Fullmetal Alchemist Vols. 4-6: Trust and Ambiguity

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Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4, 5, 6
Author:Hiromu Arakawa
Publication Date:2003

Hmm, looks like I’ve written one for each volume, or I will. Oops. This is mostly about Volume 4.

It’s interesting to think that these 3-in-1 volumes are actually three separate volumes stuck together and don’t need to have any particular theme to them, because with volumes 4, 5 and 6, there was certainly a commonality that I felt as I was reading them. These three volumes do a lot to advance the story, but they aren’t really about the Elric brothers; they center on the Elrics’ support system. Volume 4 is about Hughes and the political subplot (with a good deal of Winry thrown in), Volume 5 is about Winry, and Volume 6 is about Izumi, whom I love and never write about.

Fair warning: I can’t go much farther without writing tons of fairly significant spoilers, so I’m going to.

Anyway, there’s been an unfortunate time lapse between my reading of this volume and writing this post, so perhaps I’ll just look at each of these.

Volume 4 covers the end of the Laboratory 5 incident, in which Ed is injured and Al’s confidence is shattered, Winry’s visit, the death of Hughes, and the reappearance of Scar. Hughes, always a little smarter than the story, actually points out the need for support in his conversation with Mustang: “You’ll make a lot of enemies if you join military command at your age. … Make sure you have as many people around you as possible that understand and support you.” Of course, because this is Hughes, that only takes a second or two to turn into nagging about how Mustang should get married. It’s always ambiguous what Hughes really means by anything, but my take is that he is sincere on both fronts; he actually is obsessed with his family and wants Roy to enjoy a family life similar to his, but he’s also bringing it up to mask the warning in his first bit of advice. Although Mustang is a very shrewd character who understands the political machinations well, he will not survive without a support network. Hughes is himself the most important member of that network, but in fact Mustang is very good at this and has built up his own little group of soldiers that he takes to Central with him. Hawkeye is the most important of these; the rest of them are comic relief characters and weren’t especially useful in the anime, so we’ll see if they do more here. But then, there’s also Armstrong, who is on the periphery of this group, but who is almost definitely on board with the plan.

But Hughes’s advice about support doesn’t only apply to Mustang; it’s in large part what he’s trying to do for Ed (and, to a lesser extent, Al). Ed does not have the same political acumen that Mustang does (an extreme use of understatement). He doesn’t really trust or get along with Mustang, doesn’t properly value Armstrong, has tried to escape from his bodyguards Ross and Block, and has no other friends in the military, Early on in this volume, he is even fighting with Al. These people all care about him at least a little and want to support him, but Ed is a difficult person and is certainly not building the kinds of understanding that Mustang has with his little group. He does call Winry, though, so that she can come repair his arm, which fell off during a fight with the homunculi. She repairs the relationship between Ed and Al through the sheer power of her rage.

The rift between Ed and Al probably deserves at least a cursory look here; it stems from Al’s conversation with Barry the Chopper, another animated suit of armor, whom he met at Lab 5. Barry, aside from having an obvious agenda, is both repugnant (he’s a serial killer) and kind of stupid, but his mockery of Al’s devotion to Ed is apparently pretty effective. He plants in Al’s mind the seed of a doubt that Ed is his brother or that his memories are even real. I’ve written before that I find this a bit of a stretch. The bond between Ed and Al is very strong and is a focal point of the series,so it’s not entirely plausible that this guy Al has just met and who is also trying to kill him should be regarded as a more reliable source than Ed is. It’s difficult to see why Al would ever take seriously anything that Barry says, let alone his insinuations that Ed is manipulating him. Somehow, though, Al is just insecure enough for this to work. In terms of the theme about trying to form and keep this bond, I suppose it’s useful to show that they are so fragile, improbably fragile even, and then again I can also read it as telling us something about Al. Maybe it’s that, although he’s the patient and levelheaded one, he can be goaded in his weak point, which apparently has to do with his fear of abandonment and perhaps that tiny point of what insecurity that doesn’t quite believe that egocentric and tempestuous Ed really cares about him. Or, maybe it’s just that living in the armor feels so strange and so distant from his previous life that this explanation makes sense to him, that maybe he’d been considering some theory of the kind already and Barry just brought it to light. On the other hand, I could just be rationalizing a part of the plot that’s never made much sense to me. I did find that it bothered me less in the manga than it did in the anime, probably because the context is slightly different and it is juxtaposed with a lot of material about the difficulty and importance of building and keeping these connections with people.

