starlady: Holmes + Watson, steam + punk (steampunk heroes)
[personal profile] starlady
Steamboy. Dir. Ootomo Katsuhiro, 2004.

Yeah, it's pretty sad that Ootomo Katsuhiro spent ten years trying to revise Castle in the Sky and not only failed to improve on it, but also failed to make a decent movie.

It occurs to me this time around that there isn't actually that big a disjuncture between this movie and Akira. In fact, reading them together brings home the essential, hmm, naivete of Akira--the idea that the techno-future is in the future rather than immanent, and that the world's technological condition can be extirpated by destruction? Steamboy's pointedly particular historical setting brings home the fact that the techno-future has been incumbent for at least two hundred years, depending on which part of the world you live in, and there's no salvation from technology; technology is the ground, so the question becomes what you do with technology--to cite Tom Lamarre explicitly, the question becomes how you relate to it.

The Castle in the Sky influence is evident from the the very first scene with Ray, which is the exact same scene as Pazu's introduction, and the stories are pretty similar: inventor boy meets girl, they fight a father figure who embodies all the worst ideas about technology and its place in the world. At the same time the elder Dr. Steam has wrong ideas about technology too; destroying it isn't a valid response (this is neatly symbolized by his prancing around half-naked, just like Dr. Steam the younger's going off the rails is symbolized by his cyborg state). Steam Tower is totally Laputa, too.

Scarlett O'Hara--there's interesting things going on with her. Her insistence on politeness and complaining about the smell of the Thames and insisting that Niagara Falls trumps the steam tower in amazingness would seem to embody a rejection of technology, but of course it's the O'Hara Foundation's (Southern, Civil War profiteering, arms-dealing) money that's built most of the technology in the movie. She's just as implicated in technology; I also find the rewrite of her character and family history from Gone With the Wind, in which they're so poor after the war that they have to make her a dress out of curtains (I know, I know, oh the tribulation) interesting--it's the destruction of the Crystal Palace that ignites her affective response in the movie; so much for Nature.

I find the rewrite of Robert Louis Stephenson interesting too--an adventure writer being mobilized not only as a brilliant inventor but also as an informal agent of the nation and the Empire whose concerns are explicitly in line with the national-imperial interests--but it's not exactly innovative. Nor does the story really disprove Stephenson's views, though I think we're supposed to infer that he's not right based on Ray's defiance of him.

All this being said, I find the ending unsatisfying. "The age of science has just begun, so they'll definitely be back!" It doesn't even matter whether Ray is speaking literally or figuratively, because he's correct on both levels. I fail to see in the end how this is a significant departure from Laputa--the movie doesn't even go as far as Laputa: once we understand that technology is the danger, we understand that we can save ourselves from it, except that we haven't yet. So what the hell in the end does Ray embody? The ending credits in particular make him seem both a passive witness to and an ineffective interventionist in the age; I don't think the movie articulates his position clearly enough for us the audience to be able to buy Ray as something like the Rocketeer. We can infer it negatively, based on what Stephenson says and what Dr. Lloyd implores him to do, but the movie bogs down in its own visual brilliance. This could be intentional, but I doubt it.

The figure of Scarlett, and what Ootomo did to her, is crucial for understanding why the movie fails, I think. In Miyazaki films, and in Anno's Nadia, it's the boy who has the knack for technology while it's the girl who has an innate, mystical connection to technology--Kiki can fly by virtue of being Kiki, but Tonbo has to build awkward planes to take to the skies. But Ootomo (and I find it hard not to read this as either chauvinism or misogyny, or simple unimaginativeness) loads both the innate familial linkage with technology and the genius-like aptitude for technology and invention onto Ray, whose character quite frankly is way too bland to bear the entire weight of the movie's attempted significance. It's no accident that the final scene of the credits shows Scarlett in a plane, having learned the ability to fly that Ray had instinctively, as shown by his success with the copter engine. Ergo, for all Ootomo's nice but ultimately unoriginal location of the techno-future within the past (Miyazaki and Anno did this first), his movie ultimately fails to stage an intervention into history, because he can't get beyond the gendered modernism that history did play out, even if he does have armored castles in the sky crash into London, and the Tower Bridge (25 years early, let me point out), in 1866. Steamboy fails to present a real alternative either to our own modernity or postmodernity, which is why in the end it's a well-animated non-event.
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