Steampunk in Anime

Steampunk in Anime

Introduction

Steampunk is the inclusion of high-tech, or higher-tech, mechanical inventions within works which take place during the 19th century, when steam power was the primary form of locomotion. Since it specifically refers to mechanical inventions, digital computers and the like don’t count as steampunk.

These mechanical steampunk technologies are often on-par with, or more advanced than, the digital technologies we have today. That said, they also aren’t always the most practical inventions when compared to their modern, often digital, counterparts.

While there are true steampunk anime out there, what I’ll be focusing on in this post is how steampunk ideas have infiltrated and influenced anime which wouldn’t necessarily be considered part of the genre for various reasons.

Specifically, I’ll mainly be taking a look at how steampunk has influenced multiple anime set in two different time periods: the 19th century and the Great War. The decade in which the first world war took place aren’t traditionally counted in the “steampunk age,” but I think you’ll find it’s the perfect backdrop for steampunk ideas.

19th Century

Attack on Titan is the first series I want to discuss regarding steampunk themes in anime. As some of you may know, AoT is actually a mecha anime in disguise. The titans work in the same way as mechs in many respects, and our heroes are part of a “rebel alliance” fighting against a larger power.

So, as a mecha anime in disguise, it’s only natural that some of the “futuristic” technology of the mecha genre would make its way into the series. The best example of this is the 3D Maneuvering Gear used by the military, but other examples exist such as the titan-trapping harpoon launchers.

3D Maneuvering Gear in action from the anime Attack on Titan
3D Maneuvering Gear in action (Attack on Titan)

Considering this series appears to take place during the 19th century, these technologies are more advanced than they should be, and the 3D Maneuvering Gear specifically is technically more advanced than anything we have today. Sure, we could probably make it, but it wouldn’t work as advertised in the anime.

But before I get into the specifics of the 3D Maneuvering Gear, let’s first take a look at why I say AoT takes place in the 19th century:

  1. Horses and boats are the primary modes of transportation.
  2. Flintlock rifles are the norm.
  3. Cannons are the heaviest form of artillery.

It’s true that these things are still used once we get into the 20th century, but they quickly fall out of use as more advanced technologies are created and become mainstream. Cars replace horses, automatic weapons become commonplace for the military, and cannons are replaced with longer-ranged artillery.

Because we see no automobiles or automatic firearms, we can also assume that AoT more than likely takes place in the first half of the 19th century, before these technologies began being invented in earnest. However, because AoT is influenced by steampunk, some of these technologies may not exist simply because they’ve been replaced.

For an example of a steampunk technology replacing a modern one, we need only to look towards the 3D Maneuvering Gear used by the military, specifically, the weapons attached to it: swords. Now, I know what you’re thinking, swords aren’t steampunk, and that’s correct.

However, it’s how the swords are used that is steampunk. Because titans, not humans, are the primary thing the military is fighting against, swords work better than automatic firearms and so have replaced them. Further, the replaceable blades are a way to turn the sword into a more modern weapon.

They’ve taken an old weapon like the sword, and upgraded it through mechanical means to make it work better for the situations they now find themselves in. Swords take a lot of damage to the blade when fighting titans, so how do you fix this? Carry spare blades instead of entire spare swords.

The next part of the 3D Maneuvering Device is truly the essence of steampunk, the steam-powered grappling hooks. Technically they’re powered by compressed air, not steam, but I couldn’t just give up the chance to say that something was steam-powered during my post on steampunk in anime.

In fact, I don’t believe that any of the technologies I’ll be mentioning in this post are actually powered by steam.

But the 3D Maneuvering Gear isn’t the only steampunk technology found in AoT as I mentioned earlier. The mass harpoon-launchers used for capturing titans are another example, and they appear to be powered by compressed air just like the grappling hooks of the 3D Maneuvering Devices, but on a larger scale.

There are also the cannons and boats. “But, DoubleSama,” you’re saying to yourself, “how are cannons and boats steampunk? Those are supposed to be in the 19th century!” Yes, they are, but not in the way we see them in AoT.

