Post-Akira visionary anime from Katsuhiro Otomo
Daniel Jolley | Shelby, North Carolina USA | 11/10/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Here's a rarity - a combo of two movies that are actually related to one another. The connection is Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame. Memories (1995) consists of three stories adapted from short manga pieces by Otomo, the last of which, Cannon Fodder, was directed by Otomo himself. Steamboy was released in 2004, Otomo's first full-length anime film since Akira. It looks great, but the plot doesn't build up much steam.
Memories is a most interesting and impressive production made up of three very different short films directed by some of the leading names in anime. Episode One is Magnetic Rose, directed by Koji Morimoto of Animatrix fame. This is a beautiful, haunting tale of a most unusual space rescue mission. The crew of a space garbage collection ship responds to a distress signal from a dead part of space. Two crew members board the debris-shrouded vessel and enter a completely different world, one fueled by the memories of a beautiful young opera singer who apparently retreated to the isolation of space following a tragedy in her life. Each man is soon drawn into the vivid, colorful world of Eva's memories, but only one recognizes the unreality behind the vivid scenes he encounters - in his case, though, memories of his own wife and child serve as fuel for the increasingly realistic episodes he experiences. Much of the story takes place to a soundtrack of beautiful opera music such as that of Puccini, and the combination of such grand music and the amazing visual miracles that define anime of the highest caliber make this a most powerful film indeed.
Episode Two, Stink Bomb from director Tensai Okamura, goes in a completely different direction. Existing in some nebulous space between dark comedy and grim political satire, Stink Bomb is certainly entertaining but much less powerful than the other two films. A young scientific researcher takes an experimental fever pill that turns out to be something else entirely. He awakes to find everyone in the building comatose or dead, and panicked company executives order him to find the pills and the secret documentation related to them so that he can bring everything to them in Tokyo immediately. He does just that, but he comes across death and destruction everywhere he goes, without understanding that he has become a biological weapon emanating deadly gas from within his own body. It's almost comical to see the military firepower brought to bear - quite fruitlessly - against him as the military seeks to stop the spread of the noxious gas. The ending is somewhat comical - but on a dark level.
The last and shortest of the films was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo himself. Cannon Fodder is an extremely dark film that vividly portrays a day in the life of a militaristic society along the lines of a post-modern day Prussia dedicated solely to the continued firing of gigantic cannons against some nebulous enemy. The obvious interpretation is one of the insanity of warfare, and the dark tones and grimly drawn characters bring the message home in a powerful fashion. Interestingly, the entire action seems to consist of one continuous shot that moves fluidly from one scene to another.
I have to say that I enjoyed Otomo's directorial contribution to the film Memories more than I did Steamboy. Both share the same kind of heavily industrial world of the past, cast in sepia-like tones reflecting an atmosphere of gloom. That was more than okay for Memories' "Cannon Fodder," but the world of Steamboy eventually grew tiresome to me. The animation of this film is excellent, but it consisted of far too many scenes of exploding machinery, to the detriment of character development and storyline. Frankly, I just didn't care about this plot all that much.
You've got a young, inventive boy who finds himself in the middle of a conflict over the nature of science. It's an argument that will erupt in loud, frightening chaos over the city of London. The boy's name is Ray Steam, and steam is definitely the key word in all of this. Ray receives a parcel from his grandfather containing an ultra-powerful "steamball," and almost at once he's forced to honor his grandfather's request to keep it out of the hands of "the Foundation." His father, however, or at least a somewhat mechanized version of him, happens to be in cahoots with the Foundation, and he begins to win his son over to his own version of science. He has used the vast power of steam to take his own father's vision of a Steam Castle and turn it into a well-armed weapon, complete with steam-powered flyers, subs, and mechanized fighters. The grandfather shows up to try and sabotage his evil son's efforts, and he confronts Ray with his own peaceful vision of science. Fortunately for the audience, there's a spoiled little rich girl (by the name of Scarlett O'Hara - I kid you not) to add some life to all this philosophizing and artificiality. The whole thing soon breaks down into a not-so-small war over London. If you like explosions and scenes of utter destruction in your anime, you'll definitely want to check out Steamboy. That's about all you'll find in the second half of the film.
To me, Steamboy is a case of style over substance. None of the characters are as fully developed as I would have liked, and the whole story never manages to take on very much depth. Motion pictures, even anime, cannot live on cinematography alone if they want to be truly successful. With its underdeveloped storyline, Steamboy just didn't prove satisfying to me."