~ an essay on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist, created by Hiromu Arakawa, is a masterpiece. A powerful story backed by animation and characters as good as any in all of anime. FMA has a presence in many genres — adventure fantasy, science fiction, horror, family drama, military drama, geopolitical thriller, comedy, etc. Carries the weight of many different narrative directions and themes, boasting a charismatic cast of characters diverse in personality and background. It’s a story about the human condition. One running the full gamut of light and dark, goodness and malevolence, our humanity and inhumanity. Details the incredible capacity for people to come together in crises, wielding role with sincerity and carrying their own unique kinds of solutions to the often life or death problems at hand. It convincingly depicts the failings of rampant ambition, of hubris, cruelty and vengeance — all trademarks of Man’s pathologies, just as impassioned as our virtues, and just as integral to the building out of community and of oppression. Arakawa adapts a familiar world on the cusp of advancements and industrialization, full of kingdoms, bloodstained histories, deep cultural ties rife with cherished traditions and prejudices alike. It houses a fully fleshed out system of ‘magic’ in the form of alchemy at its core, cut from the whole cloth of an intricate lore. It is a story about sacrifice and redemption and companionship and love and the construction of a big family full of individuals sincerely trying to protect what they love (read: each other). FMA is also about the potential deconstructions of humanity amidst complex conditions and continual changes. It exacerbates all those things which can lead us astray, expounding upon how virtues can descend to sins. In sum, Fullmetal Alchemist is about everything.
I’ve said it before, after watching it in my youth, and I will say it again after rewatching the series once more — Fullmetal Alchemist is the Spider-Man of anime, in that — it might just be the best one there is. Here are my thoughts on the series, the characters, the story, the meaning.
A starting sin
The brotherhood between Edward and Alphonse Elric is the focal point of the story to be told in Fullmetal Alchemist. Is it their relationship, their experiences and their characters which drive the events and the message. It all begins in the vaguely European country of Amestris, in the early 20th century, where the two young boys grow up in an idyllic and green countryside with a doting mother, steeled in a sacred innocence not long for their world.
When tragedy strikes and their mother is taken from them too soon due to natural causes, they make a fateful choice. Using the gifts of their father’s knowledge left behind to them, in the most powerful tool of alchemy, they commit the ultimate taboo of the art. Unsupervised and ignorant of the dark consequences, the Elric brothers perform human transmutation. Their mother does not return from the dead, and they lose much more than their innocence. Edward’s arm and leg are traded, and Alphonse loses his body while retaining his soul in a suit of armor that Ed grafts him to using his own blood. They survive their trauma not wholly intact, body or spirit. And this is where their story begins. This bloody tragedy is how Ed gains the moniker of ‘fullmetal.’ It comes to describe more than just the steel of his arm and his leg. His spirit and eventually his heart, is made fullmetal, out of necessity.
Under the circumstance of material, alchemy operates under the tenet of ‘equivalent exchange’ — in order for something to be created, something of equal value must be destroyed, or displaced. The Elric endeavor dealt with the sacred immateriality of a human soul. The price of their err is nearly mortal. But it also serves as a powerful lesson to the two young boys — there is no easy path, there are no painless lessons, and the road to redemption is paved only for the persevering.
This childhood mistake, and the visceral, horrific scope of it, sets the tone for the rest of the story to be told, while also informing the two principal characters and their cornerstone. Edward Elric personifies drive, enduring the slings of fate with a stubborn smile. He doesn’t quit his art after a tragedy, one which would’ve stopped almost anyone else. Ed keeps the fire in his eyes until the very end, when his path leads him to world-changing stakes. // Alphonse embodies morality; he is the moral center of the show (and perhaps the universe). A gentle heart trapped within a steel suit of armor, bulky, spiked and imposing, Al is a potential friend to all the duo come across in their travails. He retains his sense of self and his kindness through it all, eternally patient. Their eventual cause to get his body back from the portal to displace his disembodied golem form often takes a backseat to the common good of protecting their companions and finding out the truths behind the complex threats facing them all. Alphonse is a hero unlike any other. Edward is Icarus manifested into the modern world— ambitious, clever and with a naive heart willing to believe in the impossible — but given a second chance.
Their search for the Philosopher’s Stone — or for the secrets of alchemy which may allow them to regain what they lost, and nothing more — is the perfect hook for the adventures to come.
Most importantly, out of these intensive opening circumstances, the chord of their indestructible bond, their brotherhood, is struck from the very start — He’s my little brother … I’m supposed to protect him … You can’t have him!
Every character matters
FMA features an ensemble of characters to die for. This winding and wayfaring story’s most impressive aspect may just be the fact that every single one of them matters in the end.
