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.
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:
[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.
[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.