Steamscapes: Asia Development Log -- Karakuri

Tea-serving karakuri ningyo
The images above are of a karakuri ningyo: a doll-sized robot that walks when you place a cup of tea in its tray.  These were used as an entertaining way of serving guests by the merchant class in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate.  It is but one example of karakuri: mechanized puppets and wooden robots that were used in religious festivals, theatre, and as household entertainment during the Edo period.

When I first started working on Steamscapes: Asia, I did a Google search for the phrase "Edo Era Robots" and discovered multiple articles about this amazing extrapolation of the clockwork technology Western explorers and missionaries brought to Japan during the Sengoku Jidai.  Since I have less time today than I'd like (but I want to keep building momentum), here's some links:

The First Japanese Robots: Karakuri Ningyo

Japan's First Robots Are Older Than You Think

Edo-period “robot” returns to life in Japan

And here's an awkwardly-subtitled piece about a tiny robot THAT DRAWS ARROWS FROM A QUIVER AND SHOOTS THEM!  It doesn't just pull back on the string once you put the arrow in its hand -- it draws the arrows from the quiver itself and then shoots them!!!

The only arguably fantastical element in Steamscapes is the presence of artificially-intelligent automata. Powered by miniaturized Babbage Engines, clockworks, and steam, the automatons have become so ubiquitous that they have been granted citizenship in some of the North American nations. In Japan, I'm going to assume that Western automata have been paralleled by improvements to the historical Japanese karakuri.

Now imagine what could be if those robots could be built at human size?  That tea-serving karakuri doll becomes something like this...

Karakuri by Keith Thompson

The exact place of automatons in the society of Steamscapes' Japan is something we're still working out.  Given the ubiquity of karakuri in real life, I'm inclined to think that they would be more common and prominent than many Western visitors would expect.  Perhaps bunraku puppet theatre has become the stage for karakuri actors?  Perhaps the geisha never developed because robot musicians played for the oiran instead?  Perhaps those little arrow-shooting dudes have been upscaled to shoot cannons?  And perhaps big-ass oni automata guard the land?
"Oni Grunt" by Emerson Tung


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  3. I like the idea of oni automata. And, I don't mean to lower the tone but, um, historically, Geisha provided services other than tea-ferrying, didn't they. Would that not form part of the life-size karakuri's remit too?

    1. Yeah, but the geisha is actually an evolutionary offshoot of a previous kind of woman of pleasure known as the oiran; basically, they started off as the backing band and later became so popular the lead singer got fired. I hypothesize simply that the oiran would have been popular longer if they weren't competing with human geisha.

      Plus, I think a robot geisha would be a cool player character.


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