Fullmetal Alchemist: Drama, Trauma, and Adulthood

Cover for Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist

2003-2004

Aniplex (translation)

Okay, so it’s not a book, although a book series (specifically, a manga series) exists. I’m writing about the anime here—so yes, a TV show.  But it kind of works like a novel—work-length plot arcs and all—and after watching the whole thing, I wanted to write about it. So there.

Because I’ve had trouble finding time to write about this, I’m trying to fit a lot into one post and it is a little disjointed. Sorry.

I’ll include only vague, general spoilers, and try not to reveal too much about specific events.  I won’t make any promises about the comments, although if you’re going to get all spoilery, please put a spoiler warning.
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Fullmetal Alchemist is, um, well, it’s very anime. It’s not subtle. It’s not understated.   It’s high drama and broad humor and huge stakes. It’s the sort of story that includes scenes in which a being from beyond physical reality shows up, and having failed to integrate into a family, proceeds to try to kill the hero with his own amputated limbs—and as an audience member, you think, well, I should have guessed that would happen at some point. There’s more to the show than moments like this, but when I think of it, I always think of the viewer leaning forward and staring at it, wide-eyed and unable to budge. If you’re not invested in it, it would very likely seem silly.

But I was invested in it.  I have a weakness for stories like this, especially when (as in this case) they take themselves seriously and don’t attempt to manipulate.  Besides, I liked the characters.  So I found myself seriously considering the philosophy of the show, worrying about the plot, and thrown for a loop over one of the deaths—seriously, I haven’t mourned for a character this way since Finny,* whose death I experienced when I was sixteen and had much more excuse for this sort of thing.  But if you’ve watched the show, you’ll know which one I mean.

And yet, in the midst of this show with extreme crisis after extreme crisis and a very high body count and metaphysical  horrors and so on, you’ve also got, well, this guy:

Major Alex Louis Armstrong

[picture of Major Alex Louis Armstrong, a character from Fullmetal Alchemist.  He is a very tall man with comically oversized muscles. He is not wearing a shirt, because he has removed it, as he often does, for the purposes of showing off his muscles. He is bald, except for a single curl emerging from the front of his head. The effect is not dissimilar from that of a stylized depiction of a baby.  For no particular reason, he is surrounded by pink sparkles.]

Yes, that is a character from the show, and one who actually participates in the plot.  The humor of the show goes straight for the ridiculous, with displays of extreme silliness, anime faces, and of course the short jokes.  The short jokes are interesting—they actually work rather well because they are really jokes about how sensitive Ed is, concerning his own ego at least. Someone makes an innocuous comment, he interprets it as an insult and flies off the handle, and on one level it’s funny because he’s jumping up and down and making ridiculous and improbable faces and yelling at someone whose comment was genuinely made without malice. But then again, it actually becomes funnier as the series goes on, partly because that is how running jokes work, but partly because we get to know Ed and he is fiery, impulsive and short-tempered…ahem.  I don’t identify with Ed, exactly, but I have taken to adopting his hairstyle at times when I need to borrow his bravado. He’s the main character and undergoes a considerable amount of suffering over the course of the series, but even though he’s lost so much and many of his dreams have been crushed and he’s learning unpleasant things about the nature of the world and himself as a person… he still hates for people to comment on his height, and he still acts silly and makes us laugh.  So that is a little comforting. It’s a combination that I haven’t often seen in American shows.

[I’d like to have included an image of Ed here, but, ah, including what’s below, I think I’ve borrowed enough copyrighted images for one post! That’s him at the top of the post–in the front of the picture. His brother Al is standing behind him. Yes, he is a suit of armor.]

