This post will be looking at how Steamboy (2004), written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo, can be said to be a signifier of the genre ‘steampunk’. Steampunk is a niche (though growing) sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that can almost be summed up as: modern Victorian literature with anachronistic technology. I’ll be referring to Susan Napier’s Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2006) to unpick the cinematic devices that define the ‘feel’ of this steampunk film, and why anime in particular suits the story.
Steamboy has been harshly discredited by critics like Roger Ebert, but I would like to point out the depth of themes within this film that have been dismissed based upon its plot devices. I myself would not say Steamboy is the best film since sliced bread but when we look beneath the surface elements there is a lot to appreciate – at least as a signifier of its genre. This post contains SPOILERS for Steamboy and the endng of the graphic novel Watchmen.
NOTE: Given requests when this was posted on Squidoo, you have full permission to quote my essay in any academic paper, presentation or casual blog that you are writing. Please just reference back to this page and its sources correctly (my name is Willow Wood). I’ve included a bibliography at the very bottom.
Before you read this post…
What do people expect from steampunk?
chug, chug, hiss, chug, chug, chug, hiss, chug, chug…
As the name suggests: steam. Steampunk revolves around the Victorian industrial era and ideas like “what if 19th century inventions were ahead of their time”? Frequent quirks of the genre are; murky cities, Victorian politics, various British dialects and phrases no longer used, creative inventions powered by steam and references to real history and/or historical figures. It is a mix of past and present sensibilities to create something that often critiques modern society.
There is nostalgia but the anachronistic technology and warped setting either alleviates viewer alienation or causes it, for steampunk is certainly a genre appreciated more by its followers. For newcomers, it may be hard to discern why science fiction, fantasy and history have been melded into one but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating pastiche that many find hard to ignore. The film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003), for example, captivated newcomers and horrified critics who are fans of the original comic, like the disgusted Jamie Russell of the BBC Film Reviews, who said, ‘Indeed, it’s so bad, it makes the press feeding frenzy surrounding its troubled shoot [...] sound less like schadenfreude-fuelled gossip than all-too-believable reality.’
Regardless of whatever critiques might say about the story, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is a perfectly good example of the stylistic components that make a steampunk film. San Francisco Chronicle’s critic Mick LaSalle said, ‘It depicts the world of a century ago in a way that comments on the anxieties facing the world today, and it does so, at least for a while, with cleverness and a sense of fun.’
Imagery in Steamboy
subconcious influence, apocalypse and anime
So why is Steamboy a significant example of what steampunk can be? The most obvious answer is that it acknowledges all steampunk tropes and uses them lavishly. Steam, Victorian fashion, inventions and political disputes between America and Britain – these are all utilised in abundance. From the first five minutes of the film the typical setting for a steampunk narrative is established with its most distinctive component: steam-powered inventions.
The industrial era was a time of discovery, religious and scientific battle, and the growth of “low” and “high” culture divide. The first recognisable image on screen is a water droplet. The reflection within this droplet looks like a warped map of the world, when it is in fact mirroring the two men and cave beneath it. There are many pan shots of squeaking locomotives and a throw away line about scientific theory that has no later bearing within the film. There are continuing bursts of steam, lingering shots of unfamiliar but seemingly important devices, a Victorian warehouse, figures dressed in 1980s pilot uniform and everything is shaded slate grey or brown.
Already, the audience knows that this is not a modern, or normal, setting and is layered with heavy-handed foreboding. The peak of the opening sequence is a slow zoom-in on the black, mysterious ‘steamball’ that sits surrounded by broken pipes and shadows. The only sound is of a high-pitched ringing. This elusive and dark introduction is typical of the genre for, despite the liveliness and imagination that arises in steampunk works, it often tackles problematic issues or apocalyptic imagery.