For example, the cannons are all mounted on tracks along the walls so they can easily be moved to wherever the titans are amassing. They’re also specially designed to be able to aim directly downward so they can hit titans which are right up against the walls.

But that’s a slight example, the better example is the boats. I don’t recall when the last time we saw the boats was, but in season one we see them being used to ferry civilians into the interior walls after the outer wall was breached, and also to transport goods.

However, these boats aren’t powered by sails, oars, or a natural current as we might expect. Instead, they all run along ropes which run above the canals. Each boat has a large tread-like “sail” which crawls along the ropes much like how a tram runs along the wires running above its tracks.

While we would expect to see steam-powered trains in the world of AoT, the truth is that they simply aren’t needed. The distances between everything within the walls is close enough that trains aren’t needed, and these boats work just as well for mass transit and the transportation of goods.

The Great War

War drives the innovation of technologies. Because of this, it’s no real surprise that the first world war would be the perfect backdrops for steampunk ideas. That said, the two anime I’ve chosen as examples of steampunk ideas in this time period are surprisingly tame when it comes to their mechanical technologies.

Violet Evergarden and Fullmetal Alchemist share a lot in common when it comes to steampunk ideas, but other than that, they’re two very different series. The primary similarity is the use of mechanical limbs, known as automail in FMA.

Edward Elric of FMA has an automail right arm and left leg, while the titular character of Violet Evergarden has two mechanical arms. The only other similarity between the two series is that FMA takes place during the years of WW1 while Violet Evergarden takes place just after its end.

Violet and one of her mechanical hands from the anime Violet Evergarden
One of Violet’s mechanical hands (Violet Evergarden)

While all three series I’ve mentioned so far count as fantasy, as do all steampunk series, FMA and Violet Evergarden are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Violet Evergarden is, for the most part, a realistic drama, while FMA is more aligned with traditional fantasy considering it has an entire magic system (alchemy).

But no matter what end of the fantasy spectrum these series lie on, I think we can all agree that the inclusion of these mechanized limbs is very steampunk. Even our modern artificial limb technology isn’t as advanced as what we see in these series, despite these being solely mechanical creations.

In FMA: Brotherhood, there are some other cases of steampunk influence such as the Northern military base controlled by General Armstrong, but for the most part, automail is the steampunk influence in the series. So why is this the case?

For FMA, I think what it comes down to is the magic system in the form of alchemy. As I mentioned with AoT, there’s no need for trains because the boats already serve the same purpose, this same concept is true for FMA. Since alchemy exists, there’s less of a need for some of the steampunk technologies we would otherwise expect to see.

As for Violet Evergarden, her mechanical arms are a mystery to me. While in FMA, automail limbs are quite common compared to what one might expect, Violet is the only one in her respective series to have mechanical limbs. Further, since her arms are the only evidence of steampunk influence in the anime, can we really call Violet Evergarden steampunk?

Personally, I wouldn’t call the series steampunk, but as I mentioned at the start, I wouldn’t really call AoT or FMA steampunk either, despite those being more heavily influenced by it. Instead, I’d say these series are all steampunk-inspired.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for more traditional steampunk anime, Alderamin on the Sky or WorldEnd may be for you. Of these two, WorldEnd is more of a traditional fantasy steampunk series, but they’re both roughly about the same rating as far as I’m concerned.

Unfortunately, compared to the ratings of 8, 9, and 10 for AoT, FMA, and Violet Evergarden respectively, my ratings for Alderamin on the Sky and WorldEnd are 4 and 5 respectively, so they’re not the best anime. But, hey, if you like steampunk a lot then maybe you’ll like them more than I did.

If you enjoyed this post, let me know by clicking the like button down below. I actually planned this post for two weeks ago, but kept pushing it off for more topical posts such as my weekly episode reviews. If posts like this get likes, it lets me know they’re still worth writing and can influence what I write in the future.

Finally, follow me on Twitter @DoubleSama. Who knows, maybe I’ll do some sort of special post for 100 Twitter followers or something.

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