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He's the Kubrick of anime

Katsuhiro Otomo's feature 'Steamboy' was a decade in the making. And it's not 'Akira 2.'

March 17, 2005|Jake Forbes | 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."

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