I am old enough to remember when the future looked fun. As a kid I was an eager reader of Jules Verne, whose futuristic novels, written in mid-19th century France, had proven thrillingly prophetic. “From the Earth to the Moon” (lunar exploration in 1865!), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (deep-sea submarines in 1870!), “Around the World in Eighty Days” (globe-trotting by air in 1873!). My interest in Verne had been sparked by the movies made from his books, particularly Michael Anderson’s “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), shot in glorious Cinerama, and Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), which Disney seared into Baby-Boomer brains on its Sunday-night TV show. (To this day I cannot listen to an organ recital without thinking of James Mason’s Captain Nemo.)
Several recent Japanese films view the future through the eyes of the past, including Kazuaki Kirya’s “Casshern,” whose set design was inspired by George Orwell’s “1984” and prewar Soviet propaganda posters, and Mamoru Oshii’s “Innocence,” whose animatronic sex dolls could have stepped out of a Taisho Era (1911-26) print.
The latest is Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Steamboy,” an animation set in the London of 1866, when Verne was at the height of his powers, the Machine Age was well under way, and, to the era’s optimists, mankind’s horizons looked unlimited. (Not many were looking with the same glittery eyes at womankind’s horizons, unfortunately.)
The film, though, is less a Verne tribute than a new twist on the dystopian themes Otomo developed in his seminal “Akira” manga and 1988 animated film, which were instrumental in launching the worldwide boom in Japanese comics and animation. In contrast to “Innocence,” with its otaku-y meditations on the destiny of humanity in a digitalized world, “Steamboy” is more of a mainstream, all-ages entertainment. Rightly so, since it took 10 years and 2.4 billion yen to make. To recoup that budget — the largest ever for a Japanese animated feature — distributor Toho will have to attract more than anime geeks.
Not that they will de displeased. Known for his fanatical attention to detail, Otomo has created steam-driven tanks, planes and all-terrain vehicles that clank, soar and sail with an eye-goggling realism. This, for geeks, is pure manna.
And the rest of us? The combination of nonstop action, imaginative sweep and period authenticity — the sense of watching photos of 19th-century cityscapes spring to animated life — hit me right where the 12-year-old Jules Verne fan still lives. I didn’t watch this film so much as escape into it.
But as “Steamboy” chugged on, I also felt that Otomo and his collaborators had spent more time copying Victorian prints than communing with the era’s dark, conflicted soul. Set in the same period, David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” evoked the combination of horror and awe the steam-driven marvels had for the Victorians themselves. By comparison, “Steamboy” is more generic, less period-specific. Ultimately, it is Otomo’s personal vision of the apocalypse, in Victorian dress — though those who come to it looking only for a 19th-century thrill ride, with piles of old-timey machinery deliquescing in slo-mo beauty, won’t leave disappointed.
The title character is Ray (voice actor: Anne Suzuki) who receives, one day in 1866, a strange metallic ball from his grandfather — an eccentric inventor named Lloyd Steam (Katsuo Nakamura). Soon after two representatives from the mysterious O’Hara Foundation arrive — and try to relieve Ray of the ball. Then Lloyd shows up and orders Ray to deliver it, come what may, to Robert Stephenson (Kiyoshi Kodama) — another inventor who was once a colleague of Ray’s father. Ray hops on a steam bike that he built himself and buzzes off toward London, with the O’Hara minions, in a steam car, in hot pursuit.
After many narrow escapes, Ray finds Stephenson and his geeky assistant, David (Ikki Sawamura), but before he can deliver the ball safely, he is snatched away by a giant pair of claws (steam-driven, natch) and finds himself in the O’Hara Pavilion at the soon-to-open Crystal Palace Exhibition (which was really built for the World Fair in 1851, but no matter). There he meets Scarlett (Manami Konishi), the golden-haired, royally spoiled granddaughter of the foundation’s founder, who barely deigns to notice his existence. He also meets his father, Eddie (Masane Tsukayama), who was horribly disfigured in a steam accident in Alaska and now works for the foundation.
The ball, it turns out, is able to generate incredible amounts of power that Eddie needs to run his Steam Castle, a huge plant in the pavilion where the foundation manufactures advanced steam-driven armaments for its upcoming death struggle with the British military.
Ray, knowing nothing of these plans, only wants to help his father. What is one little steam ball between father and son? Only the fate of the world.
In the third act the story of Ray’s conflicted relationship with his father, as well as his prickly friendship with the imperious Scarlett, take second place to the battle between the high-tech O’Hara forces and their British opponents, whose mid-Victorian weapons suddenly look as sophisticated as bows and arrows. Then help arrives from an unexpected quarter — and huge swaths of cityscape are trashed, in ways that Verne could scarcely imagine, but will be familiar to fans of Godzilla. Otomo may have set his long-awaited masterpiece in London, but his heart is still in Tokyo.