Steamboy [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (29th June 2019).
The Film

"Steamboy" 「スチームボーイ」 (2004)

Ray Steam (played by Anne Suzuki in Japanese/Anna Pacquin in English) is a young boy in Manchester who longs to become an inventor through science running in the footsteps of his father Eddi (played by Masane Tsukayama in Japanese/Alfred Molina in English) and grandfather Lloyd (played by Katsuo Nakamura in Japanese/Patrick Stewart in English). While the father and grandfather are working in America experimenting in the power of encapsulated steam, Ray lives with his mother (played by Keiko Aizawa in Japanese/Kim Thomson in English) while working at a local factory making ends meet. But one day a package arrives that is sent by the grandfather - a mysterious black ball with a note specifying that it should not go into the wrong hands, especially the people of the O'Hara Foundation, and be delivered to Robert Stevenson (played by Kiyoshi Kodama in Japanese/Oliver Cotton in English). As men from the foundation come after the package, it is up to Ray to keep the ball secure and deliver it to the rightful person.

Taking place in the late 1800s during the industrial revolution, the world depicted in "Steamboy" is partially an alternate reality of sorts, both focusing on the realities of the period from the designs of architecture and fashion, but slightly increasing the scope of the technological revolution. It certainly could be a counterpart to the disappointing 1999 live action film "Wild Wild West" with its ideas and setting, but the animated "Steamboy" does take things further. Filmmaker and animator Katsuhiro Otomo previously made a revolutionary work with his feature length debut "Akira" in 1987. Adapting his apocalyptic near future set comic for the screen, it was unlike any other Japanese animated film seen up to that point, with the amount of detail seen in character designs, mechanical designs down to the inner workings, plus having voice actors record dialogue before final animation - a technique even now rarely used in Japan. The production was extremely time consuming but the film was a massive hit around the world becoming one of the most influential works of all time. While Otomo worked on other projects including directing a segment of "Memories" (1995) and scripting the animated film adaptation of "Tezuka Osamu's Metropolis" (2001), there was one project that the director was working on for a decade, and that was "Steamboy", which was on and off in production from 1994. Ambition for detail and also experimenting with digital technology led to many delays and redos over the years, with the first pilot film being completed in 1997 and eventually scrapped altogether for a new process. Drawn by hand and animated digitally, the 180,000 drawings and 440 CG cuts eventually created the director's second feature nearly two decades after his debut, but the film was not a massive success.

With "Akira" having a set universe in the written and drawn comic form, "Steamboy" was a new IP, yet expectations were extremely high. Rather than going the futuristic route, this time the story went back to the past and very different themes were explored. Man vs technology, generational differences in how the future is seen, the dangers of man science and greed. While at the same time it was seen mostly through the eyes of a pre-teen boy who is captured in the middle of everything. Young Ray gets a strict message from his grandfather that the ball must be protected and not wound up in the hands of evil, who would put the encapsulated steam for the wrong use. But at the same time, Ray's severely disfigured father says the technology of the steam ball is the key to moving forward, especially with the construction of the massive Steam Tower in London. Ray must make the decision for himself on who to side with, but it goes further than just blood, as they are all family but torn apart in ideology. In fact they are both right, and both wrong in solving the issues, as Ray would eventually find out for himself. The story clearly cuts who is right and who is wrong in certain scenes, only to turn the tables when the other opinion is shown, causing the moral dilemma of Ray throughout. It might seem like an extended family drama at the core, "Steamboy" also offers some exceptional action showpieces.

The chase scene between the monowheel and the locomotive is a riveting one with incredible attention to detail in the mechanics and in using computer generated effects very subtly for the intensity. The zeppelin in the kidnapping scene, the rise of the Steam Tower, the list goes on with the action scenes, intricately detailed and absolutely exciting to see and hear. There are many positives to list in "Steamboy" as it had a family core along with splendid visuals, but it also has its weaknesses. While the dynamic of the grandfather, father, and son are well defined from the start, the rest of the character have a hard time with connections. The mother's role is extremely limited with the very few scenes she is in, as well as the characters of Emma and Thomas - the neighboring children who are staying at the Steam residence for a short period. From the start of the story it would seem obvious that Ray and Emma had a good relationship together and she plays an integral part of him escaping with the steam ball. But she is basically wiped out from the rest of the film and replaced by the O'Hara Foundation's annoying rich girl Scarlett (played by Manami Konishi in Japanese/Kari Wahlgren in English). Scarlett's character is a curious yet bitchy one and eventually becomes the interest of Ray's character to a certain extent. She is not particularly the most memorable or most valuable, and may have even worked if not around. Many of the others including Stevenson are more or less on the generic side lacking basic characterizations whether it be henchmen or assistants or coworkers. There are some moments that drag due to the exposition and secondary characters taking up more time than necessary, plus questionable acts as to why Ray does certain things and doesn't do others. It's not the strongest script and relies too heavily on cliches, but it certainly serves its purpose.

