Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Learning from Experience

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

Writing about Izumi. This is going to happen.

It’s very strange to think about Izumi as part of the Elrics’ support network, because it’s a characterization to which she might well object. She is their alchemy teacher, and their quest for the philosopher’s stone makes her very angry (and you always know where you stand with Izumi).  The kind of support she offers him is in the form of a good ass-kicking; she is perfectly willing to yell at him and tell him that he’s violated everything she ever taught him.  If Paninya undercuts Ed’s self-aggrandizement through her mischief and her existence, Izumi simply refuses to recognize it.  Instead, she sees right through him. She knows the things that he knows that he believes cut him off from normal people (they have both seen what they call “that thing”) and she responds not with awe or pity but with anger.  After all, as she says, “if they’re trying to take the wrong path, isn’t it my job as their ‘teacher’ to put them on the right one?”

But she doesn’t do that, and a lot of her anger comes from her anger at herself for making mistakes similar to theirs, and for allowing them to duplicate these mistakes.  Her connection to Ed is immediately obvious from a visible point of view, because she has a tattoo on her chest which is the same symbol he wears on his coat.  Izumi is where it all starts, and of course the narrative takes the opportunity of her appearance to drop in some exposition in the course of a flashback. But this is framed in the understanding that his experience is Izumi’s experience as well.

So Izumi is clearly a skilled alchemist, and she taught Ed and Al what they know, both the skill and the philosophy. Still, it seems that the philosophy hasn’t quite stuck. In many ways, she is the opposite of Ed. She believes that alchemy should be used as infrequently as possible, and is shown fixing toys and explaining to a little girl why she won’t attempt to resurrect her dead cat.  “You shouldn’t depend on alchemy for everything. Try to fix whatever you can with your own hands” she tells the children.  She believes in accepting death:  “In the same way, our souls become nourishment for the people around us, and live on through the memories of those we loved.  Everything in this world has a flow. Even human lives.  I’ve come to accept this long ago… but it’s hard to explain to a child.” Lines like this are why I’ve referred to Izumi as a hippie in a prior post. This acceptance, of course, is exactly what Ed lacks; he suffered the loss of his limbs, and Al suffered the loss of his body, in their attempt to bring their mother back from the dead.  Ed explained this to Rosé way back in Volume One, and showed her the hopelessness of this cause; he’s abandoned the idea of trying to revive his mother. However, he’s still not willing to accept the price that he and Al paid—especially Al—and he is still attempting to recover their bodies.

But Izumi’s philosophy doesn’t come from abstract moral reasoning.  She’s committed this sin herself; she is more like Ed than she’d like to admit.  Finally, ruefully, she remarks, “So the student makes the same mistake as the teacher.”  Her husband clarifies that Izumi once lost a pregnancy, and her mistake was attempting to bring back that child. She has paid a similar price, “some of my insides,” as she puts it.  So the most important lesson she attempted to teach Ed and Al was one that she had not herself learned until she experienced it.  The lectures about not using alchemy to reverse death are an attempt to prevent them from repeating her mistake.  Still, I’d argue that Izumi doing a little better learning from that mistake than they are. She is constantly ill (she does that implausible fictional thing where she’ll perform magnificently in a fight and then cough up blood) and she’s unable to bear children, but she has accepted this price.  She makes the most of her life by helping the children of her village, rather than seeking to regain the life she had before she made her great mistake.  She’s careful with alchemy and resists the pressure to use it to make life easy.  In fact, she refuses to consider herself an alchemist and instead describes herself as a housewife, even as she performs amazing feats of alchemy.  Izumi’s response to her trauma is a strong skepticism of the value of alchemy; when I write it that way, it sounds like an overreaction, but the truth is that alchemy is dangerous. She has nothing but contempt for the state alchemists, “dogs of the military,” who trade the use of their talents to the state for power, and allow themselves to be used as weapons of war.  To Izumi, this is a great wrong, and you know, she has a point.  We’ve already glimpsed Kimblee, who is destructive and mentally unbalanced and kind of makes the point for her.

But Ed and Al are the same as Izumi: they cannot accept the impossibility of human transmutation until they’ve tried it and things have gone as wrong as they can.  And as readers, we think we’re smarter than that, but we probably aren’t.

The thing is, Izumi realizes this. She knows that Ed and Al cannot accept these philosophical ideas without experiencing them; this is why her pedagogy involves dropping them off on an island and letting them figure out a riddle while trying to survive on their own.  And she knows that they have an illicit goal in mind when they come to her and ask to learn alchemy.  So teaching them at all is a risk.  She believes she can stop them from attempting human transmutation; this is the unspoken goal of much of her teaching. She takes on Ed and Al as apprentices because they’re the close to the age that her child would have been; there’s a symmetry between their loss of their mother and her loss of her child that helps to bring them together.  But this also raises the stakes for Izumi; she needs to stop them from their goal not only because they are trying to do something wrong but because she doesn’t want them to destroy their lives.  And she fails.

But, now that Ed and Al made so many mistakes, she releases them as her apprentices and actually comes closer to treating them as peers.  She and Ed have both seen “that thing” or “the truth;” the being that lives beyond the gate and provides glimpses of comprehensive metaphysical knowledge in exchange for body parts.  Al’s seen it too, but he got too close and lost his memory.  There is an interesting discussion between them about whether they should attempt to recover the memories he lost, in which they weigh the risks and, despite her doubts, Izumi accedes to Al’s wishes and agrees to look into a way to do this.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that these three volumes are all about the Elrics’ support network—the people who help them and how they do it.  Hughes is first, then Winry, and finally Izumi.  Izumi is a good place to end this, though.  Hughes manages things silently in the background and makes sacrifices, and Winry provides emotional support as well as prosthetic repair. But Izumi is the person who will give you the wake-up call and tell you when you’re wrong.  Arakawa allows all these characters to undercut Ed’s self-absorption, but Izumi does it the most directly.

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