Friday, August 6, 2010

GUEST POST: Japanese Steampunk

Adam Heine is well-known around these parts as a regular commenter, fellow Steampunk writer, and a stellar beta reader. He recently published a short story, "Pawn's Gambit," at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and discusses his journey toward publication of his Steampunk novel "Air Pirates" and other Steampunk-y goodness at his blog Author's Echo.

Matt has been doing a fantastic job with his informative posts on the history of steampunk and steampunk in history. I hope you don't mind if I complement his posts with something slightly less historical: steampunk in modern Japan.

What I love about Japanese media is how different it is from Western media. Even with our oldest tropes, the Japanese have a different way of thinking, resulting in some of the most imaginative and engrossing worlds I know. I'm going to look at a few so we can see what steampunk looks like outside the box.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
In America, Hayao Miyazaki has become one of Japan's most famous directors. In a medium already known for its unique settings, Miyazaki's are unmatched. Nausicaa takes place in a fantasy dystopia with a steampunk flare. Humans live in isolated pockets, defending themselves from the poisonous spores and giant insects that are slowly spreading across the world. Their technology ranges from windmills and gliders to machine guns and gigantic cargo planes.

The setting of Laputa is much closer to what
we think of as steampunk, strongly influenced by Welsh coal mining towns during the  Industrial Revolution. It combines military conspiracies with lost civilizations whose technology is so advanced as to appear magical. The world is also peppered with every kind of airship you could imagine, from gliders to blimps to massive warships held aloft by reams of propellers.

Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Skies of Arcadia
Steampunk is not relegated to movies. Many of the Final Fantasy video games have a steampunk flavor to them, with Final Fantasy VI being the strongest. The game takes place in a world of trains, carrier-pigeon communications, primitive chainsaws, and a high society similar to that of the late 19th century.

Skies of Arcadia, meanwhile, takes steampunk down a more magical path. Islands float above an uninhabitable planet, and travel is achieved by airship. The airships are unique in that they float using moonstones, and come in the shapes of Earthlike sea-going ships, from old sloops to modern battleships. Meanwhile, the story is more like Treasure Island, with air pirates, treasure, and swashbuckling adventure.

Full Metal Alchemist (2001)
Like a lot of steampunk anime, Full Metal Alchemist is set in a fantasy world similar to Industrial Revolution Europe. But in this world, alchemy is one of man's most advanced scientific techniques. A skilled alchemist could replace lost limbs, store a man's soul inside a machine, or even bring back the dead.

Steamboy (2004)
Where most of my examples take place in fantasy worlds infused with magic, Steamboy is classic steampunk in the Western sense. Ray Steam is caught in a struggle between his father and grandfather (both inventors like Ray) that ultimately threatens to destroy 19th-century London. It's got mad scientists, political conflicts, and an overdose of creative steam-powered inventions – everything a good steampunk movie needs.

Looking at its history in the West, it's easy to believe steampunk is just historical fiction with a little advanced technology thrown in. But steampunk can be fantasy as much as sci-fi, future dystopia as much as history, and adventure as much as mystery or horror. Looking at how other cultures treat the genre reminds us that, with a few constraints, steampunk can be whatever we make it.


K. Marie Criddle said...

I love this! I watched Nausicaa as a little kid overseas; maybe that's why steampunk tends to resonate with me. Brainwashed early! Geeeeeaarrrss...

Thanks for the info, I'll have to check out the rest!

Al said...

I have to say I'm not a huge fan of Anime. However, I have loved every Hayao Miyazaki movie I have watched.

Adam Heine said...

@K. Marie: I'm glad I could spread the love. The three movies I listed here are among my all-time favorites.

@Al: Miyazaki's anime is different from most (e.g. fewer giant fighting robots, not as many awkward teenage situations...). I'm not surprised you like it.

Arrgh said...

Don't forget Casshern.

Andrew said...

Can't believe you didn't mention Last Exile.

Adam Heine said...

@Arrgh and Andrew: I'm glad my short list is not the be all, end all of Japanese steampunk. Casshern and Last Exile both look exceedingly cool. Thanks for the links!

Harry Markov said...

Full Metal Alchemist is a brilliant guide, if you plan on juggling a big cast. It's very well plotted, paced and each character gets some kind of prime time to shine and develop beyond a label. I love that about the series.

Adam Heine said...

@Harry: It's not steampunk, but that's how I feel about (most of) Naruto. There's gotta be like 20 or 30 characters, but each one is fully realized.