The fans that were looking for a second coming of "Akira" were certainly not expecting such a family friendly affair that "Steamboy" was. Though it marketed to a broader audience, not relying on violence and brutality, this was a family adventure film that should have clicked with audiences, but essentially didn't. The film was released theatrically in Japan on July 17, 2004 to fair reviews. The $20 million budgeted film didn't gross enough to call it even in its home country even with mass marketing and mass appeal, and considered a box office bomb. Even marketing it with the production budget didn't seem to help in ticket sales. Eventually it was screened around the world at film festivals including Helsinki, Toronto, Stuttgart, Venice and others, and getting theatrical screenings in various countries in 2004 and 2005, with Sony Pictures releasing it in various territories outside Japan. For the United States, it was theatrically released on March 18, 2005 in both subtitled and dubbed forms. For the dub, well established faces were chosen rather than anime voice actors for more appeal, yet for screenings 26 minutes were cut from the release for a truncated version to play in American cinemas. With it never playing at more than 50 screens at a time, Sony did not do much to push the theatrical screenings and it was not a hit in its theatrical run. Eventually for home video, it made its way to Japanese shelves in April 2005 fom Bandai Visual, a full nine months after its theatrical run, and Sony made their DVD editions available in late 2005. A Blu-ray release followed in Japan two years later, though not English friendly. A Blu-ray came from the United Kingdom finally in 2017 from Manga Entertainment, and now an Australian Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment in 2019. "Steamboy" has gained some fans over the years and especially for its designs and visuals, but it may never get the recognition many were hoping for with the hype from years ago.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The framing is a little odd. The original theatrical aspect ratio is 1.85:1 with thin black lines on the top and bottom of the screen on widescreen displays (and is also seen as so on some of the special features on this disc). The 1.78:1 ratio slightly crops from the sides which is a fairly common situation in HD masters, but there is a very thin black line at the top of the screen which is slightly skewed, making the black bar thicker on the left side and almost non-existent on the right side. The following screenshot is taken from the UK DVD from Manga Entertainment dual format set which also has the same framing issue of the skewed black line. In comparison to the Japanese DVD edition which is in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio with very thin black bars on the sides, there isn't a skewed black line and is framed properly. The following screenshot is first from the UK DVD followed by the Japanese DVD.






Colors in general look very good, though things do seem slightly muted and darker in tone. By looking at the above screenshots, the Japanese release is a lot brighter and bolder in color, looking much closer to the look of the clips found in the special features. The feature was animated digitally though it seems the transfer is not directly from the digital source but a film element, as there are occasional spots and dust seen here and there but not too distracting. Detail is fine though colors can at time fluctuate even when they are supposed to appear as a single shade, which is more noticeable in darker scenes. The transfer is a disappointment considering the framing and the colors of the Japanese DVD release from more than a decade ago is much better, and it certainly deserves better.

The film's runtime is 126:31, which starts with English opening credits and location markers and ends with Japanese closing credits, which is how it was presented in Japan.

Audio

Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

The original Japanese language track and the English dub tracks are given lossless 5.1 options. Otomo is very well known for intricate sound designs and this production is no different, with its use of music score and effects. During scenes of chases and action, the track is very interactive with each sound element, and with music the scenes there are both quiet atmospheric works as well as aggressive ones for the bigger scenes. Dialogue is almost always fit to the center channel and is quite clean with both Japanese and English tracks. Elements are not as aggressively mixed in comparison to the "Akira" Blu-ray audio mix, though it is a 5.1 track that fits quite well.

There are optional English subtitles in a white font for the main feature.

Extras

Interview with Katsuhiro Otomo (5:24)
In this interview with Otomo, he discusses about the themes presented, the use of computer animation, recreating 19th century England, the innovations and challenges the film had and more. The interview itself is in 1.78:1 while the film clips are in the theatrical 1.85:1 ratio. Annoyingly this interview is presented with English voiceover rather than in Japanese.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1/1.85:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Multi-Screen Landscape Study" featurette (19:14)
In this featurette that was presented at a pre-theatrical release exhibition, three screens are presented at once, two on the top and one below. Included are clips from the film, comparison clips between storyboard to finished film, interviews with the crew, scouting locations and more.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles

"Re-Voicing Steamboy" featurette (18:48)
Featuring interviews with voice actors Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart along with ADR recorders, the cast talk about their experience in voice recording as well as their introduction to Japanese animation. There are scenes in the recording studio as well. The film clips are windowboxed at 1.85:1 within the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1 and windowboxed 1.85:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Voyage of Steamboy" documentary (34:29)
In this documentary, the crew discuss the decade long making of the film, the use of CGI, and the challenges involved. In addition there is a short biography of Otomo, the Japanese theatrical trailer, plus comments from Japanese cast members Anne Suzuki and Manami Konishi. The film clips are windowboxed at 1.85:1 within the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1 and windowboxed 1.85:1, in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles

"The Adventure Continues" (3:22)
Presented here is the end credits sequence without the overlayed text.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, Music Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Production Drawings" featurette (5:52)
Here are a series of background and conceptual drawings with music accompaniment.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, Music Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Animation Onion Skins" featurette (4:39) (no dialogue)
Presented are five scenes from the film shown in storyboard form, animatic form, and final form with no audio or music.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1


All of the extras were previously available on all of the international Sony DVD releases in the past. Strangely, the US Sony DVD lacked the documentary but had the "Production Drawings" featurette, while the PAL Sony DVD releases had the documentary but lacked the "Production Drawings" featurette. The UK Blu-ray+DVD set from last year included the same extras found on this Australian release from Umbrella Entertainment. There is a Japanese Blu-ray from Bandai Visual, which only had trailers as extras. In addition, there was a Japanese "Memorial Box" 4-disc DVD. set which included more than 4 hours of bonus features with lengthy documentaries, TV specials, featurettes, event footage and much of those have not been ported to any other release.

Packaging

The packaging states "Region B" only, but is in fact region ALL. The artwork is also reversible, with identical artwork but missing the Australian rating logo, the the top banner and awards listings removed, and adding "A Film by Katsuhiro Otomo" under the title.

Overall

"Steamboy" has a lot going for it with its incredible visuals, yet it plays it too safe with the story and having an unfair balance in the characterizations. The decade long production certainly released to a hype that it could never match, but audiences will be certainly surprised with many moments throughout. The Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray has a slightly disappointing transfer but with great audio and all the Sony extras carried over from the DVD era.

The Film: B- Video: B Audio: A Extras: B- Overall: B

 


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