Both of these gloomy attractions are well suited to Steamboy’s medium, anime, for ‘…its [anime's] often dark tone and content may surprise audiences who like to think of “cartoons” as “childish” or “innocent.”‘ (Napier p.9) As the climax of the story is of the American arms-trade company, O’Hara, attempting to start a war in the middle of London, and ends with a levitating castle crashing through the streets, it is fitting that this bizarre and creative film is an anime. As Susan Napier states:
It may be that animation in general – and perhaps anime in particular – is the ideal artistic vehicle for expressing the hopes and nightmares of our uneasy contemporary world. Even more than live-action cinema, animation is a fusion of technology and art, both suggesting in its content and embodying in its form new interfaces between the two. (page 11)
From this we can see that anime and steampunk (though not limited to each other) go hand-in-hand as the visual-aesthetics of steampunk are a large part of its charm, which include (but not always) spectacular technological doom or political upheaval. Napier later goes on to explain that ‘…perhaps one of the most striking features of anime is its fascination with the theme of apocalypse.’ (Napier p.193)
Steampunk Pokes at Western Society
it’s not all steam, cogs and fashion
This film is riddled with contraptions that retain a Victorian feel, such as flying machines made to resemble Leonardo’s wings and mechanical suits of armour – all powered by steam, of course. The ‘villain’ of the film is an obligatory cyborg, complete with mono-goggle mask, and the protagonist is an aspiring inventor. Steamboy may not be worth the ten years it took to create, but it most definitely conforms to nearly all steampunk tropes and style.
Why is Steamboy not worth the ten years it took to create? If we evaluate the film beyond its genre; of which it explores to a dramatic extent; and look at the narrative development, it feels as if certain dilemmas are solved too conveniently by the characters’ cleverness or a deus ex machina intervention. Many BBC, Film4 and fan critics bash the story of Steamboy as poorly developed and, when boiled down, “not like Otomo’s Akira“. In some ways it is easy to agree that the story is not consistently engaging. In places it seems to try too hard to define itself as a steampunk film by having long monologues about scientific achievement and that the world will benefit from the ‘steamball’. As one seemingly offended BBC critic writes: ‘Ray is a cross little moppet whom it’s hard to root for, while dad and grandpa are blowhards whose endless rants about technology are just a load of, well, hot air.’ (2005, Mathew Leyland)
Leyland also believes that this flatness is due to ‘a lack of engaging characters’ and that it is ‘a prolonged orgy of chaos’ (2005, Mathew Leyland). It is true that the characters are not as three-dimensional as, say, in Otomo’s Akira, but their morals and motives are constantly being questioned by a believably baffled protagonist. The message of the film lies within political morals – as is often the case in steampunk narratives – and while the characters’ personalities are marginally developed, they are engaging for their “radical” or “extreme” beliefs. It would be better to acknowledge and understand the genre it is trying to fit into and consider that perhaps the narrative drags on in places because it tries too hard.
Leyland focuses on British cinema and it comes across as ignorant of steampunk as he says in the opening paragraph of his review: ‘…but as long-gestating animated fantasies set in the north of England go, it’s not a patch on the Wallace & Gromit movie.’ Aside from the fact Steamboy is set in an alternate version of England and is written by two Japanese men who have well researched the industrial workplace, the Wallace & Gromit movie is of an entirely different genre.
steampunk seeks to challenge you
Expanding further on the medium itself it is relevant to consider “what freedom does anime give to Steamboy’s genre?” Napier puts it well by saying, ‘…the abstract visual medium of animation works brilliantly to “convey the unconveyable.”‘ (p.198) As aforementioned, steampunk often tries to engage its consumer with what they are reading or watching. It likes to deal with politics and can get away with mocking, challenging or reinventing history in order to deal with current day concerns. Again, Napier explains why animation products may be the most liberal medium to explore controversial topics and what these films are trying to do:
…appropriate to the basic ideology of apocalypse, most works [ ... ] include such elements as an explicit criticism of the society undergoing apocalypse and an explicit or implicit warning as to why this society should be encountering such a fate. These reasons are almost always related to human transgression, most often the misuse of technology. (Napier p.198)
The medium is still often brushed under the carpet as “cartoons for children”, which is why Japanese anime writers are not always challenged for the critiques they express in their films. They tend to be ignored by a large portion of the Western world and their work dismissed because it “cannot be as engaging as a live-action production”.
