Dir/scr: Katsuhiro Otomo.Jap. 2004. 126mins.
In 1988, with his debut feature Akira,Katsuhiro Otomo introduced the world to the post-apocalyptic future,Japanese-style - and spurred a global boom for Japanese animation that has yetto subside. Sixteen years later, he is back with Steamboy, an animatedepic set in the London of 1866, when the Machine Age was well under way, JulesVerne was at the height of his powers - and the future looked like a grandadventure.

Steamboy is less a tribute to Victorian optimism that afurther meditation on the dystopian themes Otomo introduced in Akira. Compared to the earlier film,however, it is more of a mainstream, all-ages entertainment. Understandably so,since it took ten years and Y2.4 billion to make and recouping that budget -the largest ever for a Japanese animated feature - will require more thanattracting more than anime geeks.

Not that geeks will bedisappointed. Known for his attention to detail, Otomo has created steam-drivenmechinery, including tanks, planes and all-terrain vehicles that not onlyclank, soar and sail with an eye-goggling realism, but look as if they could work.This, for geeks, is pure manna.

And the rest of us' Thefilm's non-stop action, imaginative sweep and period authenticity - the senseof watching photos of 19th century cityscapes spring to animated life - willhit young males, especially, right where Verne's novels once hit them, squarein the vicarious-adventure pleasure centres.

Otomo's vision, however,lacks the cultural specificity of David Lynch's in The Elephant Man. He is less interested in examining the era'sstark juxtapositions of machine grandeur and human misery than in using thepower of steam as an all-purpose metaphor for his apocalyptic musings.

For most of the audience,little of this will matter. If they come to the theatre looking for a thrillride in 19th-century guise, with plenty of old-timey machinerywhizzing, banging and disintegrating in beautiful slo-mo, they won't leavedisappointed.

Anticipationfor the feature, which is released in Japan on July 17 on 260-plus screens -though this may rise - is high. Otomo has kept himself in the public eye withother projects, including the 1995 omnibus film Memories, whose Otomo-directed segment Cannon Fodder was the genesis for Steamboy

The title character is Ray(voice actor: Anne Suzuki) who receives, one day, a strange metallic ball fromhis grandfather (Katsuo Nakamura) - an eccentric inventor named Lloyd Steam.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 todeliver it, come what may, to Robert Stephenson (Kiyoshi Kodama) - anotherinventor who was once a colleague of Ray's father. Ray promptly hops on a steambike that he built himself and buzzes off toward London, with the O'Haraminions in hot pursuit.

After many a narrow scrape,Ray finds Stephenson, but before he can hand over the ball safely, he issnatched away by a giant pair of claws (steam-driven, naturally) and findshimself in the O'Hara Pavilion, part of the soon-to-open Exhibition at Crystal Palace. There he meets the strong-willed, royally spoiledScarlett O'Hara-StJohns (Manami Konishi), thegranddaughter of the Foundation's founder. He also reunites with his father,Eddie (Masane Tsukayama), who has been horribly disfigured in a steam accidentand now works for the Foundation.

The steam ball, it turnsout, is able to generate incredible amounts of power - power that Eddie needsto run his Steam Castle, a huge plant in the Pavilion used to manufacture theadvanced war machinery with which the Foundation intends to dominate the world.

Animationis a mix of 2-D (character designs) and 3-D (mechanics and buildings) similarto that of the recent Cannes competition entry Innocence. The advances over Akira,as might be imagined, are huge - although the long production period has putOtomo and his team slightly behind the current technological curve.

The film's story of threegenerations in conflict, as well as Ray's budding, if prickly, friendship withScarlett, take second place to the titanic struggle between the O'Hara forcesand their British military opponents, whose mid-Victorian weapons suddenly lookas sophisticated as bows and arrows.

Needless to say, hugeswathes of cityscape get trashed, in ways that Verne could barely imagine - butwill be familiar to fans of Godzilla, he of the fiery nuclear-powered breath.Otomo may have set his long-awaited masterpiece in London -but his heart isstill in Tokyo.

Prod cos: Bandai Visual, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Bandai,Dentsu, TBS, Sunrise, Toho, Imagica, Culture Publicize
Jap dist:
Int'l sales:
Dentsu (Asia)/Sony(rest of the world)
Exec prod:
Shigeru Watanabe
Sadayuki Murai
Chief animator:
Tatsuya Sotomaru
Prod des:
Shinji Kimura
Steve Jablonsky
Main cast:
Anne Suzuki, ManamiKonishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Masane Tsukayama, Kiyoshi Kodama, Ikki Sawamura