Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Steamboy Lies at the Roots of the Steampunk Extraordinaire

Over ten years in the making, Katsuhiro Otomo’s radical follow-up to the international anime hit graphic-novel-turned-movie Akira, Steamboy epitomized the steampunk movement and helped bring about the genre’s rapid rise in popularity.  The 2004 film even went so far as to help bring the concept, the legendary Victorian storylines, and the artistic mystique of steampunk out of niche circles and into the mainstream.

The steampunk genre has a rich history that officially begins in the 1980s with an alternative coining by K.W. Jeter of cyberpunk-like tales, and has its roots in the work of H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, anyone?) and Jules Verne tales, whose tales feature similar steam-powered technology that offered myriad possibilities for the fiction writer and inventor alike around the turn of the 20th century.

Though Steamboy was created long after this foundation was in place, the 2004 anime flick is still one of the marvels of visual art that undoubtedly sparked a steampunk popular culture revolution.

It is true that the movie did not resonate nearly as well with American and international audiences as Otomo had hoped, even with Patrick Stewart’s brilliant voice acting, but the look, feel, emotion, and glorious steampunk storyline are absolutely EPIC and have made a huge impact on the genre.

Steamboy was created using over 180,000 drawings for traditional cartooning, and then 440 computer generated (CG) shots to merge the radically opposed filmmaking processes and deliver a sharply poignant visual canvas that is every bit the science fiction art film masterpiece that 2001: A Space Odyssey is, though Steamboy is, admittedly, not nearly as deep in terms of transcendental story.

But the tale does deliver!

Steamboy is the emotional story of a boy, Ray Steam, living in England in the 1860s with his grandfather who is bringing him up to be an inventor to harness the pure-water steam technology his father died crafting in Russia.  The technology the young inventor unlocks is one that every world power will fight vehemently to get a hold of, and Ray finds a vast world of possibilities – from floating cities and intricately machined castles – that are just the tip of the iceberg for steam’s potential.

The storyline is full of suspense and intrigue, and the world building is absolutely genius in its adaptation of 19th century America and England.  The epic scale of the scenes would make creating a live action version difficult to accomplish, even with CG and green screens, and though this film cost more money than almost any other animated picture to date and was not a box office smash, its offspring are everywhere in popular culture.

Who could have seen the once literary geek and uber-niche of steampunk becoming one of the greatest video game hits of all time in 2007’s Bioshock? And the newest sequel Bioshock Infinite, coming out in the fall, takes place in an air city built in the Victorian era that greatly reflects Otomo’s Steamboy.

And let's not forget Angelina Jolie’s own forgettable air fortress and steampunk goggle performance and experience. What was the name of that movie?

Akira may have all but birthed anime, but it is Otomo’s battle-heavy film Steamboy that has all but thrust steampunk into the Hollywood spotlight, leaving a stamp on everything that has come since.

Remember Hugo, The Prestige, Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr.? Compare their look and feel to Steamboy.

There are more films coming too, steampunks!

By R.J. Huneke