Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Evil Doubles

Cover of the first 3-1 volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, comprising volumes 1, 2, and 3.Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, volumes 1, 2 and 3

Author: Hiromu Arakawa

Publication Date: For this omnibus edition, 2011. These three volumes were originally published in 2002.

LC Call Number:  PN6790.J34H3313

I’ve split up my thoughts on this, because it’s too long; please see my prior post for more information on the work itself. Note that this one is a little spoilery; in particular, I talk about what I’ve taken to calling The Horrible Thing.

In Fullmetal Alchemist,  the least sympathetic characters have a disquieting habit of asserting that there is little difference between them and the heroes.  Ed, fighting Cornello early on, tells him, “Come down here and face me, you third-rate fraud. I’ll show you there’s no comparison between us!” (57).  Much later, at the end of volume 3, we have Al’s encounter with Barry the Chopper, who has also been made into an empty suit of armor. Barry assumes that Al, too, must be a convicted murderer, and refuses to believe Al’s explanation of how he actually became a suit of armor. In fact, he goes a long way toward convincing Al that he is just like Barry, and that Ed had given him false memories to explain why he exists.

Somewhat more disturbing is the parallel that Tucker, who is found to have used alchemy to experiment on his own family, draws between himself and the Elrics. He responds to Ed’s rage over the use of forbidden human transmutation with smirks, reminders that Ed has also engaged in human transmutation, and calls for him to come down from his high horse: “You’re no different than I am! You thought you could do it, so you did! … You couldn’t help but try it even if it was forbidden! In fact, because it’s forbidden!” (221). Tucker probably doesn’t know all the details of the incident in which their bodies were changed, so there definitely some projection here; in fact, the transmutation of Al’s body was an act of desperation which Ed undertook only to save his life. (On the other hand—if you have another hand—the original project to resurrect their mother was undertaken in just such a moment of arrogance and defiance. Still, their actions were much less harmful, and their motives much less selfish, than Tucker’s.)  Ed responds with rage and violence, but also with denials which are almost incoherent in their intensity: “THAT’S NOT TRUE! We alchemists… would never do that.. We’d never…. I’d never…!” (221).  It’s true that Ed’s emotional control is not great at the best of times, but the vehemence of his reaction here suggests that Tucker has hit a nerve, that Ed fears he is, actually, just such a monster as Tucker. (In the anime, Tucker is literally, as well as figuratively, a monster, but it doesn’t look as if that will happen here.)

Mustang, providing detached commentary, seems to agree with Tucker: “To put it bluntly, all state alchemists are nothing but the military’s human weapons. We do what they want, we obey orders, and we don’t complain if our hands get dirty in the process. My point being that when it comes to messing with human lives, Tucker’s actions aren’t so different from our own” (224-225).  Mustang is implicating himself too, of course; he’s older than Ed and already knows that he is a monster. He scolds Ed for reacting so strongly to the horror he’s witnessed, but Ed is also angry with Mustang, and with himself, for their inability to stop this from happening, and to this anger, Mustang has no response, other than “Go home and rest. You’ll catch a cold” (227). One of Ed’s flaws is his believe that he can or should be able to use his skills to fix everything, and Mustang appears to see this, too, as childish, and Ed has a later monologue in which he acknowledges this. Then again, we later learn that Mustang has his own plan to become president and take over the military itself, exactly because he wants to fix what we can already see is a fairly horrifying organization. As it turns out, then, Mustang is a closer parallel than any of the characters who assert such similarities.

But going back and reading from the beginning makes me realize that the best comparison to Ed, and maybe even to Al, isn’t Mustang, or Tucker, or Barry, or Cornello—it’s Rosé, who appears in the first story as Cornello’s dupe.  Her boyfriend died in an accident (there is almost nobody in this series who hasn’t lost someone), and she hopes that Cornello will use his power to help bring him back.  Cornello encourages this, and uses her to help him maintain power in the village by providing good  PR for him.  Ed is harsh toward her, mocking her idealism and faith.  He gives her his spiel about the chemical composition of the human body (it’s a strange assertion coming from someone whose traveling companion is a soul attached to a suit of armor, but obviously Ed knows a lot about this),  and ultimately, they trusts her enough to reveal the story of their past. She is dismayed when they show her the price that they have paid for their own attempts at human transmutation, and crushed when they show up Cornello as a fraud.  The story leaves her mourning her both her boyfriend and her hopes; Ed tells her she needs to figure out her life for herself.  This story isn’t too different from the Elrics’.  Their troubles all started with a simple, unspectacular death which they could not accept.  For the sake of something that is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, in alchemy, they have put their talents in service of a military which is just as shadowy as Cornello and even more corrupt.  Even realizing that there are some problems, they are unable to extricate themselves, just as Rosé initially sides with Cornello, saying, “This is the only choice I can make.”  They describe their attempts at human transmutation as the ultimate sin, but one could certainly argue that their complicity is a worse one.  And like Rosé, they eventually learn more and more unpleasant things about those with whom they are unfortunately affiliated.  So in that way, this first story is actually a microcosm for the series as a whole—an odd thing, because it seems at first glance like something added mostly for exposition, and because you need to start somewhere. But in fact, this beginning story is good for something after all.

In any case, though Ed may fear he is a monster, and for a while even Al may suspect it, the reader always knows better. BUT he is also behaving foolishly, and we eventually begin to see that he is creating problems which may be above his head.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Evil Doubles

  1. Bringing up Rosé’s “This is the only choice I can make” made me think. This might totally be my hobby-horse, but I want to compare Rosé to Gandalf. Both characters cling to a hope that they well know will probably not work out. However, they believe the alternative is so bad that they’re willing to take incredibly long odds. In both stories, this causes the characters to come into conflict with other protagonists (Ed/Al and Denethor, respectively), who view them as deluded. We’re presented with the opposite points of view here, but it’s an interesting exercise in both cases to consider the point of view we’re not provided with. Here, I think that Denethor’s “You’re delivering the ultimate weapon right into the hands of the enemy, you idiot” a little more sympathetic than Rosé’s “I’ll do anything to get my boyfriend back.”

    • Well, I’m hardly in a position to talk about hobby-horses at this point!

      But while Ed makes a pretty good Denethor (Al is a little more willing to interact with people on their own level), I don’t think Rosé is Gandalf. She’s not a powerful player here; she’s a strategically valuable pawn who has to choose between someone who offers her hope and someone who offers her despair. That is, she’s Faramir. Which means that it’s actually worse–Cornello is Gandalf. He’s the one who comes into what appears to be a hopeless situation and offers a highly improbable solution. But in this story, he’s not just a failure but an outright fraud.

      Of course, Arakawa’s agenda is obviously different from Tolkien’s (and this gets really interesting when you factor in his Catholicism!). If you wanted to be extremely reductive, you could boil down Lord of the Rings to this: Do not despair. If you boil down Fullmetal Alchemist, though, you get: Cut your losses–judging by the anime, anyway–we’ll see where the manga goes with this.

      One more thing, though: the fundamental difference between the Elrics’ warning to Rosé and Denethor’s response to Gandalf is that Denethor is still fighting a war and is acting in his own interest and his city’s; everyone there is already involved. With Rosé, it is more for her own good that Al tells her, “That’s why you can’t choose this path.” He’s not trying to save his empire (he doesn’t have one to save); he just wants to spare her some of the pain that he and Ed have already experienced.

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