I want to explore Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB) and its connections to the Cyberpunk and Steampunk genres. I struggled a lot deciding what to focus on when writing this post but ended up going back to my roots and looking at anime – something I haven’t done in a while.
Cyberpunk, while encompassing a high-tech aesthetic imagines a speculative future wherein humanity and technology are more closely intertwined – it looks at the dystopic reality of this connection. Steampunk is a subsection of the genre focused on Victorian-era aesthetics – in fiction it often presents a more romanticised view of reality (as opposed to the nihilism present in Cyberpunk).
According to King and Page (2017), Cyberpunk acts to reinforce the separation of mind and body – with people often being in virtual realities – meanwhile, Steampunk emphasizes the sensory, tying the materiality of machines to reality.
Where Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fits in
I want to consider FMAB as almost a mid-way point between Cyberpunk and Steampunk, using elements from both genres but not fitting into either. This is most obvious in the aesthetics – and while both genres have a lot more nuance than the visuals, they have well-defined aesthetics that represent those ideals. The image above compares the colour schemes of promotional material from Cyberpunk 2077, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and BioShock. Cyberpunk 2077, as the name implies, is set within an established Cyberpunk universe while BioShock is a grungy mix of Dieselpunk and Steampunk. Through the colour palette alone, FMAB sits in between the oversaturated neon of Cyberpunk and the muted grunge of BioShock.
Even Edward Elric’s automail prosthesis lies between the streamlined technology of Cyberpunk and the bulkier, gear-filled Steampunk look. I think this goes beyond Steampunk’s antimodernist rhetoric, while the series does explore the negatives of scientific advancement, we see automail prosthesis used as a tool for good.
Moving beyond the visuals, I’ve found a great article that investigates the Steampunk genre in Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA). Burmingham (2017) notes that FMA shares many of the conventions of Steampunk – starting with the characterisation; ‘a genius tinkerer who makes and repairs metal prosthetic limbs. The metal oy who pounders whether lacking an organic body, he “is” [and] the deeply flawed hero, a true believer in the “science” of the craft he practices.’
Brahambhatt defines cyberpunk protagonists as ‘rebels… reluctant heroes clinging to individuality in a world where invasive control is the norm’ this describes Edward Elric’s characterisation to a T, from his stand-out red coat to his refusal to bow to his superiors.
FMAB: The darker realities of humanity
When comparing western and Japanese portrayals of Cyberpunk, Japanese heroes generally try to save society from within the system while western cyberpunk seeks to subvert and destroy it – although there are exceptions. Edward works within the military system of Amestris, using the resources it provides to further his own goals. It is only once it is evident that the military is corrupt that he acts against it and even then, he primarily works with other members of the military, working to reform it rather than abolish it entirely.
Interesting to note is Alphonse Elric – in an attempt to bring back his mother from the dead he lost his body and was then tethered to a suit of armour. His character struggles with humanity, as he cannot eat and sleep – he is the quintessential android with human consciousness and represents some of the anxieties surrounding technology present in both genres. His existence poses questions about humanity and what it really means to be human.
FMAB also leans into the more nihilistic elements of Cyberpunk, through the infamous Shou Tucker and his daughter Nina. To keep his alchemist’s licence, Tucker turns his daughter (and their family dog) into a chimera – Edward Elric, whose motto is “Alchemy, be thou for the people” believes that there is nothing worth a human life. The series however shows that ‘one life is interchangeable with another if you don’t care about either of them.‘
FMAB & Network Topologies (weird, I know)
The content in FMAB can also be seen to challenge the idea of centralised networks. Amestris, the primary setting of the series, is a fascist military state and is structured under a single military leader. While, early in the series, this hierarchical layout can be efficient in the dissemination of information and control, it collapses once the central node – in this case the Fuhrer – is corrupted.
Contrasting this, when taking down the corrupt military Edward and co are separated into several groups – all working together in tandem to fight the centralised enemy. Although information is harder to pass on in this decentralised setting, each group can work towards their individual goals regardless of other groups being stopped or in the case of Greed, destroyed.
- Centralised >> control comes from one point
- Distributed >> all nodes are equal and connected
- Decentralised >> a combination of both
Looking towards the future
Fullmetal Alchemist leans into the antiquity of the Steampunk genre – with its 1900s setting and older aesthetics, but mixes this with the deeper moral questions and existentialism present in Cyberpunk. It presents a speculative future through the exploration of an alternative past and prompts viewers into considering what humanity would be like with fantastical elements, be they alchemy or advanced technology.
REFERENCES Burmingham, E., 2014. Antimodernism as the Rhetoric of Steampunk Anime: Fullmetal Alchemist, Technological Anxieties, and Controlling the Machine. In: B. Brummett, ed., Clockwork Rhetoric. Mississippi: University Press, pp.61-76. King, E. and Page, J. ed., 2017. Steampunk, Cyberpunk and the Ethics of Embodiment. In: Posthumanism and the Graphic Novel in Latin America. London: UCL Press, pp.109-136.