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In Manchester, England, in 1866, young James "Ray" Steam hopes to be an inventor like his father and grandfather. Receiving a parcel in the mail from his grandfather Lloyd, Ray becomes the new owner of the "steam ball," a prototype energy source that utilizes a supercompressed liquid-a similar catalyst to that in The Secret of Cerulean Sand. Ray's father Eddie is working with Scarlett O'Hara, the owner of the American O'Hara Foundation, whose impressive Steam Tower will be a feature of the Great Exhibition in London-compare to The Secret of Blue Water which uses the earlier Paris Exhibition as a conduit to adventure. However, Lloyd and Eddie have fallen out over the tower's uses. Ray joins forces with inventor Robert Stephenson in order to thwart the O'Hara organization's plan to sell advanced steam-powered weapons at London's Great Exhibition, a trade fair that will attract the great and the good from all over the world.
As with many other anime hyped for their technical achievement (Macross Plus comes to mind, as does Metropolis, for which Otomo wrote the screenplay), Steamboy seems obsessed with the matter of its own creation. Eddie boasts to his son that the Steam Tower merely needs to exist and be seen to achieve its end. Some might argue the same for Steamboy itself, trumpeted as a flagship for anime abroad, ten years and $20.2 million in the making, constantly tweaked and remodeled to keep up with its notoriously perfectionist director's desire to remain at the cutting edge. However, this long-awaited follow-up, Otomo's first full-length anime feature as director since Akira, replays its predecessor's military-industrial conspiracy, dressed up in period costume and the exotic, inscrutable setting of England. As in Otomo's most famous work, the characters are plunged into a race over the mastery of an earth-shattering energy source, culminating in a long battle that levels buildings citywide with the cavalier attitude of a Godzilla. Like Astro Boy, Steamboy's protagonist is torn between positive and negative father figures, but much of it comprises an overlong chase sequence, even in the "international version" that discards 20 minutes of footage from the original Japanese release-much of the jettisoned material coming from the early Manchester scenes.
Steamboy was commissioned in the mid-1990s, amid the same retro mood that saw other steampunk stylings such as Sakura Wars or Super Atragon, with arch references to Gone With the Wind (1939) in its choice of leading lady. Its imagery recalls that of Otomo's "Cannon Fodder" segment in Memories, while its love of steam power suggests the clunky contraptions of Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky and Sherlock Hound. In its final moments, however, it also resembles the reconciliation and truce of Howl's Moving Castle, with weapons of mass destruction temporarily thwarted and family values asserting themselves, however briefly, in the race to save London from the Steam family's Frankenstein technology. There is a certain irony that Otomo should employ so many devices from the 21st century in order to recreate a fantasy ideal of the 19th, particularly when if anything lets Steamboy down, it is the humble, low-tech want of an editor to take a red pencil to an overblown and strangely paced script. The movie enjoyed a new lease on life on DVD and was one of the first releases in the new Blu-Ray format, in 2006. V