Japanese Steampunk: Science, Religion, and Technology in ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’

The retrofuturism of steampunk literature relies often on representations of science fiction and fantasy to construct neo-Victorian alternative histories populated with advanced technology pushing the views of scientific progress. These narratives not only imagine new possibilities for the future, but also situate their alternative histories within a framework that juxtaposes scientific advancement against the notion of faith and religious dogma. In the case of Shonen manga, Japanese comics and graphic novels written for young male audiences, the steampunk genre is reproduced with a Japanese cultural aesthetic, giving readers the chance to experience steampunk as a transnational literary form. Hiromu Arakawa’s manga publication, Fullmetal Alchemist (2001-2010), serves as a popular example of Shonen narrative that looks presciently towards a neo-Victorian future defined by a tension between science, religion, and alternate types of technology. In this essay, I argue that volume 1 of Fullmetal Alchemist depicts steampunk as an alchemical affair that raises important concerns about the existential properties associated with science and religious faith. By analyzing how the manga experiments with its story-related maxim of equivalent exchange, my reading shows how Japanese steampunk invokes Victorian ideals in its scientific critique.

Steampunk literature remains a highly marketable subgenre of fiction given the broad appeal to readers interested in narratives about science, technology, and social transformation. While Victorian-Era texts often mythologized the norms of science and industrialism through works such as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), more contemporary works of popular literature have routinely adopted steampunk characteristics connected to social anxieties about technology and modernity. Victorian conceptions of steampunk were intricately understood as that of an industrial “activity system” centered on “the acts of consumption and production.”[1] The advent of machinery meant a revaluation of human beings as proto-mechanical archetypes who could be defined in terms of systems of cultural exchange, monetization, and manipulation. But how do we reckon with the dominating systems of science and technology when humans become part machine themselves? This concern manifests itself within the transnational context of Japanese steampunk, most notably Hiromu Arakawa’s popular manga series, Fullmetal Alchemist (2001-2010), in which she depicts the social anxiety of alchemy. Presented in the text as a morally dubious branch of science juxtaposing machinery against religious piety, alchemical principles frame the existential quandary that exists between technology and faith. By participating in the “fetishization of the mechanical,” certain characters within the story reveal how alchemy ultimately embodies a dangerous reverence for machinery that becomes its own idolatry.[2]

The story of Fullmetal Alchemist chronicles the expedition of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, practitioners of alchemy who are actively searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, a rare alchemical form of metal that has the power to restore their bodies. As children, the two brothers attempted to use the power of alchemy to return their deceased mother to life, but by violating the quintessential maxim of “equivalent exchange,” both brothers lost something irreplaceable. Alphonse lost his entire body while Edward lost his leg and arm. In order to save Al, Ed uses alchemy to bind Al’s disembodied soul to a suit of armour. In addition, Ed’s missing body limbs have now also been replaced with a “biomechanical [set of] prostheses” called ‘automail.’[3] While these mechanical replacements grant Ed and Al incredible strength, they also serve as symbolic reminders of their alchemical failure and the cost that comes with attempting the forbidden. The first issue of Fullmetal Alchemist introduces “equivalent exchange” in the first few pages of the manga by listing a maxim that accompanies the flashback of failed transmutation:




In the manga, the law of “equivalent exchange” establishes that any alchemical procedure requires one to sacrifice something of equal value to obtain another substance of equivalent value. This maxim also applies to the existentialist components of the narrative, thus revealing equivalent exchange to be both a scientific principle and a major concept that governs character interactions. In order to gain anything, a character must be willing to forego something of equal importance to ensure that the equilibrium of natural law is maintained. However, Arakawa uses her manga to test the endurance of these very ideals, showing how such temptation to use technology persists as a consistent aspect of steampunk literature.

Figure 1: Title Page from ‘Chapter 2’ of Fullmetal Alchemist. The middle panel depicts Edward revealing his “automail” protheses alongside Alphonse. On the right is Father Cornello, a priest who uses a fake version of the Philosopher’s Stone. On the left is Rosé, a young girl who desires for her dead boyfriend to be brought back to life. The bottom left quotation refers to the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

Volume 1 of Fullmetal Alchemist begins with Edward and Alphonse arriving at a town rumored to house the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. Upon further investigation, the brothers learn about a priest who runs the town known as Father Cornello. Having established a theocratic state, Cornello has convinced the town residents to worship him based on the ‘miracles’ he performs. In actuality, Cornello uses a special ring to imitate the Philosopher’s Stone by performing low-grade alchemy. Whereas the entire town sees this as evidence of divinity incarnate, Ed and Al recognize the process as a basic form of transmutation.

