Saturday, January 30, 2010

Great Expectations of Genius

Last night, I watched Steamboy, the first feature film from legendary anime director Katsuhiro Otomo. It was his first directorial full-length movie since 1988's Akira. I've been waiting to see this film since it came out in '05. Akira was one of those movies that shaped my teen years and in many ways influenced my artistic interests not only in film, but literature and art as well. Naturally, my expectations would be set way too high for any film to match...which truthfully is part of the reason I delayed so long in viewing.

I reassured myself that it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility to hope for a masterpiece. After all, Otomo was involved in 2001's Metropolis, another anime must-see. And there had been nearly 20 years between this in Akira. A genius can cook up something great in that time...think Chinese Democracy. So, I watched eagerly.

There's no denying the lushness of the 1850's Victorian England scenery and the amazing, Seussian nature of the machines. That's one thing a great anime film does...draws you into its world and lulls you into its dream. Steamboy certainly achieved this. But shortly after the story began picking-up steam, literally, it seemed to dissolve before my eyes.

The characters quickly confused me with there choices and motivations. Ray, the boy at the center of the movie, was so easily misled and manipulated that he was hard to root for. Early in the movie, he leaves the girl behind who is obviously interested. She was only character that kept her head in a difficult situations and she saved his skin. Then, after she's quickly disposed of, Ray falls for a truly despicable character...who I think was meant to be appealing. By that point, it was impossible for me to root for him. Because of that, I barely cared if he won or lost. 

The film covered so much of the ground already trampled in Akira, but without nearly the level of cleverness. Where Akira is a layered epic that requires many viewings to unravel, Steamboy is so transparent that everything important it tries to say, rings false or poorly thought-out.

The movie left me extremely disappointed. But that's the curse of genius. As an artist, when you create such an all-consuming and culturally important work of art, how do you ever achieve that again?

Though, I don't presume to understand the kind of pressure some one of Omoto's stature must feel, I can relate to some extent. There's always the drive to create the best you can each new time around. However, there's always this little computer in the brain that compares what you're working on with everything you've done previously. That's why there's always this pang of defeat whenever someone tells me "I've read all of your books. I love them, but Pure Sunshine is my favorite." A downward trajectory is not what one aims for.

But it's also fair to say, creating anything that is meaningful to someone, even once, is a gift and something to be proud of. Plus, everyone is entitled to fail some of the time. I don't won't to be too harsh on Steamboy. I hate tearing things down and I really dislike the culture of critics that is nowhere more prevalent than in blogs. To create anything that strives for greatness is worthy of praise...and Steamboy is still better than anything a critic creates. 

Perhaps someone else will love this movie and see in it what I saw in Akira. It's just impossible for the human mind not to compare and I suppose Akira is just his version of Pure Sunshine for me. 

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