This is a little off track, but I’m also amused that setting out to write about Hughes results in writing about everyone else instead. This is totally appropriate to his character.

In any case, although Hughes somehow forgets to tell Mustang about Ed’s hospitalization, he shows up and takes Winry under his wing, inviting her to his daughter Elicia’s birthday party and squeezing in a little talk with her about the Elrics. And here is the talent that Hughes has: just after meeting Winry, he initiates a chat with her, invites her to this party, acts goofy and kind and suddenly they are friends and she trust him enough to tell him all about her relationship with Ed and Al and how worried and shut out she feels. And as a reader, I found this easy to believe, because that is who Hughes is. And he comes through, reassuring her that Ed and Al will come to her when they are ready to talk about things. The explanation he gives her is weirdly patriarchal as he talks about men expressing themselves through action, but he goes on to say, “The would rather shoulder their burden themselves than cause their loved ones to worry. That’s why they won’t say anything about it. When they decide to tell you their troubles, that’s when they’ll need you to be there for them. Isn’t that enough?”

Now, knowing how this turns out, it’s hard not to read that as being about Hughes himself, and even not knowing that, one might still notice that he is saying this from the little oasis that he’s built for himself which is separate from his dangerous work life. He is constantly talking about his family at work, but it seems (at least, from the implications here) that he does not talk about work at home. (Then again, of course he doesn’t, because he is a military intelligence specialist? But I’m also reading this through the scenes in the anime in which he stops by to tuck Elicia in before pursuing the investigation which he apparently expects will get him killed, and carefully makes sure that everything is settled and he’s properly said goodbye, but without dropping any hints that this is the case. You wonder if he’s done this before. That scene doesn’t exist in the manga, but … it clarifies who he is, and I think it’s a true reading of what we see here.) So he’s looking at Ed through his own lens and the comfort that he offers Winry, while it doesn’t really change anything, at least reinforces that they care about her, revealing the networks that already exist. It’s also the impetus for her to go repair the connection between Ed and Al, although she does it in a way that contradicts this advice, if it is advice.

And actually, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about this interaction–Hughes is helping and certainly shown as admirable, but he’s also shown to be a little bit wrong. When he says that Ed and Al don’t want Winry to worry, there’s not too much evidence of that either way, but it’s certainly ineffective because she is worrying, and if we turn the lens back around on him, we have to think that if he believes that Gracia does not worry, then his normally perceptive nature has probably failed him. (I also find myself wondering exactly how much Gracia knows–is she aware of his support for Mustang’s political ambitions, for instance? She’ll never tell, they have that much in common.) And then, as results turn out, the fight between Ed and Al is resolved only by Winry ordering Al to talk to Ed, and Hughes acknowledges this himself.

Anyway, Winry is a woman of action. She’s not to Ed what Gracia is to Hughes. But what we do see here is that Hughes is doing work; he’s making sure that the relationships among the three of them–Winry, Ed and Al–are maintained in a way that supports Ed’s mental health and continued existence. We also get a chance to see more explicitly how Hughes has influenced Mustang’s connections with others, even after Hughes himself has died. We see Mustang and Armstrong carefully exchange information while avoiding talking about it explicitly, and we also see Hawkeye’s loyalty and concern.

It’s perhaps interesting that this is also the volume in which Bradley shows up and tells everybody to trust no one. There’s less unstated antagonism here between him and Hughes than there is the anime, although he’s still creepy and weird, and he does call off the search for the philosopher’s stone, which is suspicious.

In the anime, there is a sense that although Hughes has died and this is terrible, he’s managed to manipulate events such that he prevented much greater harms from occurring, and that he’d carefully set his affairs in order before this happened. In the manga, he’s much more surprised by his death, so you don’t have him putting the Elrics on a train, firing Sheska, etc. So it feels less like Hughes accomplished what he needed by making a deliberate sacrifice, and more like the homunculi are readying their plan and can attack anyone. I’m not sure I like that as much, but then again, perhaps it will make more sense in the plot later on.

It is interesting that in the anime, Hughes’s death is nevertheless fairly destructive because it causes Mustang to spend the rest of the series on revenge. In the manga, maybe something different?

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