shortly afterwards, a package containing an enigmatic ‘steam ball’ – a pressure valve of sorts capable of harnessing immense power – arrives for Eddy’s son, Ray (voiced by Anne Suzuki). Though he looses and regains it several times over the course of the film, he is the one who must ultimately make a choice as to how it should be used. His father Eddy wishes to harnesses the steam ball’s power to dominate others; his grandfather Loyd wishes to use its power for pleasurable ends, humorously revealed in the film’s climatic action sequence.

Anime often explores humankind’s use of machines and technology for selfish, oppressive or destructive ends, almost as if Japanese cinema is still registering the shock waves of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever the reason, anime has returned again and again to explore this theme in films such as Akira (1988), Roujin-Z (1991), Black Jack (1996), Jin-Roh: Wolves in Human Armour (1998), and Metropolis (2001). Ôtomo’s own approach to this theme is distinctly idiosyncratic. Steamboy ends with destruction on a massive scale, and although Ôtomo dwells on its violence and chaos, he also communicates its sadness and beauty. The disharmony between humans and their creations is often expressed by Ôtomo through images or characters which fuse the human and the technological. He perhaps found the perfect expression of this fusion in Metropolis’s Tima, a robot girl created to rule the world from a mechanical throne who only desires to understand her own nature. Confronted with the violence that humans are capable of, she is overcome with sadness and ultimately ‘destroys’ herself.

Although Ôtomo presents violence as deeply ingrained in the human psyche, he also seems to suggest that what separates one person from another is a realization of their own violent nature, and an ability to harness that violence for creative, rather than destructive, purposes. Using the power of violence to overcome violence strikes a deeply Japanese chord. Ôtomo does not present violence as something to be dominated or eradicated, but rather as something whose energy can be, and should be, brought into harmony with the totality of our lives. This same harmonizing vision marks all Ôtomo’s explorations of humankind’s relationship with technology: humans, and the technologies they create, are not presented as two distinct and incompatible realms, but as a fractured harmony of creator and creation that his films prompt us to dream of restoring.

 

Steamboy

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