Fullmetal Alchemist: Disabilities and Disembodiment

Cover for Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist


Aniplex (translation)

Um.. Well, apparently I’m obsessed again.  Remember how I said I’d only write one post about Fullmetal Alchemist? Apparently that was a lie, or else I’m not very good at predicting the future. Heh. But look, I have a lot more to say, and I’m not even going to try to say all of it. Basically, what this proves is that I should write about things as I’m in the midst of them instead of waiting until the end. Will I ever learn that? We’ll see!

This time: Spoilers spoilers and more spoilers.  I spoil just about everything in this one, so… be warned.

But I was thinking about the way that bodies and disabilities work in the show, and I thought that I probably ought to write something about it. It’s odd that the vast majority of characters in the show have a disability of one sort or another, but whenever it is addressed, it’s not really framed that way.  Of course, they tend to be strange, fanciful disabilities befitting a fantasy world with strange rules, but ultimately, this is a lot of what the show is about. There are several different ways that the body is dealt with, modified, or destroyed in the series. Lots of different things happen to bodies in the show.  Ed and Al are obvious—Ed with his automail (mechanical prosthetic) arm and leg, and Al, who is basically Nick Chopper and is forced to use a suit of armor in place of his lost body.  But the way they’ve come by their disabilities is different from most; this was a rash and foolhardy accident. Izumi is similar, though much weirder; all her internal organs are fused together after her attempt at human transmutation. But elsewhere in the plot, there are other reasons for such things to happen.


[A picture of Marta. She’s crawling through a tunnel and looking off to one side. She actually doesn’t look too much different in this picture from before her transformation than she does afterward; it isn’t easy to tell that she’s part snake.  Sometimes her arms get very long and stretchy, though, in this picture, that is not the case.]

There are chimeras like Marta, who was part of some kind of military secret ops team until she was imprisoned and her body was combined with that of a snake, or Nina, whose father, a state alchemist and also a horrible person, merged her with the family dog in order to keep his certification.  (Because this is not awful enough, he later recreates her body, but it is inanimate.) This is not the only way that bodies may be mixed together—think of Scar, who attached his brother’s arm to his body after his brother was killed by the military. He does not think of the arm as really his; throughout the series, he blames it for his terrorist, alchemist-targeting ways. There are other animated suits of armor besides Al; they are serial killers who the government claims to have executed, but in reality, they have been transplanted into their current form.  Ed’s automail appears distinctive for a long time, but we finally learn that it is far from rare.  There is an entire town where automail mechanics do excellent business and practically everyone appears to have lost limbs at some point, and then, of course, there is Archer, who is badly injured as a result of his attempt to turn an entire town of people into the philosopher’s stone but later rebuilds himself (or is rebuilt; it’s not clear) into a bizarre but rather effective cyborg of war.

In the meantime, you have Hohenheim and Dante, who spend their time transferring from body to body in an attempt to achieve immortality (and who don’t seem to worry too much about the people whose bodies they are stealing), and it’s Dante’s greed for new bodies that starts the war. Many of the homunculi are created to help her with this—and they, too, are made of leftover bodies (in the case of Wrath, more than one).

You’ll notice a pattern here.  This is not so much about strange and/or modified bodies as it is, well, violence.  Not only that, this is a very specific kind of violence; mostly it’s either government-sponsored human experimentation, or else just imperialism and war.  I should note that putting things in this framework also allows us to consider Rose, who is kidnapped by soldiers and later reappears, traumatized and unable to speak, but with a baby—thus, presumably raped (curiously, the show concerns itself with many, many different kinds of violence and considers most of them in some detail, but the rape is only implied and never discussed).  Basically, Dante (via Bradley) has set up a terrifying imperial government that has no problem with torturing and experimenting on humans in order to serve her personal ends.  Well, it isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly insightful for me to say so, as this is all admitted explicitly near the end of the show—the entire point of the war was to create circumstances favorable to the creation of the philosopher’s stone and what was going on in Lab 5 was the direct attempt to make this happen. It’s a conspiracy show.

Due to this, nearly everyone in the show has either a disability or a body that is made of spare parts or both. The central characters are Ed and Al, whose goal is first to bring back their mother from the dead (not going to happen) and second, to restore their own bodies.  But there’s a big difference between the two of them.

Ed’s right arm and left leg are automail. This makes him a cyborg amputee, but most of the time we perceive him not as a disabled character, but as a character with slightly enhanced physical abilities, because he can turn his arm into a weapon, and most of the time it works just as well as a normal biological arm.  There are only a couple moments that do make us think of this as a disability. At one point he returns home and has it repaired, and we see that it’s not quite as seamless as it seems.  For one thing, he has outgrown it and needs it to be replaced.  For another, it turns out that the process of attaching it to his body is a very painful one.  Additionally, it emphasizes his dependence on Winry, his mechanic. If she makes a mistake, and at one point she does, his arm will fall off.  Still, by the end, he trusts her completely in this role. At one point, Wrath threatens to tear off his other arm and leg, and Ed flings back, “Go ahead, I’ve got the best automail mechanic in the world!” Obviously, this is somewhat rhetorical, but it’s at the end of a plot arc during which he’s come to appreciate her work.