Steamboy’s Plot Devices
messages you may have missed
The impending apocalyptic threat that unfolds in Steamboy is caused by the tensions between America and Britain – one must have the better weaponry, one must constantly be ahead of the game – and this rivalry is another element of steampunk. While the critique of futile squabbling for power comes from an outside observer (Japan), this is something that many steampunk writers always include. There is an American character or a British character looking on or competing to be better than their surroundings. For a Western society it is possible to say this feud has developed into a perverse pleasure as the bickering between the two cultures is generally portrayed as humorous.
In Steamboy, however, the feuding between the American and British characters is satirical. The representative of the O’Hara arms company leads rich, world-wide figures to the roof of their establishment. From here he waves at the London street below and cries in a jovial voice, ‘These are our newest models, we call them steam-troopers! As you can see, even a few can put a formidable enemy to flight. [ ... ] Of course the price is dear but the rewards of victory are beyond any price!’ As he says this, American weaponry annihilates the British police below and anyone else in the way.
This plot point is again repeatedly criticised by un-enthused reviewers. ‘…the film finally comes together with the rise – and sensational fall – of a hissing, clanking, life-endangering steam castle in central London.’ (2005, Leyland) The apparent issue with this is that it is “ridiculous” and “stupid” to attack London from within,as if it makes any more sense that Western culture could develop so entirely on steam without running out of resources or impracticalities.
With steampunk, the conclusions tend to be over the top or thought-provoking; even ambiguous and Steamboy does both of the former. It is set during the build up to World War I and after pondering the philosophy of scientific achievement throughout the film, it brings to light the destruction that has come with technological advancement. Returning to Napier’s theorising on the apocalyptic attraction:
Perhaps the twentieth century itself, with its mammoth social and political upheavals and its incredible rate of technological change, is the chief culprit behind the enormous range of apocalyptic visions that exist in the world today. (p.194)
If you’ve been intrigued by Napier’s quotes throughout this essay you should definitely pick up her book. It’s easy to read and she covers a range of subjects concerning anime. I keep it with me everywhere I move to, just in case.
Overall, It’s A Steampunk Film
and it delievered us a lot, even if the narrative could be better
Having considered the elements of steampunk that apply to Otomo and Murai’s film Steamboy, it should now be clearer as to how this film ticks all the boxes of the genre. It succeeds in creating a visual masterpiece, overflowing with creative uses for steam power and warped Victorian settings. It provides questions to ask of our society and does so with a seemingly modern combination of two recently growing “sub-cultures”: anime and steampunk. In the words of Zac Bertschy: ‘It’s like the best of both worlds: thought-provoking, intelligent Japanese-style themes combined with exciting, Western-style action set pieces and pacing’ (2004) Steamboy is an enjoyable, unpredictable film that surprises anime fans, steampunk fans and non-fans alike. If there was one film that could be used as an example of the genre, it should be Steamboy.
Steamboy, 2004 [film]. Directed by Katsuhiro OTOMO. JAPAN: Toho, Triumph Films, & Paramount Pictures.
BERTSCHY, Z., 2004. Review: Steamboy. In: Anime News Network [online]. 21 July 2004. [Viewed 1 May 2011]. Available from: http://www.animenewsnetwork.co.uk/review/steamboy
LASALLE, M., 2003. ‘Extraordinary Gentlemen’ unite to save the world, and Sean Connery almost saves the movie. In: SFGate [online]. 11 July 2003. [Viewed 1 May 2011]. Available from: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/07/11/DD59410.DTL&type=movies
LEYLAND, M., 2005. Steamboy (2005) [online]. [Viewed 30 April 2011]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2005/11/22/steamboy_2005_review.shtml
NAPIER, S., 2006 (originally published 2000). Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (edited edition). New York: palgrave.
RUSSELL, J., 2003. A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) [online]. [Viewed 1 May 2011]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2003/10/07/the_league_of_extraordinary_gentlemen_2003_review.shtml
BROPHY, P., 2005. 100 Anime (page 223). LONDON: British Film Institute.
BROWN, S., T., ed. 2006. Cinema Anime. Edition 2008. NEW YORK: palgrave macmillan.