Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Not the Center of the World

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Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4-6
Author: Hiromu Arakawa
Year of Publication: 2003

I wrote before that Volume 5 is really about Winry and Volume 6 is about Izumi, but as I look over it now, the shift isn’t so clean. Izumi comes in about halfway through Volume 5, whereas Winry is also fairly important in Volume 4. Still, there’s a Winry story here.

Volume 5 covers the trip to Rush Valley, the “auto-mail engineer’s mecca,” where a thief named Paninya steals Ed’s official state alchemist watch. This leads to Ed, Al and Winry meeting a master auto-mail mechanic and also delivering a baby. Of course, it makes sense for this to be a fairly Winry-centric story, since she is the one who wanted to go to Rush Valley in the first place, and after all, she is the one who actually cares about auto-mail prosthetics (she makes them, Ed just wears them).

Much like Volume 4, Volume 5 makes the point that the world does not, in fact, revolve around Ed, but it makes this point in a very different way. It opens with the theft of Ed’s watch and his and Al’s inability catch the thief, Paninya, who is a young woman with auto-mail legs. It is Winry who finally stops her, but her agenda is different from theirs; she doesn’t care about the watch and only wants to get a good look at Paninya’s auto-mail. Her interference stem not from a desire to help Ed but a fascination with the very sophisticated, high-quality auto-mail Paninya uses. The manga explicitly points out that the negotiation between Winry and Paninya over the watch does not involve Ed or Al. Rather, they sit in the background complaining about their exclusion from the conversation. This is an interesting contrast from Winry’s earlier complaints that Ed and Al never tell her anything. She’s in control here and Ed doesn’t handle it well. Throughout the volume, there are a lot of these auto-mail conversations. Paninya stays with a family of auto-mail engineers: Dominic, who made her legs, Dominic’s son-in-law Ridel and his daughter Satera. As a result, there are many opportunities for Winry to talk shop, and her desire to improve her craft leads her to ask Dominic to take her as his apprentice. A good deal of the volume is concerned with her reasons for wanting to be so good at auto-mail.

Some of it is just the way her character is composed. At the very beginning of the volume, her awestruck cooing at some tools in a shop is compared with a woman lusting after a piece of fancy jewelry; on some level she just likes this stuff because she likes it. Ed draws a comparison between her work and his, saying that Winry “used to look through medical books as if they were picture books, just like Al and I did with alchemy books.” (There is certainly a medical element to auto-mail.) And some of it does indeed have to do with Ed. When she is apologizing to him for prying open his watch and seeing the date he’s etched inside to remind himself of his own motivation, she tells him: “You burned down your own home and then you wrote that in your watch, so you’d never forget and never turn back. If you can do that, I should be just as serious about the things I believe in. I want to be able to help you, so your road’s not so hard.” So yes, supporting Ed is part of it. But this conversation happens at the end of the story. Instead of seeing her pursue something for Ed’s sake, we see her very concerned with it for her own reasons and only later does it become linked to Ed. She praises Dominic’s design as “nothing less than art” and is interested in the story of Paninya’s legs. She’s interested in the business aspects of it as well, admonishing Paninya to stop stealing to pay for her legs. Ed is the auto-mail user who is most important to Winry, but even though she’s from Resembool, which appears to have a population of about six, she’s aware that auto-mail isn’t just Ed.

Paninya’s story helps to reinforce that. Ed’s story is fairly unusual, of course. Most of the people who wear auto-mail didn’t lose their limbs in forbidden alchemical experiments, but in the war or as a result of accidents. It’s explained that the boom in auto-mail demand is related to the Ishbalan war, which has already been established as brutal and, well, kind of genocidal actually. Paninya isn’t part of this larger political context either, but it is invoked as a backdrop and will certainly be addressed again later. Paninya, however, lost her legs in a train accident, in which her parents were also killed, and she lived for some time as a legless beggar child before being picked up (literally) by Dominic. Her story is less dramatic than Ed’s, but it’s no less sad. This brings me back to some of the things I said about the anime and how deftly this story deals with disability. I’ve called Ed a Byronic hero; he broods a lot, suffers from a tragic backstory, has the abilities of a genius, and struggles against the world. Arakawa often undercuts this by making fun of his ego a little, and here she does undercuts it a little more subtly by showing that tragedy is mundane. Paninya lost her legs and her family, and although her life is better now, she’s still living as a pickpocket, but she is cheerful about it and she doesn’t sulk like Ed. There’s a whole town of auto-mail engineers here; there is therefore a sufficient population of amputees of one sort or another to keep an entire town in business. Ed’s not special. He’s a character who happens to have a disability but has a lot of other things going on; disability isn’t a tragedy that defines his character (or Paninya’s). Of course, something could be said about Dominic’s unilateral decision to kidnap Paninya and perform surgery on her without her consent–well, this isn’t perfect.

In any case, Winry is interested in this story, and in fact she settles into this family just as easily as she did into the Hughes family. She scolds Paninya and encourages her to adopt an honest trade and give up her pickpocketing business. She interacts with the grumpy, unfriendly Dominic and asks him to take her on as his apprentice (he refuses, twice, but he is pleased by her appreciation for his work, and in the end, he agrees to find her another master). And of course, she delivers Satera’s baby.

I’m hoping that the story picks up her apprenticeship again and we see how she is progressing later on. In the anime, her story isn’t carried through as much as I would have liked it to be, but there’s more setup here, and more time spent on her, so I’m hopeful we’ll see the continuation. It also appears that Dominic is Pinako’s ex, which is hilarious and I want to see more about that for sure. In any case, delivering the baby is set up as something of a test for Winry, a stressful situation she hasn’t seen before in which she needs to perform well. She does, and she and Ed part as equals who respect each other. This works a little better for me than the relationship they have in the anime, in which she sometimes seems to be under the impression that she owns his arm and he constantly rolls his eyes at her. Here–well, Ed certainly quarrels with her interference and general motherliness in volume 4, but their relationship seems to mature over the course of these two volumes.

(Yes, this is a little disorganized, Let’s see if I do better writing about Izumi!)

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