"There’s a man inside that machine!" exclaims a character named Scarlett Ohara amid the euphoric chaos of Steamboy. Indeed, if you insist upon taking it seriously, you’ll find at its churning core a concern for the human cost of technological advancement. It’s Katsuhiro Otomo’s first feature-length anime since 1988’s post-apocalyptic Sturm-und-Drang-und-Motorcycles Akira — possibly the only film to abandon a Christ metaphor for something bigger. Otomo sets this one in Victorian England, either because the Industrial Revolution, like atomic-age Japan, is characterized by new technologies rearranging the anxieties of everyday life, or because he wanted to try his streamlined, detail-oriented look on a different era.
Fueling things is Junior Inventor Ray, whose feuding father and grandfather are fighting over a new invention — the Steam Ball — on behalf of the equally myopic interests of capitalism and nationalism. Is the seemingly endless power of steam a nuclear metaphor? Well, a movie with visual cues to both The Rocketeer and Prometheus is likely as deep as the viewer wishes it to be. Anyway, it’s nice to know subtext is there if needed. Otomo, the biggest-ever budget for an anime film at his disposal, forces the needle ever closer to the red in a frenzied climax of classical proportions, only to pull back for a "gotcha" moment and then build an even bigger ending.
Along with its improbably sustained tone of visionary insanity, Steamboy is notable for its stylized nostalgia (for which animation, especially foreign, is uniquely well-equipped). If this turns into a trend, how about Art Deco New York? If the anime simulacrum of Crystal Palace looks this good, imagine the Chrysler Building…
Opens March 18