Robust and diverse, every character is given their time to shine — from Mustang’s loyal squadron of elbow-greased operatives, to the ambitious Xingese interlopers, to the chimera turn-cloaks and Greed’s crew of misfits, to the hardcore Briggs soldiers, to the Ishvalans and the Rockbells, to Rose, to Winry. Every character is an integral node upon the chain of the narrative and the journey of the Elric boys. Every character is experienced and reflected in the tapestry, with an archetypal role to play or a heart to touch.
All these characters and the minutia of their smallest, momentary influences and their hearts laid bare in the forge of consequential conflicts of body and soul, show just how much more a person is than their blood, their history or their stature in the hierarchy of the world. Boys and girls from the countryside become invaluable geopolitical assets and allies in the fight for a better world; ‘dogs’ for the military ascend to positions of leadership and lead meaningful political betterments; a housewife indirectly shapes the new world; a nameless slave made immortal by strange, old magicks saves the lives of every Amestrian. By the mere matter of their alchemical properties and their fleshy human bits, a person isn’t much more a bag of meat and blood and bone (the ingredients of a human body). But we know the truth. Through some special mix, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts and a breathing, thinking, loving being of practically infinite consequence is born. A human. The soul — the strange, inscrutable spirit within each of mankind — bears out emotions and stories and works to bring people together to create worlds to meet the imagination.
The characters of FMA all come together — disparate in their backgrounds, motivations and even sides of the conflict being waged — and make differences within the world none of them could ever hope to attain alone. The easy metaphorical comparison to make to their work together is the island revelation of Elric boys as child alchemists in training. By ‘Teacher,’ they are sent to the wilderness in order to survive for a month and along the way, try to learn the secret truth of the world.
“One is all and all is one.” ~ Everything has a part to play and every part is pivotal because it is integral to the whole.
Every character’s path ends up crossing in compelling ways; every character is given an intrinsic motivation, a future they are fighting for, and people they are beholden to; every character suffers and struggles in their fight to get what they want. Each is given ample time to make these struggles worthwhile. Some of the best scenes and episodes of FMA are midway through, when everyone has been introduced and is well along their chosen path, and plans are hatched amidst the chaos of the ongoing battles. Each Elric brother fights separate opponents while Mustang and Hawkeye make moves in central while Kimblee hunts down Scar while Scar runs down the secret fate of his people while the military arranges offensives and defensives while the homunculi puppeteer all the events in the shadows to their own opportunistic ends. All the goals are in play at once, being juggled in the narrative, some are aligned and some are at cross-purposes. It is in the intersections, interesting opportunities arising to develop the characters in relation to one another, where the best of the show is delivered.
Along these lines, a central focus of the world’s past and present, and these character’s struggles, is war. War is presented as a machine of death and upheaval and conquering consequences. Arakawa begs the question: in war, how can you achieve victory and still retain your humanity? As a nation, as a person, where is the point of no return in conflicts of mass blood-letting? Military conflict is also presented as a grand assembly of people, where changes and advancements can be effected upon the populace and its members. The Ishvalan War of Extermination lies in the recent past of FMA’s current events, and its devastation is still fresh in the hearts and minds of the survivors. FMA positions wars as capable of reverberating and influencing everyone in every surrounding community in ways that cannot be anticipated. War creates heroes and monsters, the foils of intense conflict where innocents will inevitably die. And due to the stakes and savagery of war, all can be justified in their responses to it, and the desperate, life-or-death measures it calls for.
The fighting, the underlying reasons for it, and the way in which the fight is carried out can be exemplified by Scar, the Ishvalan warrior, terrorist, survivor. Going by many names, his character is a burning mystery for much of FMA’s run (and is one of my favorite characters). His path crosses with the Elric’s at every pivotal turn. Their battle is existential and it is a proving ground for what is possible concerning restoration and cooperation in the aftermath of bloody wartime, between potential enemies.
Scar, apparent monster turned anti-hero, fights under the banner of God, divine justice and for the sake of spiritual solidarity with his fallen people. This counters the often atheistic or agnostic motivations from Edward and Alphonse, who fight in the name of reason, progress and the restoration of their worldly flesh. Each fights for what they believe in and each is justified in their ambitions and their rage at the injustices they see and can intervene upon. In the world of FMA, war and battle is still the best means of affecting change. Alchemy is the principal tool in this formulation, practically equal in its capacity for death-dealing as it is for scientific progressions. Characters create and resolve their demons with the use of it; Scar and Ed nearly kill each other with it. But alchemy also holds the ability to expedite the process of compromising and alliance-making.