Ed is probably not the most interesting character in the show (and it does a better job with characters than I can really do justice to here), but he is interesting. When the show begins, he’s fourteen and he’s already had a terrible life—father disappeared, mother dead, limbs lost in a botched alchemical procedure, brother reduced to a suit of armor, and then he joins the military!—and he’s determined to fix everything.  He’s brash and confident and full of rage and generally immature and bratty, and there’s a general sense that he needs to grow up a little, because he is acting ridiculous.  But for Ed, maturity arrives at the moment at which he has suffered so much trauma that he is numb and can no longer react emotionally to the things that are happening to him.  This doesn’t seem especially desirable, and yet, given the experiences to which he is exposed, is there really another way for him to cope? Only changing the world, but it’s a long, slow process and one in which he is going to get hurt. It’s hinted that Roy Mustang has followed a similar trajectory; he’s a bit of a cold fish and the only moment of strong emotion that we see is, again, extreme trauma. Well, that’s not quite true—he is sometimes angry and occasionally very angry, but he exercises a lot of control over his reactions.  There are only a couple people who have achieved an unselfconscious and happy adulthood: Ross, who is a minor character and spends much of her time behaving motherly toward Ed and Al, and Hughes, who accepts reality, avoids putting himself in bad situations, does not study alchemy, and carefully and methodically gathers all the information and cultivates all the relationships that he needs to plot his strategy.  As a result, he’s able to do a lot to effect change and also gets to lavish time and attention on his family and generally enjoy his life, all the while projecting an air of ebullient joy.  This isn’t quite fair, as he hasn’t had to undergo what some of the other characters have; Hughes is lucky insofar as he doesn’t have to live Ed’s life, or Mustang’s, but he is also smart, and he is well-adjusted as a factor of both of those.  A lot of the things that are subtle in the show seem to center around him: for instance, we may notice his kindness to Winry, but it’s not until later that it becomes clear how close he is to her personal tragedy, and the show doesn’t signal us back to it and make a big deal out of it. We have to think back and put these things together ourselves and see them in a new perspective. Hughes cares about people and is not impressed by melodrama.

Maes Hughes

[Hughes, being awesome.]

But Hughes’s dislike of melodrama obviously isn’t carried over to the aesthetic of the show. One of the reasons is that it wants to ask serious questions—again, questions so serious that they could make a free and uninvested person snicker.  The philosophy of the show is mostly about equivalent exchange, which it sets up as the primary principle of alchemy.  In the show, alchemy is understood as being somewhat scientific insofar as there are attempts at explanations for it and some of those explanations use scientific language, although functionally it seems to work much more like magic. In any case, the idea is that in order to do something, an alchemist has to give up something of equal value (and how “value” is supposed to be determined in a scientific context is something that isn’t addressed).  Since the show is largely concerned with bringing back the dead, it really is asking what life is worth. Not your life. The life of someone you care about.  The questions that arise from this are the kind that, in general, one is happy not to have to answer. Are all lives of equal value? Where’s the overlap between alchemical value and political value? Why is it that characters we like and admire and care about can be unceremoniously killed, while the lives of some random serial killers that happen to be running around are carefully preserved with great effort and at great cost?  And when is it good to preserve a life? Those who keep the serial killers alive are not doing them any favors—arguably, being preserved as they are is really a form of torture. Meanwhile, of course, there’s a repulsively amoral character running around who is good at surviving, doesn’t get his comeuppance and generally manages to creep around the edges of the plot without suffering any more than a bizarre bodily transformation that just makes him creepier.

It turns out, and maybe this should be obvious, that equivalence isn’t actually a very good deal, even if it really works the way it should.  Honestly, when making an exchange, one wants to gain something of more value. To give up one thing for another thing of equivalent value only works if the participants value things differently, and there’s only one participant and some sort of presumably universal determinant of value, so that doesn’t really work.  In fact, it turns out that one usually gets less, or sometimes nothing. And what’s lost by the end is deeply disquieting.  I’m very uncomfortable with the end of the show, not necessarily in a bad way (although it’s deeply weird and a little difficult to reconcile with the rest of the show) or even because there are things left unresolved. The most unsettling thing is that there’s no promise that the characters have learned much or all the things that happened can’t happen again. In fact, now they can happen in multiple realities! Whee!

So the show doesn’t waste the high stakes it sets up, and it managed to get me deeply engaged—engaged enough that I am still worrying about it a little. There’s a manga series and a second anime, which I’d like to read/watch at some point.  I’m told the ending is different.

*If I don’t mention the title of the book, it isn’t a spoiler! Neener neener.

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10 Comments

Filed under Anime, Television

10 responses to “Fullmetal Alchemist: Drama, Trauma, and Adulthood

  1. Not only is there no guarantee that the characters have learned anything, or that anything will happen differently–the implication is exactly the opposite. The story does not address how the problems of alchemy will be addressed, because they won’t be. While the downfall of the existing homunculi and their master does provide the world with a reprieve, there is nothing to suggest that it cannot or will not happen again, and I’d argue that the ending scenes imply that things will inevitably head in that direction. “Forgetting everything” is not just something that happens to one character; it’s a metaphor for humanity as a whole. And with the brief peek into our own world, the writers imply (rather heavy-handedly, I admit) that this behavior is not limited to the fantasy world they have created, but is equally applicable to reality.

