I finished the last volume of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist yesterday. It’s a justly famous and popular comic with endearing characters and some really exceptional pacing—I’d compare the way the panels flow to Jeff Smith’s Bone—but what really struck me was the effortless way Arakawa blended fantasy elements into an early twentieth century industrial setting. While the alchemy of the series is undoubtedly magic, the approach is a scientific one, and outbursts of the fantastic fir perfectly alongside automobiles and rifles.
The visual aesthetic of Fullmetal Alchemist broadly aligns with the various retro-futuristic “punk” subgenres of science fiction and fantasy that boiled up in the 1980s but seem to have solidified and become more of a presence in the 2000s. The terminology began with cyberpunk but has come to mean something different, and segmented to a laughable extent. Cyberpunk was the marriage of high technology with the grimy underclass world of punk rock; steampunk was quite literally a joke word to describe the marriage of old steam technology with the upper crust world of Victorian nobles. Now we have dieselpunk, decopunk, clockpunk, which basically mean re-imaginings of pulp adventure genres from post-Enlightenment eras that operate (more or less) within the confines of that era’s technologies. While potentially fascinating, in practice science fiction and fantasy that embraces the label in North America and Britain has, I’ve found, veered towards confused pastiche and don’t reach a very wide audience.
For whatever reason, the early twentieth century in Europe and America has produced far more appealing visions from East Asia. Fullmetal Alchemist takes names, historical cues, and architecture from central Europe in the 1920s/30s. A more useful point of comparison is the anime Last Exile, which operates on the visual level of dieselpunk’s ideal: giant airships coupled with graceful planes straight out of the interwar years, the brown-and-grey palettes of military and flight uniforms in the era. This type of industrial fantasy has spread to a much greater degree in east Asia than the “punks” of western sf, which is still a largely niche genre that uses the “punk” label to proclaim its own perceived special-ness. It seems every other cover of a pulp novel or comic book or animated series out of Japan has gears and black smoke and heavy machinery, that well-regarded classics like Castle in the Sky create an inextricable link between the feeling of magic and wonder with early twentieth century machinery.
The inspirations for the look are similar but the tradition and the deployment of that look are different. That might be why my comparison here isn’t all that useful; the style of industrial fantasy in East Asia appeals to me much more than what I’ve seen out of most of the “punks” in Anglophone sf, but they are coming from different (more than a geographic sense) places. Something about the anglophone sf tradition makes bringing the same elements together seem awkward where in Fullmetal Alchemist they seem the natural thing in the world to combine. These works, while on a surface level falling into the same category, evoke a very different reaction from me that lies rooted in their approach.