Winry repairing Ed's automail

[Winry Rockbell, a young woman with a determined expression, stands behind Ed, holding a screwdriver. She is clearly about to perform some work on his mechanical arm, some of which is visible in the image.]

Curiously, though, because she created his automail and worked hard on it and is good at this, she considers it a reason to claim ownership over part of his body, and gets angry with him if he engages in behavior that is likely to get it damaged. On some level, it’s because she likes to think she can take care of him—there’s a scene near the end of the series in which she offers to braid his hair and is crushed when he refuses—but there’s definitely an element of pride in her craft.  Of course, it is fine for her to be proud of her work, she goes too far when she wants to see his victories as her own, or when she begins to see him as a steward for his arm and leg. On the other hand, Ed is so isolated, and his disability does help him to maintain his friendship with Winry, and it’s hard not to feel that their relationship is important and valuable.  Ed’s disability has disadvantages and maybe some advantages, but it’s part of him, and he needs to address it both technologically and emotionally.

With Al, it is completely different. His entire body is gone and he’s been transplanted to a suit of armor. There is a little similarity to the Ed/Winry dynamic here because Ed is the one who can maintain Al’s body, but the difference is that Al’s situation is seen as unacceptable.  This is emphasized immediately in the show through his high, childish voice, which is totally incongruous with the large, stern-faced suit of armor that he inhabits, and it’s developed further through their encounters with the serial killers at Lab 5, who have a similar existence. One of them asks him how he can know that his memories are real and not implanted when he doesn’t have his own body.  He can’t answer the question, and although it seems silly for him to trust the serial killer more than he trusts Ed, it raises the question of how much Al can really be Al without his body.  Of course, he is a lot closer than the creepy pseudo-Nina doll that Tucker creates; Tucker can replicate his daughter’s body, but he cannot animate it. There’s also a moment in which Al is very happy for someone to treat him like a kid.  He looks grim and warlike and while this is certainly not his personality, he is simply not treated the same way he would be if he looked like himself, and surely this has changed him.

Alphonse Elric

[Alphonse Elric.  He’s a suit of armor, though you can mostly only see the helmet here. His eyes glow, to show that he is alive.  The expression of the helmet includes a jagged line for a mouth, giving him a grim and fierce expression.  Spikes emerge from his forehead and the one shoulder that is visible.]

Even without questions of identity, though, life as a suit of armor is not a great life. Al can be disassembled and stuck in a box and stolen by a kid on a bicycle.  He can sit at a table, but he can’t eat.  He can’t make facial expressions (at one point, he becomes angry, and the “camera” focuses on his clenched fist, because there is no other way for him to express his anger visually). There is a very sad joke at one point in the show, when they are talking about whether they should visit their old teacher, who is likely to be very angry with them (or, as one might say, she’s going to kill them).  Al is apprehensive, and says “I’d like to at least know love before I die!” It’s funny until you think of the inherent difficulties of carrying on a relationship while living as a suit of armor, and then from there to how terrible it really must be to simply not have tactile sensations. Although a suit of armor looks like a body, it isn’t one.  Of course, the particular features of the suit also open him up to, for instance, the uniquely horrible experience of having his friend stabbed to death while she is hiding inside his chest.  Al’s life is fundamentally different from Ed’s; there are disabilities to which one can adjust, but his particular style of disembodiment is not one of them. The serial killers I’ve referred to earlier are suicidal because they feel that life without a body is not really life at all.

But here is the thing that’s especially difficult about Al’s body. It seems impersonal, inhuman, metal. We wouldn’t expect it to bear scars that show who he is and what he’s been through, the way a real body would. And yet, when he loses that body, he also loses its experiences and what he learned while he was using it.  So maybe it is his body, after all.  In his old body, his natural body which seems to suit him so much better… he can’t be exactly the same Al that he was with that old suit of armor.

Other characters have bodies which are not their own; in particular, the homunculi tend to look like the dead because they are made of bits and pieces from beyond the gate, where the dead (among other things) are. Interestingly, Lust draws a parallel between her situation and Al’s in order to explain why she wants to become human. Her comment is a little mysterious, as we have little insight into what it is like to be a homunculus.  All of them seem filled with rage about the nature of their existence, however, and the strangeness of their bodies apparently prevents them from being their own. At the same time, she also indicates that the bodies they assume have an influence on them; she has the memories of the Ishbalan woman she resembles, and artifacts from those lives can be used to weaken a homunculus.

In each of these cases, there are those who see advantages.  Archer seems pretty happy with his automail because it allows him to make himself into a weapon.  Greed is interested in Al’s armor and wants to figure out how to do something similar for himself, with the goal of achieving immortality. And of course, Tucker believes that he can bring Nina back as a homunculus.

That’s a lot of rambling without a good conclusion.  Let’s say this–the show thinks a lot of the body as a source of identity, that the identity function trumps utility. It’s also trying to find the line between bodies which can and and can’t carry out this function adequately, and it does so in a way that’s accepting of disability. But this line is a difficult one to find.


