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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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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: A Quick Note on Heroism

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

Okay, this is the end (for now!!) of a post on this volume which was so long I ended up breaking it into parts.  For an explanation, please see the first part of this post.   This is just another thought I wanted to throw in, so it’s too short for a real post, but oh, well. Short as it is, it does include some  spoilers!

It’s curious, looking at all my writing about this series, how little attention I’ve given to the relationship between Ed and Al, because it’s really the cornerstone of the story.  In a way, that’s partly because it’s very simple, at least from Ed’s point of view: he needs Al. He is really invested in the idea of protecting Al and has literally paid an arm and a leg to keep him present in the world and sorta-alive (this is not funny, unless it is).  In a way, this is indicative of a larger part of Ed’s character; he has terrible nightmares in which his mother rebukes him for not bringing her back to life, and I’ve already written about his rage over his inability to reverse Tucker’s experiments. But Al is more than that; he is the only real source of emotional stability in Ed’s life.  For instance, it’s Al who stops Ed from beating Tucker to death when he’s pretty much lost control. (Note, also, that Al actually has a little more gravitas in that scene. Ed punches Tucker in the face over and over again while screaming, and Tucker just continues to taunt him; Al tells him to shut up and he does.) And then again, Al is a character who is also important to the reader, although I haven’t written about him much. He’s the voice of reason, the one who can talk to people, the level-headed foil to Ed’s hair-trigger temper.

I’m bringing this up because there is, in Volume 2, a moment about the Ed/Al relationship that I’ve wanted to write about for a while.

Scar catches up with them.  His goal in life is to kill state alchemists, and he’s currently targeting Ed.  Al is not a state alchemist, so Scar isn’t really interested in him. They are cornered in an alley and Scar turns out to be faster than they are. He incapacitates Al and blows up Ed’s mechanical arm.  At this point, Ed makes a deal with him; he will submit to death, if Scar promises not to harm Al.  Scar agrees to this, but Ed is saved by Mustang’s intervention.

This is a fairly classic situation, but what I love about it is how angry it makes Al.  The entire time that Ed is making this deal, Al is yelling at him to run away. After the battle is over, and they are both safe, if somewhat damaged, Al, instead of appreciating Ed’s sacrifice, berates him for not fleeing.  He’s not pacified by Ed’s reminding him that he might have been killed (“I might not have been killed, too!!”), and tells him that if he had thrown away his life, he would never forgive him.  This is a really interesting moment to me, as any moment where you have a character refusing to be reduced to motivation for another character is interesting. In fact, what Al is doing here is calling out Ed’s selfishness. It’s pretty unusual to think of moments like this one as selfish, but considering that he was setting up for Al to watch him be killed… This is actually clearer in the anime, but it’s present here too, as Al reminds Ed, rather forcefully, that death means giving up his chance to accomplish any of his goals.

(This does not of course mean that Ed will not do the same thing again, but I appreciate that Al at least has the chance to make this complaint.)

So although Ed fills the role of someone-to-protect, that isn’t a role that defines his character. (It’s also a role that seems incongruous, considering that he is a hulking suit of armor.) I’d like to think about this further in terms of gender, because I think Al as a male character in this role occupies a different place in the text than one that an analogous female character would occupy (usually occupies), and I suspect that Arakawa is doing something clever here, but that’s more thinking I still need to do.

It is, however, worth noting that Al feels that he is taking care of Ed, not the reverse.  He sighs to Winry that “it’s not easy having such a high-maintenance older brother” (413).  This is undeniable, and we do see Al doing the emotional work over and over again. But, as I say above, Ed needs him.

(and look at that, I wrote three posts here and hardly talked about the Lab 5 plot at all, and never mentioned Sheska, whom I love and kind of am. One day I’ll figure out why I end up writing about the parts that I do…)

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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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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3: Slow Starts and B-Movies

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

Okay, at this point we all know that this is really a Fullmetal Alchemist blog, right?  Okay, then I don’t have to apologize for writing about this again.  So, having been pretty fascinated by the anime, I’ve decided to read the manga.

Let me step back a bit for those who want context; manga is Japanese for comics, anime is Japanese for, y’know, cartoons. Most anime is based on manga series.  In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, there are actually two anime series.  The one I’ve seen is Fullmetal Alchemist, which apparently follows the manga for about half of its run, but then it diverges and has a different ending, because the manga wasn’t finished at the time it was being made.  There’s another one, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which many fans seem to prefer, and which (I’m told) follows the manga more faithfully.  At some point I’d like to see it, but that’s where I am right now.  The manga has a few different editions, but the one that I’m reading is a set of “3-in-1” volumes—so what was originally volumes 1, 2, and 3 are together in this book. I’m reading them one at a time and will continue to write about them as I go along. I was a little surprised to find that the manga actually moves a little faster than the anime does, and by the end of the third volume, we are perhaps not to the halfway point of the anime, but probably more than a third of the way through.

