Monday, March 21, 2005

anticipation technology

Regarding Katsushiro Otomo's new film "Steamboy".

This is an excellent film because it is not only visually impressive but also has an important debate at its core. There is a lot of action in the film, this is from Otomo after all the guy who brought Akira to the world, but that doesn't necessarily interfere with the overall concept of the film. The U.S. dubbed version gets a lot of things right. Perhaps the English voice actors used are actually an improvement on the original-- as it wholly concerns events in England. All the principal characters, with the exception of Miss O'Hara-- who is American, are from Manchester and are voiced with heavy Northern Accents by Patrick Stewart, Alfred Molina and Anna Paquin. (yes also another case where the young boy is voiced by a female actress) I was very pleased that they managed to get the accents absolutely correct here. The story takes place in 1866 (or thereabouts) around the opening of the Royal Exhibition in London. While working in Alaska, a grandfather and son (the main character's father) have created a new source of power that is pressurized steam. Upon the grandfather's return to Manchester, agents from the infamous O'Hara foundation appear at the family's doorstep (in working class Manchester-- the family scene prior to the arrival absent the father is especially appropriate, the first time you see the lead at home he is being reprimanded by his mother) looking after a parcel the grandfather sent ahead. The race is on to protect the parcel from these agents. Eventually the agents do capture the son and the grandfather and they are forced to work in this giant complex, the Steam Castle, funded by the American investor the O'Hara Foundation. This complex is the invention of the Grandfather and his Son. The O'Hara Foundation (read: arms dealer) wants it to be made ready for the Royal Exhibition, to display its power to various foreign investors. This sets the stage for what is to come.

It is significiant that Otomo, and typically most Japanese anime(with the exception of Miyazaki), who has always looked toward the future in his fims, decided to set this one in England during the Victorian period. The Industrial Revolution was at its height, and the British Empire was rapidly expanding. Otomo is very careful to get a lot of details right, he probably did extensive historical research to make sure the visuals were accurate. Into the mix, at the heart of all this opulence, he inserts the Steam Castle. The debate between the Grandfather and Son concerns the use of science and weather it should be used for the greater good of humanity (as exemplified by the Grandfather's use of the steam castle as an amusement park --- to make children happy) or for extreme commercial gain, (the Son's use of the castle as a militarized fortress complete with shock troops, tanks and flying bombers) to serve the profit margins of the O'Hara Foundation in the sale of its products to foreign investors. Many other questions are raised in the film but I think this is a good starting point for discussion. At the present time when the United States is largely viewed as an imperalist power (with its main supporters the United Kingdom and Japan), this film recontextulaizes the debate about the use of power at the beginning of the last great Empire of recent history. (the dates of the British Empire are roughly 1865-1965)

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