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Steampunk Classics – Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy

From 2004 Promotional poster for Steamboy, from the Wikipedia Steamboy article

Probably one of the purest steampunk entries in our list of classics, Steamboy is a 2004 anime film written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote and directed Akira, and produced by Sunrise. It takes place in England in the 1860’s. The titular protagonist is a boy named Ray Steam (the Japanese seem fond of ironic surnames) who comes from a family of engineers active in (of course) steam technology. This show has no shortage of action because the Steam family’s inventions have an unfortunate tendency to explode, catch fire, or scald its operators. The primary issue is, however, not their products’ abysmal safety record but the proper direction for the technology’s use. Ray’s grandfather believes it should be solely peaceful while his son (Ray’s father) is fine with making weapons of war. It’s up to Ray to make peace between the two, and prevent a world-rending disaster as the nefarious O’Hara Foundation sells these weapons to anyone and everyone.

Like many works of steampunk fiction, Steamboy includes actual historical characters, including Queen Victoria and Robert Stevenson – the engineer, not the author. When I first saw the movie, I thought it would make an interesting game, and no surprise, it was adapted by Bandai as a video game for the PlayStation 2.

The show is visually amazing. It features many innovative steampunk gadgets, like the amazing steam ball shown on the movie poster. The ball is a revolutionary energy storage device, which contains so much high-pressure steam that Ray is able to use it to fly great distances. Excluding Ray, the characters tend to be rather one-dimensional, like Ray’s father and grandfather, who both epitomize stubbornness. Another exception is Ray’s antagonist, the daughter of the O’Hara family. Of course, her name is Scarlett. Although she plays the part of the stereotypical spoiled teenager, she shows some surprising depth later in the movie.

Although Steamboy is an entertaining story, the plot doesn’t survive too much scrutiny. If we view the O’Hara Foundation as Irish, its desire to undermine the British Empire is quite understandable. However, it’s pretty crazy for them to tackle the Empire head-on in the heart of London. And the father-son conflict between Ray’s grandfather and father is a bit of a trope. Still, there’s lots of exciting action to keep the viewer interested.

Despite these few faults, Steamboy is a must-watch for any steampunk aficionado. It can be found on anime streaming services or purchased on Amazon.

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