Fullmetal {Essay}ist

~ 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. Arakawa 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. The tale is one running the full gamut of light and dark, goodness and malevolence, our humanity and inhumanity. It 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.

The story 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 makeshift family full of individuals sincerely trying to protect what they love (read: each other). FMA deconstructs the heart of humanity amidst complex geopolitical conditions and continuous and violent change. 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.

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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 of them all. Here are my thoughts on the series, the characters, the story, the meaning.

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Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – All intros

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 simple, sacred innocence not long for their world.

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When tragedy strikes and their mother is taken from them too soon due to natural causes, the Elric boys make a fateful choice. Using the gifts of their father’s knowledge left behind to them, tapping the powerful tool of alchemy, they commit the ultimate taboo of the art. Unsupervised and ignorant of the dark consequences, to bring back their beloved mother, 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 – out of necessity – is made fullmetal.

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For the scientific material world, 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. A grave lesson is served 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.

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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 respective cornerstones. 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. Each boy is given a second chance that they do everything in their power to take advantage of.

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.

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Most importantly, out of these intensive opening circumstances, the prime 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!

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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.

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the characters of Fullmetal Alchemist

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 Izumi, to Winry. Every character is an integral node upon the chain of the narrative, a recurring touchstone within 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.

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All these characters and the minutia of their smallest, momentary influences, 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 than 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 promised potential of imagination.

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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 the Elric boys as child alchemists in training. By their Teacher, they are sent to the wilderness and tasked with surviving for a month. Along the way, they must also try to learn the secret truth of the world… It only comes in the forceful recognition of such near death experience.

One is all and all is one.” ~ In our universe – in our communities – everything has a part to play. Every part is pivotal because it is integral to the whole.

The power of one man doesn’t amount to much. But, however little strength I’m capable of… I’ll do everything humanly possible to protect the people I love, and in turn they’ll protect the ones they love. It seems like the least we tiny humans can do for each other. ~ Roy Mustang
“ This picture was made for chapter 107 of the manga titled “The Final Battle” in which everyone is putting their fists into a circle before battle. Arakawa made sure to even put hints of people who were not in the final battle which you can...

True to this maxim, in FMA, every character’s path ends up crossing in compelling ways; everyone 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 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 cycling machine of political upheaval and hatred and psychosis and, of course, death. 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 enterprises of mass bloodletting? Military engagement is also presented as a grand assembly of people, where violent changes amidst economic advancements can be effected upon the populace. Conquest and imperialism, in addition to the nightmares engendered within the returning soldiers, inevitably create a vengeant strain of terrorism from the ancestors of the murdered and dispossessed.

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. From it as a focal, FMA positions wars as capable of reverberating and influencing everyone in the surrounding community, often in ways that cannot be anticipated. War creates its propagandized heroes and monsters, the false foils of intense violence where innocent death becomes commonplace. Due to the stakes of war, all can be justified in their responses to it, and the savage, desperate, life-or-death measures it calls for. Certainly, a country built out of a war – such as Amestris – that continues to needlessly wage it upon their neighbors, is doomed. Physically, metaphysically, a healthy society cannot survive endless war.

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Such endless fighting, the underlying reasons for it, and the way in which revolutionary vengeance is carried out — can all 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 thrilling}. It is a proving ground for what is possible concerning restoration and cooperation in the aftermath of bloody wartime, between potential enemies on opposing sides of the previous conflict.

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Scar, terrorist boogeyman turned righteous anti-hero, fights under the banner of God, for 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, scientific progress and the restoration of their worldly flesh. Soldier or no, each fights for what they believe in. Each is justified in their ambitions, in 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 life-saving science. 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, communicating, 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, even amidst its capacity for annihilation. Of course, the full-hearted Elrics’ willingness to hear Scar’s story and understand it in the terms it deserves to be understood, looms large in the peaceful resolution of their battle. 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 as a whole, and focuses it upon her prime tyrants. Altogether, he shifts his focus away from destruction, and toward construction; the Elrics, alongside Winry, reap some peace from the forgiveness that they so dutifully sow.

“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.

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The world isn’t perfect, and the law is incomplete. Equivalent Exchange doesn’t encompass everything that goes on here. But I still choose to believe in its principle: that all things do come at a price. That there’s an ebb, and a flow, a cycle. That the pain we went through did have a reward and that anyone who’s determined and perseveres will get something of value in return, even if it’s not what they expected. ~ Alphonse Elric

Arguments can be made that Edward and Alphonse and Mustang are paragons for this kind of philosophy: individuals working passionately to forge a belief about a world that can be made better by their own painstaking efforts. Call it radical optimism, our heroes wield it here in this universe. Many 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 cooperating for a greater good, for more than individualistic, material gains alone. But perhaps this is not so clear or easily seen by those mired in war, consumed by their pathologies and by their 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 Man’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 or his will.  Lust is after power and victory and raw experience; and she is blinded by them alone, pursuing them at the cost of everyone around her. Envy envies humanity most of all, for their companionship and their ability to cooperate 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 essence of each of the seven deadly sins, only achieve their temporary victories when they can effectively take advantage of humanity’s penchant to give in to their own weakness. 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 hopeful wills. Their journey is a series of exchanges and enhancements – with friends and foes, with all the myriad dealings going on inside their own souls.

Exchange – the act of giving or taking one thing in return for another.

Enhancement – to increase or improve in value, quality, desirability, or attractiveness

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.

“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via”

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.

“Stand up and walk.
Keep moving forward.
You’ve got two good legs.
So get up and use them.”

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. 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 how 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. Under the weight of his child age sins, for a time, it is the only way forward for him.

To any worldly 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 received upon their arduous journey. It’s a simple call to make, before all of the friends they have cultivated along the way. By journey’s end, Ed is now surrounded by a community who stands by him and his bro in righteous solidarity, altogether wielding a different kind of power in a new world, profoundly altered by their efforts.

~ art by NikuSenpai

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. And Edward made out like a bandit. ~