By starting the manga with a story that juxtaposes religious faith against scientific empiricism, Arakawa echoes a recognizable Victorian-era sentiment regarding epistemological concepts of belief, rationality, and scientific truth. Indeed, Victorian texts often challenged or redefined the boundaries of knowledge in ways that reflected shifting cultural perspectives around matters of scientific theory and evolutionary biology. Most notably, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) introduced natural selection with attention to social progress, substituting the “preindustrial modes of legitimation, religion in particular, [with] secular, naturalistic redefinition[s] of the world.”[5] Within the context of Fullmetal Alchemist, those who practice alchemy (such as Edward and Alphonse) subscribe to an epistemological comprehension of the natural world based in scientific truth. Therefore, when Ed and Al encounter Rosé, a young girl who prays for Cornello to use his mysterious powers to resurrect her dead boyfriend, the end result is a confrontation between the brothers and Cornello that concludes with shattering Rosé’s view of faith.

Upon discovering that the entire town is being deceived by Cornello, Ed and Al connect with Rosé in an attempt to seek an audience with the priest. Given that the entire town remains oblivious to science, Ed proceeds to explain to Rosé that divine miracles do not exist, and that her faith in Cornello’s power to resurrect the dead is misplaced. In this explanation, he provides a chemical breakdown of the human body that confounds Rosé, primarily because she has no knowledge of the Periodic Table of Elements:

Figure 2: Manga panel from page 21 of Fullmetal Alchemist depicting Ed describing modern science to Rosé. In addition to denoting the physical chemicals that comprise the human body, Edward also uses this opportunity to explain the “law of equivalent exchange.” Source: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 1 Edition.

The manga panel shows Edward as having a detailed understanding of several interconnected scientific disciplines such as chemistry, anatomy, and biology. He deconstructs the chemical compounds located within the human body, identifying elements like “carbon,” “fluorine,” and “phosphorous.” However, his additional identification of water (H2O) and salt (NaCl) highlights a deeper familiarity with the laws of chemical reactions, the individual mass of compound elements, and their molecular ratio within the body. These scientific details reveal the extent to which alchemical knowledge requires one to have an extensive education in modern science. And yet, Ed acknowledges that these advancements in science, while significant, have not yielded a theory on the issues of human transmutation. While his comments certainly portray him as a postindustrial embodiment of scientific progress, they also serve to challenge the validity of Rosé’s own existentialist views which are firmly rooted in conceptions of God and faith.

A common motif of steampunk literature is that of the technological gadget that “revalues technology” in order to shape the contexts of “our environment and our relationships.”[6] In the case of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), the Nautilus exists as a representation of scientific progress and ingenuity. Likewise, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) depicts a mechanical device that changes how the Time Traveller perceives the future trajectory of human history. In both examples, technology fosters curiosity and peril. The same is true of Fullmetal Alchemist in that alchemy recalibrates the notion of technological possibilities while also engaging new concerns about ethics, power, and belief systems.

When Edward and Alphonse confront Father Cornello, Ed must use a form of transmutation allowing him to conjure metal weapons. Normally, an alchemist must first make a transmutation circle to initiate the process, but Edward is capable of performing complex alchemical transmutations without one. In the fight, Cornello reveals to Rosé that Edward is known widely as the ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ based on his famous proficiency with alchemy, but he also mentions Ed’s dubious past as someone who violated the laws governing alchemy by attempting human transmutation. Indeed, Ed’s transgression embodies the moral behind the Greek myth of Icarus given that alchemy granted Ed the “wings of wax” resulting in him flying “too close to the sun” of godly knowledge. At this moment, Rosé sees firsthand the costs of technological excess by bearing witness to the biomechanical protheses that have replaced his limbs:

Figure 3: Edward reveals his biomechanical prostheses after duelling with a Chimera that was conjured from Father Cornello’s alchemy substitution ring. Source: Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 1. Viz Media Edition.

In the manga panel, human transmutation is described as an “unspeakable crime” that alchemists must avoid because of its prohibitive ramifications. Since the law of equivalent exchange requires some kind of sacrifice proportionate to the value of what is obtained, how might resurrecting the dead complicate the nature of the sacrifice? In this sense, the manga suggests that alchemy, despite its infinite possibility of potential outcome, cannot be performed indiscriminately without attention to the ethical quandaries of natural law and human existence. Moreover, this issue presents the question of how to appropriately value human life, something that can be constructed as being more than just an object of physical mass.

