If I have to give Japan credit for anything, it would be for putting a unique spin on a story’s setting. Especially when it comes to nailing down an era. In American cartoons, and even most movies, it’s pretty clear that the setting is Anywhere and Anytime, USA. Occasionally a few old re-runs will show their age with tape cassettes (remember those?). And some very old shows will have a record player or two. But generally not much thought goes into spicing up the timeline. Japan, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more free in spicing things up with their animations. Let’s look at three of my favorite examples.
When I watched Fuse, I remember being pretty struck with the impression that they had taken a similar route to Samurai 7, abit a toned down version. In Samurai 7, you had all the trappings of feudal Japan, swords, kimonos, and those strange hats that actually work really well (not every country in the world has managed to make practical hats, so that’s an achievement). But it also has mechs, tanks, guns, lasers and pretty much any other high tech gizmo you might want in a science fiction. All said tech isn’t odd to the residents. It’s all very integrated, but also occasionally makes one wonder why swords and the like are still so favored when guns can be had by simple backwoods hunters… Regardless of it not making too much sense logically, it’s still very stylish and gives off a unique flavor of both old and new. And anime these days tend to need flavor. A lot.
Last Exile and Steamboy
Steampunk as a genre is known for its unique take on history, but Last Exile and Steamboy are the only anime I know that handled this setting alteration most consistently. Most other shows trying to be “steampunk” only have a few costume changes and call it good while the history, technology and social constructions remain modern.
That said, there is a bit of a difference between Last Exile and Steamboy in tone. Where Last Exile focused mostly on airships and had a bit more of a mythical/fantasy version of steampunk, Steamboy was more realistic, staying on earth and utilizing steam alone as an energy source of the “future” (aka ‘what would Victorian times have looked like if steam was all we had?’)
Howl’s Moving Castle
This one is an odd one as we never really know what era we’re in. From the clothing we can make quite a few guesses, but due to the fantasy setting and machines, it’s extremely ambiguous “when” we are. But the colors and places are held so consistent that the oddity seems normal in the world itself. The boats pulling into harbor and the carefree parade boast the same bright colors as the military airships overhead, making everything feel far more natural than it should be. To say nothing of the moving castle itself and the presence of magic in the world. This gives the whole setting a familiar, yet fantastical feel. We see clothing of the past, yet as Howl’s castle clunks by we are reminded that what we’re watching is not in our world.