Filed under Anime, Television

3 responses to “Fullmetal Alchemist: Disabilities and Disembodiment

  1. Believe it or not, there was more, but this post was getting ridiculous. Still, I don’t want to leave it unaddressed, so here’s the thing that needs to be brought up, whether I’d prefer to do so or not:

    What’s striking about the torture and experimentation and war aspect of this is that Dante’s puppet leader, Bradley, holds a title commonly associated with WWII Germany (and I’ve hesitated to write it because I don’t know what it will do to the algorithms behind the blog, but this is too ambiguous, so: he styles himself Fuhrer Bradley). Now I don’t know how this sounds to a Japanese ear—maybe the same?—but to an English-speaking ear, this title has only one connotation and it’s one that should not be invoked lightly; in fact, there’s a good argument that it should never be invoked at all. But in fact, that person shows up in the alternate reality (that is, ours). He hobnobs with Hohenheim. But of course, that title and horrifying “science” experiments do go together.
    And… I have to admit I wish they hadn’t gone there. The show really didn’t need to break Godwin’s law in order to make us uneasy about the imperialist military government that’s depicted in the show, and in any case, it takes many episodes before this all becomes clear, so it appears for a long time that they are have assigned that title for no particular reason other than that it seems somehow to fit into the setting of Generic Psuedo-European Country in which the show takes place. To an American, it seems both really odd and off-putting until about three fourths of the way through the series when it becomes evident that there are intentional parallels—or maybe other people picked up on that before I did, but I doubt it. Maybe a Japanese person wouldn’t recognize the title? In any case, by putting our reality on the other side of the gate, and especially putting it just before WWII, the series makes a some mistakes: bludgeoning the audience with this idea (okay, I get it, I didn’t need Nazis too, sheesh), invoking a very serious thing without due cause, and casting something of a pall over the rest of the series—are we supposed to somehow equate the rest of the stuff in the show with this history? Are we supposed to see the characters as somehow equivalent to Nazi officers?? Gaaahh.

    Not only that, since it comes down to the government being basically run by homunculi, it comes very close to displacing responsibility from human beings not only in the story (and that’s bad enough), but in history; Ed and Mustang discuss the nature of homunculi and their own responsibility for them (though I suppose it’s mostly Ed’s, really) mostly in order to keep that perception at bay.

    (Let it be pointed out that at least the important characters do resist Bradley’s regime, although in the end, Mustang brings it down basically because he is pissed off that his friend was murdered and not because of all the other horrible things that have happened. Of course, this was his more or less his plan from the beginning, but under other circumstances, he would have waited much longer to make his move and would probably have done more to protect his career in the meantime.)

    So, in a word, I think that they invoked this history in kind of an irresponsible way and it didn’t really even improve the story… so yes, I wish they hadn’t. On the other hand, when you watch the show, this seems like a small and not-that-important part of it. Weird. But it seemed that it would have been irresponsible of me not to address it.

  2. It’s funny how our society has basically labeled the Nazi regime as the epitome of evil, whose actions cannot be compared to those of anyone claiming to be a human being. While I in no way condone those actions, I think it’s important to remember that the Nazis–from the people making the decisions down to the low-level grunts–were people too. The anime presents everything from genocide to military excess down to personal decisions that to an outsider seem abominable, but that we have to admit make intrinsic sense to that individual (what especially hits it home is Al in the last episode). Yes, I agree that the Nazi comparison doesn’t sit right at first–but maybe that’s because our culture has conditioned us to associate Nazis with unspeakable evil, not the human beings that the anime presents us with. (And it’s important that the inhuman homunculi are not controlling everything, they are tools of the human Dante.) I think it’s an important takeaway that horrible things–genocide, etc.–result from human motivations, both in the show’s fictional world and in our own.

  3. Heh. I guess I should have given that its own post instead of trying to make it a comment.
    Here’s the thing about your argument, though: That’s why the Nazis are there. They represent one of the most used historical references, and it’s because our culture has labeled them as shorthand for evil. You know a lot more about history than I do; maybe there are better historical comparisons to what happened in the show, and maybe there aren’t. But I think this is actually dehistoricizing it because it isn’t the particularities of WWII Germany that are used; it’s this general idea of the Nazis as an emblem of evil.
    I think the evidence that I’ve brought up above at least shows that it’s not just a case of “Hmm, and you know what this is like? Nazis!” The experimentation and torture stuff that I brought up earlier show that, as I said, they are going somewhere with this. But I’m not sure that this particular part of history should be available as a handy metaphor for whatever you like. If it were actually a show about that, it would be different.
    As for Dante–technically, she is human, but she’s also very much not us. Heck, Lust is easier to identify with. (And I guess that’s the flip side of this body stuff–who’s a human and who isn’t? Dante? Tucker? Ed insists that Slicer is–because Al is. Wrath explains that homunculi aren’t. It’s not a physical status or a moral status–so the more you think about it, the less you can answer it.)

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