Indeed, the nature of sacrifice in equivalent exchange manifests itself equally so in a Victorian text like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Whenever Dr. Jekyll actively drinks his serum and mutates into Mr. Hyde, a remnant of his original personality is overridden by his alter-ego. This iteration of human transmutation ultimately requires Jekyll to sacrifice a part of himself, but even after reverting back from Mr. Hyde, he still loses a fragment of his identity. Much like Edward and Alphonse, Dr. Jekyll becomes a victim of equivalent exchange in that his addiction to science does not come without personal cost. Likewise, while the Elric brothers had the correct amount of nitrogen, salt, water, and carbon to constitute a human body, neither had possession of their mother’s soul. This oversight reveals that alchemy cannot account for the spiritual embodiment of a human; a point reified by the abject inability of modern science to evaluate the “most basic human value” of the human soul.[7]

By having Edward reveal his automail to Rosé, the text establishes that the idolatry of science, machine technology, and alchemy demands equal skepticism to that of religious faith. Given that the steampunk aesthetic clearly challenges the “relationship between science, technology, and human social relations,” Ed’s alchemical sin becomes a cautionary tale for both Cornello and Rosé.[8] For Cornello, he insists on using a fraudulent Philosopher’s Stone without regard for the self-harm that can occur when subverting the law of equivalent exchange. For Rosé, the automail signifies the physical costs of trying to resurrect the dead using alchemy. Neither science nor religion has the capacity to upend the natural law of death.

Figure 4: Rosé in tears after learning from Edward that Cornello’s Philosopher’s Stone was fake. With Cornello’s deception exposed, Rosé questions what to believe in (Source: Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 1)

After Edward defeats Father Cornello, he reveals to Alphonse and Rosé that the ring he used was fake, since the real Philosopher’s Stone is made of perfect metal. In the final panel of the chapter, Rosé cries in response to learning the awful truth of Cornello’s deception. She demands that Edward tell her how to live and what to believe in. By answering callously with “think about that on your own,” Edward is signalling that self-determination remains the only viable means of discerning truth. Rather than placing faith in something opaque, Ed suggests that Rosé find the answer herself. Of course, the irony here is that Edward, by continuing his own search for the Philosopher’s Stone, remains committed to locating an object that itself could be entirely mythical. In both instances, Hiromu Arakawa develops characters who derive their existential beliefs through a sense of loss. For Ed, his mother. For Rosé, her boyfriend and lover. However, the manga remains quite agnostic, refusing to claim either science or religion as a preferred method for acquiring truth. In this way, the Japanese steampunk of Fullmetal Alchemist reveals that the manifold of epistemological sensibility lies in the capacity for human beings to remain sceptics.

Julian Whitney (@JulianSWhitney) is a Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN. His research focuses on British Romanticism, the Byron-Shelley Circle, critical race studies, and Japanese popular culture. He is the author of “A Black Manifesto: Ottobah Cugoano’s Radical Romanticism,” (Studies in Romanticism, 2022) and “Planetary Crisis: Consumption and Resource Management in Byron’s Darkness” (The Byron Journal, 2022). At Wabash, he teaches courses such as Composition, Law and Literature, British Literature 1800-1900, and Japanese Manga and Anime.

Notes & references

[1] David Beard, “Introduction: A Rhetoric of Steam” from Clockwork Rhetoric: The Language and Style of Steampunk, ed. by Barry Brummett (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2014), xvi.

[2] Elizabeth Birmingham, “Antimodernism as the Rhetoric of Steampunk Anime: Fullmetal Alchemist, Technological Anxieties, and Controlling the Machine,” from Clockwork Rhetoric: The Language and Style of Steampunk, ed. by Barry Brummett (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2014), 68.

[3] Lesley-Anne Gallacher, “(Fullmetal) alchemy: the monstrosity of reading words and pictures in shonen manga.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 18, no. 4 (October 2011): 458.

[4] Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist Vol. 1. San Francisco, VIZ Media Edition, 2002.

[5] Bernard Lightman, Victorian Science in Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 119.

[6] Beard, xxiv.

[7] John Raynard, “Japanese Anime and the Life of the Soul: Full Metal Alchemist.Psychological Perspectives, 49: 2006, 271.

[8] Beard, xxiv.

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