Most of us will never know the glory of making a masterpiece. But hey, at least we don’t have to sweat the encore. Since 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo has kept animation fans waiting for a follow-up to Akira, his R-rated dystopian epic about superpowered punks in postapocalyptic Tokyo that popularized Japanese anime worldwide. But he has finally returned with Steamboy, a whimsical adventure steeped in retro sci-fi and set in 19th-century England, with a plucky boy protagonist and a relatively congenial PG-13 rating. Not surprisingly, Otomoites are full of domo arigato — but also a little baffled.
”I am often asked about a sequel to Akira, or something like it,”says Otomo, 50, through a translator. ”To me, it’s always better to move forward.”Yet even the director admits Steamboy‘s progressive conceit — blending CGI with hand-drawn animation — ”might not be a new idea anymore,”following hybrid ‘toons like Treasure Planet. But this can happen to novel notions when they take 10 years to produce. Steamboy‘s long chug to the screen was so notorious, ”no one thought he would ever finish it,”says Carl Horn, editor and anime expert at Dark Horse Comics, U.S. publisher of Otomo’s equally esteemed comicbook version of Akira. Why the delay? Besides being a meticulous craftsman, Otomo had money problems; despite his résumé, investors were slow to back his ambitious gambit. Moreover, production began just as Japan’s billiondollar animation industry was beginning to convert to computer animation; consequently, Otomo was learning as he went. Ultimately, the film (and his learning curve) cost $22 million — the most expensive anime flick ever. Hence, a young hero and a softer rating: ”The production cost a lot, so I wanted to attract many people,”says Otomo, who hopes Steamboy can tap into the audience that made Hayao Miyazaki’s 2002 Oscar winner Spirited Away a surprise success.
At the very least, Steamboy is a showcase for Otomo’s artistry, particularly his penchant for painstaking detail — from the re-creation of the Great Exhibition of 1851 to a monstrous Steam Castle, which rises out of the earth, sprouts legs, and tromps through London. ”I live near Tower Bridge, ”says Patrick Stewart, who voices Steamboy‘s mad scientist grandpop. ”[Seeing the film] I thought I was looking out my window, watching it being torn apart.” Otomo’s aesthetic evolved out of a fondness for gritty classics like Five Easy Pieces; in fact, according to Horn, his early work as a manga artist earned him a counter-culture rep for its social realism. Otomo’s switch from comics to filmmaking dismayed many fans, but take heart, true believers: Otomo says he plans on returning to the page. As for anime, he’s unsure. Like American animation, the Japanese variety is at a crossroads, with computers making traditional animation as antiquated as the steam engine. ”I have not set my mind as to which direction I am going,”says Otomo. But he does promise one thing: ”I don’t want to wait another 10 years to make a movie. I need to work harder on that.”