Anime fans will be well aware of the futuristic 1988 film Akira, which brought international attention to Japanese animation for the first time. The film made director Katsuhiro Otomo a star in the animation world. But it's taken him until now to direct a follow-up. Although Otomo has worked consistently as a producer and scriptwriter, he hasn't directed an animated feature since Akira. Why? He's spent much of the past 16 years working on his dream project, an animated H.G.Wells-style story about a powerful steam generator. A number of production companies and US$22 million later, that dream project has finally arrived, in the form of action adventure Steamboy, which will open in Hong Kong later this year. Anime fans will probably judge the wait worthwhile - it's a rollercoaster action film which thunders along with some top-notch set pieces and some studiously researched period locations. Set in England in the 1850s, the plot revolves around a scientific invention called a Steam Ball - a Steam Age variant of a nuclear power generator. When the Steam Ball is stolen by evil arms manufacturers, a young boy is sent to steal it back from their giant steam-powered city, the Steam Castle. Young Indiana Jones-style, the boy is helped (and then hindered) by historical figure Robert Stephenson - the inventor of the first steam locomotive - as he tries to return the ball to its rightful owners. The green and pleasant land - and the grimy industrialised cities - of Victorian England are beautifully rendered in Otomo's animation. But the steam-driven machines and vehicles are the stars of the show. Anime is noted for its futuristic machinery, but in Steamboy, Otomo creates a world of old-fashioned technological wonders all powered by that archaic power source, steam. 'I was inspired by the designs of steam engines that were actually used in Victorian times,' Otomo says. 'Back then, they didn't really worry about how technology looked - they just designed things that would work. They had a very functional approach. I chose the most ugly and wasteful designs to act as the models for the machines in the film. We all tried hard to make them look convincing - although whether they would work in the real world is another matter!' To research his meticulous depiction of Victorian England, Otomo and his animation team spent 10 days in Britain studying the landscapes and the cities. They travelled from London to Manchester and York, drawing pictures and taking photos. The animators even studied cloud formations, which Otomo says vary from country to country. 'We all went to England back in 1996,' Otomo says. 'We studied the atmospheric effects and the sunlight, and visited various museums which have information about steam engines from the era. I think that affected the result quite a bit. I also bought a lot of stuff there - things like old photo collections which would have been impossible to find in Japan. They helped a great deal, too.' Otomo, 50, started his career drawing manga comics in 1973. His post-apocalyptic manga series Akira was a big hit in the early 80s, and he developed it into the hit film in 1988. 'To be honest, I didn't like the Akira film much,' he says. 'I actually left the cinema during its premiere. I thought it was going to be a big flop. I laugh about that now.' Since Akira, Otomo has made a short film called Cannon Fodder, which also featured steam-age machinery, and scripted two internationally successful anime films, Roujin Z and Metropolis. He's a big fan of two contemporary greats of anime: Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle). 'I like their work a lot,' he says. But his main influence is the so-called godfather of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka, whose many creations include Kimba the White Lion and Astroboy: 'If I had to pick a favourite animator, it would be him.' Like Oshii and Miyazaki, Otomo has always been interested in exploring the effects of technology on humanity. In Akira, a great nuclear explosion in Neo-Tokyo references future worries as well as the atomic bombing of Japan. In Steamboy, he's more ambivalent - or perhaps realistic - about technology's impact. The great Steam Ball was invented for good, but it's quickly stolen and used for evil. Even those who legally own it aren't entirely blameless - they want to use it to power war machines of their own. 'Technology is neither good or bad, really, it's the way you use it that matters,' Otomo says. 'People have different values, and those differences bring out conflicts or sympathy between them. Technology is just the tool they use to solve these conflicts. I think this is the source of all the drama behind Steamboy.' There's a certain irony in the technological worries of anime directors. After all, it's a technology-driven art form. To complicate things further, most anime fans like the films to look hand drawn. If an anime has a computer-animated look, they'll reject it as unimaginative. So, computer animation has to be used with care. 'About a quarter of Steamboy used CGI [computer generated images],' says Otomo. 'But even those bits don't look computer animated, in my opinion - I don't think that viewers would notice. I basically use the digital techniques to assist the hand drawing, rather than replace it.' Even the clouds of spewing steam - which are notoriously difficult to animate - are hand drawn. 'I tried CGI simulations but it was difficult to control the movement,' says Otomo. 'I decided to go with traditional hand-drawing. There were some special effects put on top to make it look blurred, but basically we drew the steam by hand, using fractal geometry as a guide.' Steamboy has been 10 years in the making, but Otomo says he's enjoyed every minute. 'I kept interested, as I wanted to see how it would turn out. Even a director doesn't know exactly how his film is going to end up. I wanted to see the completed film, and that's the sole reason I kept at it so long.'