  2. So you read this all as some weird WWII allegory? If it is, it’s not a very good one; it’s a much better story if it stands on its own, although the ending makes little sense either way (and I really think I’d prefer to dispense with the peek into our world entirely). I’m beginning to think that it’s just really difficult to write a good ending to a fantasy story, and that the alternate-reality thing was just a sort of desperate casting around for some kind of a meaningful ending.
    In any case, there’s definitely a strong sense that things keep going around and coming back. One of the problems with alchemy that I’d noticed, but forgotten to write about, is that you don’t really give anything up; you just convert it into a different form. So it always comes back to you. Wrath is really the best example of this (on two different levels!). It’s like a game of Medici when a lot comes down to the last two bidders; the lot has some value to you, but for your opponent not to have it also has some value. Anything you give up can come back and be used against you, and you have to think about that before you give it up. But they don’t. They’ll never learn. So, ultimately, not only can mistakes never be rectified–all actions are irreversible–but they can’t even be avoided in the future.
    So… life is completely pointless, then? That’s even darker than the show seems! Somewhere in my mind, I have a fantasy that Mustang goes on to write a book where he plainly sets out the truth about the things that he’s learned, exposes all the corruption that had taken place and the complicity of all of them in it, and clarifies what he knows about the connection between alchemy and homunculi. He could do that, right? Maybe? I guess he hasn’t done anything like it in the future.
    (Actually, the complicity of Mustang was another thing I’d really wanted to write about. He didn’t know everything, but he did know better. Hmmm.)
    (I also should have written about Izumi. She’s an adult too, if a deeply dysfunctional one.)

  3. It’s not “all a WW2 allegory”, I see it really as just an aside saying, “if you think this world is messed up, remember yours is no better.” And while the take-away is definitely pessimistic, I don’t think you could go as far as to say that life is completely pointless. There are plenty of positive things that happen throughout the story, and characters like Hughes, Winry, Cheska, and Ross remind of us that. While history may be doomed to repeat its atrocities, even with perfectly well-meaning people involved, that doesn’t eliminate or negate the positive moments. People are people, after all.

  4. Heh. Somehow “pessimistic” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word when describing the realization that not only do people make terrible mistakes that leave them and their friends with mental and physical wounds which can never be healed, this state of affairs can never be improved upon. It’s like you can never make any progress. That’s where the pointlessness comes in.
    But I guess you’re right insofar as characters can at least build relationships with each other, experience moments of pleasure and so on. And I’m thinking once again of Izumi, who is really the exception to everything I’ve been saying.

  5. (Also, it is certainly interesting that this level of pessimism can be achieved without even invoking the likes of Tucker, Kimbley, Archer, etc, and you know you’ll never get rid of them. But even the well-meaning cause all kinds of problems.)

  6. I have zero experienc with anime (and I am totally okay with that); but, I love this post. I also loved reading the comments section.

    Now in the spirit of those who don’t read the book, but then comment fully aware of their ignorance, I do have one thing to say. The idea that people are exchanging things of equal value is a really fascinating conversation. It is the anti-greed model in some ways. It seems that we are not satisfied to to make an equal exchange, we always want to get a really good deal. There is something almost “unamerican” in a deal that doesn’t make a profit.

    Okay, now I’ll hand this back to the folks who have actually read the book!

  7. It is fascinating. Actually, it’s funny you say that, not only because there is a character named Greed (he’s not as bad as Envy), but also because, like most anime, the show is Japanese.. but the idea of giving something up and not getting a good deal from it is not only an upsetting one, but one that causes the characters to question their entire value system. It’s all tied up with this ideology of meritocracy as well, which is one I think Japan and the US share… One of the points that the ultimate antagonist makes to confuse Ed at the end is a reference back to a civil service exam he had to take; she points out that he exchanged the time and effort he spent studying for the opportunity to become a state alchemist, but what about the people who studied just as hard and failed because, basically, he beat them? They made an exchange for nothing!

    (I’d say they got something, because, well, by studying they must have learned something, right? But there are a lot more examples of people giving something up and not getting what they expect in return than there are of people getting more than the give up.)

    (It also pleases me that you like this post; I was worried that it was totally rambling and nonsensical and too much aimed at people who are me 🙂 )

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