Even though his output is rather sporadic and not just limited to anime, Katsuhiro Otomo (Memories, Freedom Project) is one of the most respected directors in the scene. Akira was a true landmark film for Japanese animation, so when Steamboy [Suchimuboi] was announced a ripple of excitement went through the anime community. Steamboy may not be the film most people expected, but if you're into steampunk it's without a doubt Otomo's best film so far.
Steamboy is still the most epic anime undertaking to date. 10 years in the making, composed of over 180.000 drawings and 440 CG cuts and running a solid 126 minutes, the stats that are almost too dazzling to grasp. Sadly the critical reception was rather meagre and the film never really reached the same cult status as Akira did. In spite of all its grandeur, the film was only given a very limited release and interest quickly died out once it landed in stores.
Otomo's switch from Neo-Tokyo to steampunk-infused London is a pretty harsh one. No cool motorbikes, no fancy military personnel, no special powers or mutating bodies. Even though Steamboy features a similarly explosive ending, the setting and atmosphere are way more posh and uptight. This is not a bad thing, but it isn't exactly what you might expect from the guy that did Akira. Then again, Otomo is a lot more than just "Akira", so the comparison is unfair to begin with.
What you do get is a superbly detailed steampunk world. The story is about Ray, a young boy who inherits an object that his father invented together with his grandfather. It's a small, steam-driven ball that harvests enormous power. It doesn't take long before several parties are trying to pry the invention from Ray's hands. When Ray gets kidnapped by one of them he ends up in London, where all inventors have gathered for a big event. Needless to say, chaos ensues.
Even if the visual style of Steamboy doesn't really speak to you, you'll be hard-pressed to deny the visual grandeur of this film. Some of the background are so over-the-top in their detail that it's hard to imagine they ever managed to finish the film. There's quite a lot of CG too, but it is integrated well and doesn't clash with the hand-drawn bits. They even ended up building a new engine just for animating the steam, something that definitely paid off in the end. As for the character designs, they lie slightly closer to Rintaro's Metoroporisu than Otomo's Akira. The animation itself is slick and abundant, the camera work inventive and immersive, making this one of the most impressive animated films I've ever seen.
The soundtrack is nice, although not as memorable as I'd hoped. Listening back to some tracks it's obviously well-produced, featuring several beautiful songs that set itself well apart from more generic soundtracks out there. But within the film there are too few moments where the music becomes an integral part of the atmosphere. It's mostly background noise, which is a shame considering the boost a soundtrack can give an epic film like this. The voice acting is high quality though, as long as you stick to the Japanese cast. I tried a short bit with the English cast but quickly switched back before it spoiled the rest of the film for me.
Even though Steamboy features plenty of action sequences and a sprawling finale, it doesn't exactly come off as fast-paced. Part of that is due to the old-fashioned setting, then there is of course its 2+ hours running time which leaves plenty of time for more subdued scenes. It's hardly an issue as there's always something to marvel at, but people expecting a bold and quick-moving adventure might end up a little bored from time to time. The story is very basic and is a bit too shallow to entertain in its own right, so if you can't warm yourself to the majestic settings, the steampunk inventions and the superb attention to detail the film might be 30 minutes too long for you.
Still, Steamboy is a treat for animation fans everywhere. Simple enough to not alienate Western audiences, superbly animated and spilling over with lush details. Every single frame is a work of art, ready for hanging on the wall. The film may be a little long and a little too shallow to fully entertain people who aren't steampunk adepts, but even then it's a film I feel deserves everyone's attention, if just for the stupendous grandeur of Otomo's operation.