He's the Kubrick of anime

Special to The Times

When Katsuhiro Otomo's "Steamboy" opens Friday, it likely will be received much differently from his last anime film to be screened outside Japan. In 1988 "Akira" started an animation revolution. Meticulously drawn, and mixing sophisticated themes with shocking violence and blockbuster action, the film served as an eye-opener to Japanese animators on the medium's capabilities. "Akira" almost single-handedly launched anime fandom in the West, taking it far beyond college fan clubs. The film counts Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron and the Wachowskis among its many fans. It's a tough act to follow.

"This film is not a continuation to 'Akira.' I hope that viewers will not see it with those expectations," Otomo is quick to say. "When I work on a film, I lose myself completely in that project. Each project is unique."

That description could apply to Otomo's career as well. Born in 1954, Otomo decided to forgo a formal art education and moved to Tokyo to pursue a career as a manga (comic book) artist. His early works didn't feature the science fiction themes he would become known for but were about jazzmen, car nuts and college students.

It was only when he started working in the science fiction genre that Otomo's work found a large audience. His graphic novel "Domu" won Japan's Science Fiction Grand Prix award and became a bestseller. "Akira," the graphic novel he later transformed into a movie, launched Otomo to superstar status.

"Akira," the manga, is Otomo's longest work, and his most popular. Published in more than a dozen languages, it went on to sell more than 5 million copies. For such a mainstream success, the series was anomalous in Japanese publishing, with its hyper-detailed artwork and slow release. "Akira was out of step with the production standards of the manga industry," says Carl Gustav Horn, editor at Dark Horse Comics (which publishes Otomo's work in English). "The manga industry is primarily geared toward characters and storytelling; 'Akira' had these, but its 'production values' were too high."

Otomo cumulatively has drawn more than 3,000 pages of manga artwork over a period of 20 years; by comparison, many manga artists working for a weekly publication would create that many pages in less than three.

"Manga might never have become a mass medium at all in Japan if everyone was truly expected to work at Otomo's level of visual detail and realism," Horn says. "In the end, Otomo has been more admired than seriously imitated."

"That's the way I prefer to work," says Otomo of his hyper-real style. "I know it's not for everyone, but I can't work any other way."

That attention to detail carried over to Otomo's animated version of "Akira." As director, he was very hands-on at every level of production, and it shows. In handpicking "Akira's" distinct color palette and stepping in to direct unknown voice talent, Otomo made a case for animator as auteur as only a handful of other creators have.

"He has so much respect for his work," says Shigeru Watanabe, executive producer for "Steamboy."

"Like Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick he strives for perfection in expressing his vision on film."

"I think I did too much on my own for 'Akira,' " the director commented later. At the time, it was the most expensive anime production, but the $8-million gamble paid off. "Akira" became Japan's highest grossing film of 1988.

Otomo contributed to numerous projects in the years that followed, including directing a live-action horror-comedy, "World Apartment Horror." It wasn't until 1995 that he returned to animation, this time as a supervisor and contributor to the anthology "Memories," based on three of his sci-fi manga shorts.

During the creation of the third segment, "Cannon Fodder," the idea for "Steamboy" was born. "Cannon Fodder" captures a day in the life of a "steam-punk" past during which the citizens of a nameless megalopolis wage constant war against an unseen enemy. In addition to sharing some of the same imagery of towering steam-powered machines, the production also set in motion the technological innovation that would turn "Steamboy" into a 10-year ordeal.

Otomo knew the project would be big. The next challenge was finding a studio to back it.

"He presented the idea to sponsors, but they, being 'Akira' fans, couldn't understand why he'd want to make a movie set in 19th century England and they wouldn't cosign the project," Watanabe says. "Soon after that, Otomo bought back the rights and asked me if I would do it with him. From then on, we started working on 'Steamboy.' "

"There was a lot of experimentation" during the making of "Cannon Fodder," Otomo says. "We wanted to use computers for effects that we were not able to create in animation before."

Regarding "Steamboy," Watanabe says, "when adding digital technology to traditional animation we wanted it to feel so natural that the viewer doesn't even notice it. I think we succeed here." Some of the same techniques, such as wrapping hand-drawn art around 3-D models, were later used by Disney before the studio eventually abandoned traditional feature animation.

"It was innovative when we started 10 years ago, but I don't think it's so innovative now," Otomo adds.

Regardless, the film is a stunning achievement. Otomo and his team capture Victorian England with even more detail than he did futuristic Tokyo in "Akira."

Otomo took his animators to London to research the architecture, the colors and even the weather. But it is in the fantastic steam-powered machines, especially the flying Steam Castle, that Otomo's fetishistic attention to detail really comes through.

Even as the film spirals into destructive chaos, Otomo keeps it firmly rooted in reality.

The end result, a Jules Verne-like tale of invention, wonder and adventure, may not be what audiences expect from the creator of "Akira." In "Steamboy" Otomo has created his first family film as well. He chose a young boy as his protagonist because "children still look at life without the preconceptions and cynicism that adults carry." He adds, "I hope that adults can experience the story from this perspective."

For a creator whose early works can be rebellious and permeated with biting social satire, Otomo is quick to downplay any political overtones in his latest work. "I suppose you could see such themes in the film, but I was not thinking about those things as I was making the film," the director says.

This isn't the first time that Otomo has tried to distance himself from interpretation of his work. It was while Otomo was putting the final touches on "Memories" that cultists released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing 12. While promoting "Memories" a few months later, Otomo expressed disdain at what happens when people overanalyze serious topics and said he is suspicious of complex messages -- he regards them as junk. "Keeping the moral lessons on the elementary school level is best."

Whether American audiences will respond to a kindler, gentler Otomo remains to be seen. In Japan, where anime fare frequently tops box office charts, "Steamboy" opened in fourth place, disappointing considering that the film is the most expensive anime feature to date (roughly $22 million), and by comparison the latest "Pokemon" film opened the same week in second place and had greater staying power).

Watanabe isn't concerned about the film's initial reception. " 'Steamboy' is a movie that Otomo has put his entire soul into ... there's so much more devotion to this project than his previous ones. This movie will be remembered for a long time."

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