on March 18, 2005 by Wade Major
One of the chief criticisms of Japanese anime over the years has been its thematic provincialism. Born from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, anime -- along with other forms of Japanese genre cinema -- has long obsessed over man's self-destructive relationship with science and technology, spinning countless stories in which humans pay the ultimate price for their hubris. Post-apocalyptic cyborgs, mutant monsters and otherworldly demons are only a few of the symbolic manifestations that anime has increasingly made its stock and trade. Ironically, it's this very emphasis that has earned it one of the most faithful fan followings of any contemporary movie genre, even while almost totally alienating mainstream audiences.

"Steamboy" is a fascinating and surprisingly successful attempt to find a middle road that reconciles these seemingly incompatible demographics. And thanks to a release strategy that involves both the original language Japanese version, subtitled in English, for purists and a very skillfully dubbed and judiciously edited English-language version for everyone else, Sony specialty division Triumph may have given the cause a little added boost.

Set in 1860s-era London, the story details the remarkable adventure of adolescent inventor Ray Steam -- only the latest in a line of brilliant inventors -- as he is plunged into the middle of a power struggle between his father and grandfather. At issue is a new steam power technology that takes a quantum leap ahead of conventional steam engines of the day -- potentially a force for peace or a catalyst for a devastating new arms race.

Anime aficionados will immediately recognize the genre's markers in a plot which basically just transports the usual post-apocalyptic cautionary tale to a pre-apocalyptic setting, 19th-century Europe standing in for a 25th-century dystopia. It's a choice that has both obvious and not-so-obvious ramifications for attracting non-anime fans to the fold. Though no less no less fetishistic about hardware and machinery than any other anime, the decision to hew stylistically closer to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells than "Robotech" gives "Steamboy" a look and a feel that regular American filmgoers are sure to find much more accessible. It's admittedly harder to treat steam power with the same degree of seriousness as, say, atomic energy, but director and co-writer Katsuhiro Otomo, best known for directing 1988's dazzling "Akira" and writing 2001's similarly brilliant "Metropolis," manages the task with impressive dexterity, taking an incremental approach to suspending audience disbelief rather than the usual anime practice of instantly plunging viewers into a strange or alien environment.

A key factor for many will be the excellent voice casting in the dubbed version, which features Anna Paquin as Ray and Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart, respectively, as his father and grandfather. This is the version that most audiences will see, and which, in certain respects, actually feels more appropriate than the original Japanese version (except, of course, to anime fans who have no trouble with the idea of Englishmen speaking fluent Japanese). All three performers are first-rate and treat their roles with utmost seriousness, giving the frequently far-fetched plot an emotional gravity only hinted at in the script.

Even still, there are drawbacks to the middle-road approach, namely the chance that it may be so compromised that it satisfies no one at all. That's not likely to be the case here, as anime purists will probably seek out the longer (by 20 minutes) director's cut. But there are bound to be those who'll feel shortchanged by the lack of a full-length English-language version. The most likely scenario is that the film will produce limited mainstream acceptance of the anime paradigm, with most making up their minds during the film's final hour. Almost exclusively devoted to action set pieces and machines on the verge of blowing up, something which anime fans accept de rigeur, it's a 60-minute sprint that will enthrall some even as others find their patience taxed to the limit.

Regardless of how American audiences receive the film, one cannot fault Otomo's effort. Though it falls short of the crossover standard set by Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning "Spirited Away," the attempt is far too accomplished and inventive to dismiss. At the very least, it's a pioneering effort on which others can build. Hopefully, they'll choose to do so. Voiced by Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart. Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo. Produced by Shinji Komori and Hideyuki Tomioka. A Triumph release. Animated. Rated PG-13 for action violence. Running time: 106 min

Tags: Voiced by Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, Patrick Stewart, Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo, Produced by Shinji Komori, Hideyuki Tomioka, Triumph, Animated

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