21st Century Brontë #29 by Brontë Bettencourt
In eighth grade, my friend Madison introduced me to an anime series entitled Fullmetal Alchemist at a time in life when I had to ask what the hell anime was.
The story: Edward and Alphonse Elric are two brothers who practice alchemy, a science that manipulates and alters matter by using natural energy.
In a failed attempt to bring their mother back to life, Ed loses his leg, while Al loses his entire body to a mysterious doorway known as The Gate of Truth. But Ed manages to embody Al’s soul into a suit of armor; Ed sacrifices his arm in the process in order to keep his brother alive. The two are on a quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary transmutation amplifier that could make their bodies intact once more.
At the beginning of every episode, the rule of equivalent exchange is explained: one cannot gain something without giving up something equal in return. The Philosopher’s Stone is said to help the user avoid this rule, capable of feats such as, yes, the legendary one of transmuting standard metal into gold. But there is no evidence that such a stone exists, or could be created.
I love the series for a multitude of reasons, the first being the strength that family bonds provide. Ed and Al navigate the world at such a young age. Their personalities counteract one other’s. Ed is more hot-headed and realistic. Al more soft-spoken, and empathetic.
They encounter a false prophet who uses alchemy to persuade an entire town that he can perform miracles as a holy man. While Al agrees in the wrongness in the prophet’s acts, Al also notes the good that this hope provides the town. The brothers’ conversations serve as a way for audience to mediate on the moral issues instead of taking such morality as flimsy props with which to garland an action-oriented plot.
The brothers’ relationship strengthens them, helping them survive all the violence and fucked up ethics they encounter.
They have experienced loss and grief at such a young age. This is one of the ways the creator, Hiromu Arakawa, creates substantial relationships: the characters know what it is like to lose someone. This is what fuels the characters’ drive toward their goals.
The concept of equivalent exchange reoccurs throughout the show, since the characters need to sacrifice in order to achieve their goals. The complications of the magical science are explored in great length, and the brothers must learn to make wise and responsible decisions with the power they hold.
Even with proper training and discipline in transmutation, Ed and Al cannot prevent a State Alchemist named Shou Tucker from creating a talking chimera by transmuting his daughter and dog together. Tucker’s arrest feels mild compared to the atrocity he committed. We learn that the transmutation cannot be undone. The chimera is killed as a result. This devastates the brothers.
This is a lesson that Ed and Al carry with them for the rest of the series: despite their knowledge and power, bad things still happen to good people. Ed laments that despite being the youngest State Alchemist to receive his certifications, he is “a simple human who couldn’t save a little girl. Not even with alchemy.”
Fullmetal Alchemist means so much to me because of these hard lessons. I was around Ed and Al’s age when I delved into this series. I saw nothing wrong in their wanting to bring their mother back to life. But what made this story stand out from the other anime I was getting to know at the time was that the brothers operated in a world that didn’t cater to them.
In Sailor Moon, the characters overcome all obstacles with sheer faith in each other. In Yu Yu Hakusho, Yusuke Urameshi is brought back to life by the fifth episode to serve as a Spirit Detective for the Spirit World. And in Dragon Ball Z, a simple wish from the Dragon Balls bring the heroes back to life multiple times.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, the world never bends to Ed and Al’s wills.
There’s an episode where Ed is nearly murdered by a serial killer. When the average anime protagonist would train to overcome this obstacle, or acquire a more powerful weapon, Ed instead reflects on his own mortality. The show reminds us that this is still a child learning to cope with a traumatizing situation. Death is a real threat for these characters. I just wanted to see these characters happy, which stemmed from many, many stories derived from the source material manga.
Another reason why I love this series is how easily Arakawa can change the mood. When the moment calls for a serious instance, she definitely delivers. But she prevents the story from becoming too heavy with emotion, reminding the audience of relationships and characters that are at stake.
In the first episode of the anime series, Ed and Al arrive at a desert city. One of the first things that one of the townspeople asks them if whether the two are circus performers. Hilarity ensues when Al preforms alchemy, and the townspeople mistake him for the Fullmetal Alchemist since he wears a suit of armor. When Al explains that Ed is actually the Fullmetal Alchemist, the townspeople cannot believe that the title belongs to such a small person. Ed then assaults several people because he is incredibly insecure about his height.
We don’t learn that Ed has automail limbs and Al is a hollow suit of armor until later in the episode, when the false prophet I mentioned earlier comes to the realization. Up until this point we know that the Ed has a height complex, and Al is wearing armor in a desert, and they’re searching for the Philosopher’s tone. If we were faced with this dramatic reveal first, we wouldn’t care since we’d have no idea of who these brothers are, or why we should care about them. We’re concerned about these characters because the lighthearted moments prior got us invested early on.
I also adored this anime for its badass women. One is Winry Rockbell, a childhood friend to the Elric brothers and an automail mechanic. Although she excels in her craft in order to help Ed out, that isn’t her sole purpose for her occupation. She forces the brothers to make a detour to Rush Valley due to the place’s reputation for automail production. She swoons over cutting edge machinery. She never renounces her femininity.
Winry harbors feelings for Edward Elric, but this is a small part of her character. Her parents were murdered during the Ishvalan War when she was very young. She gets angry at Ed and Al for not keeping in touch due to her concern for them. In the 2003 anime, she and Ed do not even end up together, while in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Ed confesses his feelings in the very last episode. These characters exist outside of romance, while the romance exists as an extra component to layer the characters.
There are more badass female characters. but the males also blur the standard gender norms as well. There’s Maes Hughes, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in the Ishvalan War who swoons and pulls out photos of his wife and daughter every time they’re mentioned. There’s also Major Alex Louis Armstrong, an overly muscular man with an affinity for drawing, flexing, and detailed alchemic transmutations. Arakawa actually draws sparkles in every scene that Armstrong is in.
I enjoy this series so much because it set a standard for what anime could be. Despite all its cheerful moments, the series never shied away from grimmer, darker lessons, nor did it attempt to define more complex concepts such as God or death in simplistic, merely-entertaining ways. Fullmetal Alchemist skillfully told a story with beautifully flawed characters. And despite the hardships that everyone goes through, they are given an ending that doesn’t feel forced, or cheesy, or undeserving.
In 2009, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was released as a more faithful adaptation to Arakawa’s story. The animation is more fluid and complex, especially during the fight scenes. There are more badass, well-fleshed out characters. The pacing is quicker, and different forms of alchemy such as alkahestry are introduced.
But you should still watch the 2003 anime before Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The former delves into complex topics. There is weight to the characters’ emotions. There is profound ambiguity.
One of the final scenes of the anime involves Ed and the antagonist, Dante, speaking to each other about equivalent exchange. Dante combats Ed’s ideologies of equivalent exchange, of how so many others also studied for countless hours in order to become a state alchemist, but because of luck Ed managed to seize the title. She counteracts the balance that equivalent exchange provides with the unpredictability of the world: “Equivalent exchange is a myth, a contrived order to give sense to a world that has none.” Instead of a battle, the animation distorts the room and characters as the law stated at the beginning of the anime is deconstructed.
Fullmetal Alchemist was the first anime to show me that anime could be an art form, and I also learned that I could confide in a medium that otherwise felt separate from my own.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34, Episode 221) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.