Steamboy appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The majority of the film looked splendid, but some problems occurred.
The main concern related to shadows. Much of the movie worked in low-light situations, and these were often difficult to discern. I couldn’t decide how much of this was an intentional design choice and how much came from the transfer, but it caused definite distractions because I found it so tough to tell what was happening at times.
Otherwise I had few complaints. Some specks occasionally appeared, but the vast majority of the movie looked clean. Sharpness was solid. No signs of softness or a lack of definition marred the proceedings. Blacks were also deep and firm.
Jagged edges and shimmering created no issues, and I also noticed no edge enhancement. Steamboy utilized an extremely restricted palette. Outside of some flowers and a few of Scarlett’s dresses, I noticed almost no color in this heavily gray and brown universe. Within those constraints, the film replicated the tones well. I should note that the film clips shown in the DVD’s extras presented significantly brighter hues. I don’t know if those are correct and the entire transfer was made too dark or if the snippets in the supplements are simply too bright. Unless I hear other information, I’ll have to assume this is the more correct representation, but the dimness did cause concerns.
Steamboy came with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in two languages. We got the original Japanese as well as the revoiced English. I’ve heard good things about the latter but thought it made more sense to stick with the native language used for the film.
Despite some misgivings about the visuals, I found nothing about which I could complain in this excellent mix. The soundfield was consistently lively and involving. All the steam offered plenty of opportunities for hisses and bangs, and those surrounded us effectively. Of course, the film’s surfeit of action sequences made the best use of the mix. The battles raged all around us to create a very immersive setting, and different elements were appropriately placed and cleanly blended. It all balanced terrifically well to become very engaging.
Audio quality was more than up to the challenge as well. Since it was in Japanese, I couldn’t judge the intelligibility of the speech, but I thought the lines seemed crisp and natural. Music was bright and dynamic, while effects contributed a major factor. Those elements always sounded concise and distinctive, and the mix provided stellar bass response. Low-end was wonderfully deep and firm, and I noticed no boominess or roughness. I loved this soundtrack.
Two DVD versions of Steamboy are on the market. There’s the standard Director’s Cut DVD, and there’s also a “Collector’s Gift Set”. This review will cover the latter, which includes the former. Until I say otherwise, everything I discuss will be available in the standard DVD as well as in the gift set.
First comes a featurette that deals with the English dub of the film. Re-Voicing Steamboy runs 18 minutes and 35 seconds as it presents movie snippets, behind the scenes shots, and interviews with actors Anna Paquin, Alfred Molina, and Patrick Stewart, voice director Rick Zieff, and sound director Keiichi Momose. We learn about the actors’ familiarity with Japanese animation, casting, challenges connected to dubbing an already-completed film, the characters and approaches to the voices, and working with the voice director. Some good notes occur and we get a passable feel for the appropriate topics. Unfortunately, the featurette usually stays superficial and doesn’t go into the areas in depth. I always enjoy seeing the voice actors do their thing, but otherwise there’s not a lot of meat here.
During an Interview with Katsuhiro Otomo, we get a five-minute and 11-second chat with the director. He discusses the film’s slow genesis and production, the development of the story and his creative methods, what he might like to do in live-action, the flick’s theme, and sequel thoughts. Like the “Re-Voicing” featurette, this one touches on some interesting topics, but it does so superficially. It lacks coherence and jumps from one subject to another without much clarity. A few decent notes emerge but not much more.
Next comes a Multi-Screen Landscape Study. In this 19-minute and nine-second piece, we get an unusual construct for a featurette. One large 16X9 frame shows information – usually interviews - in the bottom part of the screen while two smaller images fill the top half, mostly with movie clips, research footage, and concept art.
We hear from Otomo and other unnamed animators. They discuss visual inspirations, the use of computers, the project’s timetable, artistic decisions and various challenges. This adds up to the meatiest of the programs, as we actually learn some nice notes about the work. I don’t care for the format, though, as the three-pane setting becomes a distraction. That’s especially true because the interviews are translated via subtitles, so our eyes naturally stick to the bottom of the screen. This makes it tough to absorb the information at the top.
The Adventure Continues comes with the subtitle “End Credits Without Text”. And that’s exactly what the three-minute and seven-second program offers. We see the closing credits sans the Japanese print. It’s nice to get a view of this art without anything to obstruct it.
In the Production Drawings, we get a running collection of art. This runs five minutes and 39 seconds as it shows 28 pieces. The lush art is good, but the presentation isn’t. The camera pans around the screen and we rarely get a solid look at each element.
Animation Onion Skins lets us view the film in various stages of completion. In its four minutes and 24 seconds, it offers a glimpse of the different elements that comprise the final product. It acts as a brief but interesting view of the bits.
A few ads open the DVD. We find promos for Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, The Cave and Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis. These also appear in the disc’s Previews area along with trailers for Astro Boy< Cyborg 009, Memories, Mirrormask and DEBS.
The sole non-disc-based element in the standard DVD, we get an Exclusive Otomo Illustration Postcard. This is exactly what it describes: a drawing on a card. It fails to add much value.
Now we come to the differences between the standard DVD and the “Collector’s Gift Set”. Everything I mention from this point on appears only in the gift set. The main attraction comes from a 166-page booklet. As described on the package, it presents “character designs, mecha designs, and selected storyboard sequences”. And indeed it does, as the booklet gives us scads of design art. No explanatory text comes with it – not unless the Japanese characters tell us something. I can’t say this booklet does anything for me, but I suppose it’ll be nice for fans.
Next comes a 22-page manga. This presents a Steamboy comic book. It’s a decent piece of work, though since all the text remains in Japanese, I don’t have the slightest clue what anyone says.
Finally, we come to 10 Steamboy Collectible Cards. These provide some poster art and images from the movie on 4”X6” cards. As with the other elements, they’re not essential but they’re pleasant.
Perhaps not a great example of Japanese animation, Steamboy at least excels in some departments. It certainly looks great, with terrific production design and artwork, and the story presents enough action and excitement to keep us involved. The DVD offers generally positive visuals along with excellent audio and a mediocre set of extras. Anime fans should definitely give Steamboy a look.
Unless you’re absolutely fascinated with the film, I’d recommend you avoid the “Collector’s Gift Set” edition of Steamboy. It includes some nice pieces, but it also retails for over $20 more than the standard DVD. It’s not worth it.