It is through their battles and the revelations therein that they come to see their individual goals are not in opposition. Scar and the Elric brothers are able to come to an understanding before their conflict becomes fatal. And they do this through conversation, via exchanges of understanding borne of alchemy, as a potential tool for progress and as a potential anathema to the continuity of life itself. Of course, the Elrics’ willingness to hear his story and understand it in the terms it deserves to be understood, looms large in the resolution of their conflict. These interactions, perhaps more than any others within the narrative, truly change the fate of the characters involved — Scar turns from the path of vengeance upon the Amestrian people and shifts his focus way from destruction, and toward construction.
“You’ve got it wrong. I’m not destroying your country, I’m trying to save it.” ~ Scar
Enhanced Equivalent Exchange
Alphonse, at the end of the series, speaks of an enhanced version of equivalent exchange he is working on — a renewed process of alchemical reaction where something is added to the equation when the human element is sincerely accounted for. Perhaps Al describes ‘meliorism’ ~ which is the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meliorism. By the end, the audience understands that Alphonse and Edward Elric have long been operating under this metric of enhanced equivalent exchange, in all of their interactions with their friends, allies, and enemies along their journey.
Arguments can be made that Edward and Alphonse and Mustang are paragons for this kind of philosophy: individuals working passionately and believing in a world that can be made better by their own painstaking efforts. Call it radical optimism, our heroes wield it here. In fact, many of the other characters act this out over the course of the story, individually and collectively. Life is so clearly about more than exchanges and trades and equivalency; it is about coming together to create something more than the sum of its parts. As a species, humanity flourished by working together for the greater good, for more than individualistic gains. But perhaps this is not so clear or easily seen by those consumed by their pathologies … and the seven deadly sins.
“Searching for possibilities that aren’t bound by rules or laws. That’s how humanity advances.” ~ Alphonse
In the sins — the homunculi — the heroes of FMA are faced with their own inhumanity, their shadows manifested and made violently effective in the service of an entity — Father — consumed by humanity’s worst impulses. The homunculi are hyper-powered reminders of humanity’s failings. Gluttony is mindless, pathetic but also endlessly voracious. Sloth is a nihilistic force of nature, faster than any other but unwilling to use it. Lust is after power and victory and experience, blinded by them and at the cost of anything and everyone around her. Envy envies humanity most of all, for their companionship and their ability to come together for worlds outside of themselves. Greed displays the most humanity, perhaps in a reflection of greed being the most profoundly present sin in the masses of humanity. Wrath detests humanity for their weakness. He is the strongest fighter in the realm to effectively back up this feeling of superiority, but he is incapable of feeling anything like love for anyone, especially himself. Pride, consumed by arrogance and always doubting the power of humanity, loses when he fails to account for their selflessness and sacrifice. Ultimately, the homunculi, driven by the seven deadly sins, only achieve their temporary victories when they can effectively take advantage of humanity’s penchant to give in to their pathologies. It is when individuals relentlessly move together to protect what they love, united and fighting for everything outside of themselves, that the sins lose and die.
The homunculi, and Father as a final boss, are the crucibles which Ed and Al must overcome in order to build the world they can imagine, one enhanced by their collective and hopeful wills. Their journey is a series of exchanges – with friends and foes and with all the myriad dealings going on inside their own souls.
Vengeance can be seen as an exchange; forgiveness an enhancement.
Alliance is an exchange; love is an enhancement.
A conversation is an exchange; understanding is an enhancement.
The characters on the side of ‘good’ within FMA, the characters we love, always work to be on the side of the enhancing. When they stray, it is because the sin of pathological self-interest, prejudice, greed, corruption, and the ambitious pathway to power opens to them. “Keep moving forward” is the mantra Edward passes on to Rose in the first episode; it is one that he speaks on and tries to live by from harsh personal experience.
Both he and Alphonse – and in turn any that commit the taboo of human transmutation and open the portal of truth – are the myth of Icarus personified: At the highest levels, alchemy can be seen as a paradoxically accursed gift from the Gods. Humanity can use it to satiate a lust for power at their own mortal peril. Alchemy unlocks the hubris of humanity, their inner god complex, like nothing else ever has. It is the manifestation of an ultimate, strange and always effective power. This is why it drives the story and why Edward never looks back upon its use until the very end — it has the power to take him where he wants to go and it is the only way. In the end, alchemy always comes down to a choice. And at the story’s end, Edward’s choice to give up the practice for the sake of saving his brother is an easy one. But only because of the pain of his many lessons made along his arduous journey, and of course — for all of the friends he made along the way.
“This portal contains every secret, but it’s also led me astray.” ~ Edward to Truth
Edward’s ability to perform alchemy, his personal portal which has made him so powerful and effective in every worldly way thus far, is traded for the body and the life of his little brother, Alphonse. The transmutation is necessarily enhanced by the presence of Ed’s indestructible love for his brother. In the end, with one final transmutation, the law of equivalent exchange is shattered to all in view.
Edward made out like a bandit. ~