When I tried to write this post, it turned out that I wanted to write about so many different aspects of this that it is was very long. So, I’m splitting it up; I may or may not publish all the parts that I wrote, but there’s probably more coming.

In an early post on Fullmetal Alchemist, I wrote about how it achieved a strange combination of engrossing and ridiculous which I couldn’t quite explain to myself.  In a quotation included with this edition, Arakawa confesses that this was more or less the effect she intended:

I love B movies.  I love the way they make me think “What the hell is this? That’s crazy!” yet     still draw me in so that I watch the whole thing.  I really like that feeling, and I like to bring a  little bit of that over-the-top flavor to my own manga. … As you read [Fullmetal Alchemist],   please criticize it by saying to yourself, “What kind of alchemy is that?!”

Does this self-awareness make the general B-movie aesthetic of this thing a little more sophisticated?  Maybe. I’m not a B-movie fan myself, so it’s difficult for me to say how this compares to them.  Fullmetal Alchemist definitely produces this sensation, but combines it with a possibly surprising depth of character and, eventually, a little bit of philosophy. The story ramps up to this slowly, but it is more obvious that this is happening the second time around. At the beginning, we are still being introduced to these characters and this world.

True, the very first page, before the title page for the first chapter, shows the trauma of the initial failed experiment, revealing the stump of Ed’s missing leg by the end of the page, while the images are set against a black background, with the words, “Teachings that do not speak of pain have no meaning, because humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return.”  This is not ramping up slowly. But the next scene takes us to Lior, which looks like a very sleepy town in the first few panels, with nothing going on but the sermon on the radio.  The first time we see Ed and Al within the context of the story, Ed is eating at a cafe while being grouchy and inquisitive, while Al sits quietly next to him.  There is no sign of the intense fear and pain of the earlier page.  Instead, the first volume spends some time establishing characters, explaining how alchemy works, and setting up a little mystery that reveals itself quickly.  There is an explanation of that original scene, but it just seems like backstory at this point—Ed and Al suffered this experience and now they wander through the world looking for the Philosopher’s Stone. This first issue includes three quick consecutive plotlines—there’s the exposure of the priest Cornello as a fraud in Lior, there’s the incident in the mining town where Ed outsmarts the corrupt official, and there’s the fight against the hijackers who kidnap the general on the train.  These are three unambiguous wins for Ed, in which it seems that his cleverness, with some assistance from his alchemical skill and his combat abilities, allows him to show up in any given town, expose the truth, and solve all the problems. So despite the initial hint that this is about suffering, Ed and Al appear at the beginning to have everything under control, their suffering in the past.  Well, Lust and Gluttony are lurking around being terrifying in the background, but they haven’t touched the Elric brothers yet.

Of course, near the end of Volume 1, Roy Mustang and company show up, and the main plot kicks in, and there aren’t unambiguous wins anymore, but there is plenty of horror—Volume 2 brings in Shou Tucker, the state alchemist who really sets the bar for disturbing, amoral behavior, and Marcoh, the former state alchemist who knows secrets he can hardly bear to remember, and Scar, the serial killer who targets state alchemists for religious and political reasons, and in Volume 3 we get Barry the Chopper, who is a more mundane, run of the mill serial killer despite his unusual features. Still, this story is really about information, not violence. Whereas Volume 1 was all about exposing the truth to make things better, from here on out, it’s all about the horrible realizations.  Ed is no longer demonstrating to people what they need to know; instead, he’s uncovering information that makes it more and more difficult for him to go on, not only because it’s horrible but because it calls into question his entire project.  Arakawa’s success in her attempt to draw me in the way that she describes being drawn in by bad movies depends on this, on watching Ed react to things nobody should have to see.  Ed is  a very effective empathy-generating machine, due to some combination of youth, sensitivity, pure bullheaded egotism, and really, really good stress faces.  He’s not the most likeable character of Fullmetal Alchemist—for starters, he’s certainly less likable than Al—but his pain, especially his emotional pain, is not just intense but nearly tangible.  So, the story needs to keep these moments coming, and—well, it’s kind of hard on Ed, and on Al, and on the reader. We’re just getting started here, folks.

But Arakawa has a sense of humor about all this.  She knows that she is writing something very close to horror, and she knows that Ed is, essentially, a Byronic hero, but this is still a series by a person who, in her self-portraits, chooses to depict herself as a cow.  At the beginning and end of each volume, she includes little strips that make jokes about the ongoing plots, including the serious parts. Not only that, there is a small “in memoriam” cameo at the end of each volume dedicated to the people who have died in that volume. Aside from indicating something about the body count in this series (it’s high), it’s also quite remarkable that they are… cute. Humorous.  The events in the story are very intense and often (not always) absolutely dead serious, but as soon as you hit the boundary, they’re jokes.  That’s the B-movie effect.  I haven’t read much manga and suspect that this is a fairly common practice, but I can’t imagine that many are quite the shift that this is.

(Also, Gluttony’s attempt to eat Arakawa makes me wonder what it’s like to live with this work brewing in one’s head. Then again—even reading it kind of gives the same effect.)

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