Friday, December 23, 2011

Steampunk and Fullmetal Alchemist

Back in college, I think I was a sophomore, some of my anime watching buddies started talking about Fullmetal Alchemist and how "awesome" it was. Many of my friends had started getting into anything that was steam punk or cyberpunk styled and the only good thing I saw about either style was that it was fun to look at, but that was about it. And as a result of this, I had never read or watched Fullmetal when it was at its height of popularity.

A couple weeks ago I was doing a manga-title search of tsutaya, which it where I always end up doing my manga-title searches, when I saw the Fullmetal display at the front of the section. I stood there for a little while and checked out the covers and decided that I would add it to my list of manga to read. It was such a commercial success that it seemed strange not to read it and see what all the fuss was about.

I completely understand why this manga was such a success.
Steampunk and Fullmetal Alchemist

Japanese mangaka, especially in shonen manga, often use fantasy and science fiction as main themes and genres to set their ideas and characters. These genres allow the mangaka a much wider and more malleable setting to showcase their plot lines and characters. Within the last decade steampunk styling and settings have become a popular sub-genre not just in manga but in contemporary literature as well. Fullmetal Alchemist is a pretty ambitious manga when looked at theme wise. Not only does it contain about half a dozen side plots that range from dysfunctional family life, family relationships, and military themes, but it tackles the scientific philosophy and ideology of alchemy and then layers on the visual theme of steampunk on top of that. Yet underneath all these rather universal themes, Japanese cultural traits are built into the characters. These characterizations are so subtle that the Western reader would not completely pick up on them unless they had prior knowledge to certain Japanese cultural values.

The visual theme and sub-genre of steampunk has become widely popular in not just Japanese pop culture but also in literature from the West. Philip Pullmens Dark Materials series is a very good example of this concept. While it is much more technologically advanced when compared to Fullmetal Alchemist, it establishes the books into the fantasy and science fiction genre. Visually, steampunk culture and styling evokes a sense of nostalgia for Victorian England. While the mechanical technology changes from work to work, they are revolve around a rather idealized view of the simplicity of Victorian times with the addition of advanced machines. 

Other manga have used this styling theme in different levels, but Arakawa uses the steampunk style to add a layer of simplicity to the characters and the world that they live in. By combining this feeling of nostalgia to themes such as civil war and immortality, it also brings the story into a different kind of focus and understanding. It also brings in a historical signifier that the Japanese as well as Western readers can pick up on. In Japan it would be the wartime regime from the 1920's to 1945 and for Western readers, depending on where they are from, could identify it with any kind of premodern, meaning before World War II, war period. At these times, the populace went into the army for nationalistic pride and understood that war was necessary because their country told them it was. Questioning for motives behind the war did not occur until after the soldiers were on the battlefield.

Besides the historical signifier that comes through the steampunk setting, there are other signifiers that are evoked through the different religious and ethnic groups that make up the Fullmetal world. One of these signifiers is ancient Greece or Rome through the Xerxes civilization, one is wartime Japan and Europe, and the Crusades and Middle Eastern conflict are evoked through the Ishvalan ethnic group. Arakawa must use these themes and signifiers intentionally to further connect the reader and the plot in this steampunk style. All of these signifiers, with the exception of the Crusades and ancient Greece and Rome, can be connected in some way to the Victorian era and they are all very easily drawn into the steampunk style. What all these signifiers have in common is oppression and military domination in either the government or in oppressing the enemy. These signifiers add more layers to the Fullmetal plot and also foreshadows what will happen later in the manga. These signifiers create a mindset that the reader unconsciously picks up on and then later applies it at the climax of the battle with “The Father”.

When reading a manga that does not obviously contain any overt Japanese cultural references, one just has to look characterization to find it. On obvious characterizations would be the concept of the “tragic hero”, but I am not looking into this concept. While there are “tragic heros” in this manga who do die for their values, they are not the main characters in this manga. Edward and Alphonse represent a different find of character that is attractive to Japanese readers, the ideas of kouha characters and makoto values. When contrasted with the nanpa character type, which are seen as “soft masculinity” and are characterized by chasing after ladies and sexual masculinity, these values are must more moralistic and make a clear statement about the character. They also indicate that, since the manga does not turn into a true “tragedy” in the Shakespearian sense, Edward and Alphonse would not die at the end of the manga. Now usually these values are showcased in manga that are targeting a certain subculture, but I will be using their concepts here to point out that they can be applied to the main male characters, not just in Japanese literature but it Western literature as well.

First lets discuss what kouha character type is. The kouha male character is the embodiment of masculinity. It combines violence, valor, and bravado with stoicism and sense of chivalry. These types of characters also carry the idea of makoto, which means a purity of motive. This idea is easily applied to the concept of a character being corrupted by outside forces or by the society that surrounds them. Both Edward and Alphonse almost perfect representations of the kouha character type. Throughout the whole manga Edward and Alphonse, on their quest to recover their original bodies, remain uncorrupted by the increasingly apparent corrupted military government of Amestris. They are also able to retain their sense of makoto by remaining true to their promise to each other to obtain their original bodies. Even when they are confronted with the horrible truth that the legendary philosophers stone is made by sacrificing living humans, they remain true to themselves and their values by continuing to search for another way to retrieve their bodies. 

By remaining uncorrupted by the corrupt military, Edward and Alphonse are able to see the truth of what is going on not only in the present, but historically in their own country. Edward and Alphonse both emphasizing these traits and remaining uncorrupted, they have survive and help lead the country into a new peaceful era; which is shown at the very end of the manga when both Alphonse and Edward separate to research different teachings of alchemy from Xing and the other surrounding countries. By emphasizing both kouha and makoto in this manga, while in theory it targets a certain audience of younger men, these traits in the Edward and Alphonse allow readers to admire them.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a manga and anime that is easily able to cross boarders and cultures. There are no obviously “Japanese” cultural concepts that other cultures would have difficulty identifying with. Yet when you look deeper into the characterization of the main male characters, some Japanese concepts and values can be discovered. Through the subtle influence of Japanese culture and the not so subtle use of steampunk styling and setting, Fullmetal Alchemist is able to achieve a true blending of Eastern and Western concepts and values.

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