(Warning: contains minor spoilers for the full series.)
MJ: As most of you probably know, December saw the end of one of my very favorite manga series, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. This is a series I’ve praised at length, and one of just two long-running shounen series to make my personal top ten list.
For the uninitiated, Fullmetal Alchemist is a 27-volume shounen fantasy epic set in a world not unlike industrial revolution-era Europe. In this universe, the quasi-science of alchemy is actually the world’s real science, bordering on magical power. Its practitioners acquire the ability to transmute physical objects into other objects by breaking them down into their elemental forms and rearranging them from the core. The science operates on the principle of “equivalent exchange,” demanding that nothing can be created without the sacrifice of something of equal value.
The story centers on two young brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who follow their absent father’s footsteps into the study of alchemy, eventually attempting to use it to resurrect their dead mother, a practice made virtually impossible by the requirements of equivalent exchange and forbidden by alchemic law. Their attempt results in the loss of Ed’s arm and leg, and Al’s entire body, forcing him to live as a disembodied soul attached to a suit of armor. Inspired by the legend of the Philospher’s Stone—a gem capable of amplifying an alchemist’s powers and defying the law of equivalent exchange—the two embark on a quest to find it in order to become whole again.
MICHELLE: Their first significant lead is Dr. Marcoh, a man responsible for creating philosopher’s stones at one of the military’s secret laboratories. He tips them off about his research notes, and after some difficulty in finding them followed by significant trouble deciphering them, the boys learn the horrifying truth: philosopher’s stones are made by sacrificing living human beings.
From there, they begin to unravel the truth about not just the military but about the very founding of their homeland, Amestris, all while continuing to pursue their personal goal of regaining their original bodies. Loss of life and loss of innocence ensue.
MJ: As a point of interest, while it might seem obvious that the title of the series references Al’s metal body, this is actually not the case at all. In order for the boys to gain access to the country’s alchemic research, Ed (the only one of them with a passable human form) must join the Amestrian military as a State Alchemist, each of whom is given an official title appropriate to his person and special skills. It is Ed who is given the title, “Fullmetal Alchemist,” referring not so much to his automail (metal) limbs, but his stubborn personality.
MICHELLE: This, in turn, makes him a target of an assassin named Scar, who has sworn vengeance against State Alchemists, whom the military employed as human weapons in the civil war against his people, the Ishbalans. Little by little, the scope of the story widens until, in the best nature of fantasy epics, the entire world is in peril.
MJ: At the time that Michelle and I decided to feature Fullmetal Alchemist for Off the Shelf, she’d only read a few volumes, so while I could go on and on here about why I think it’s so great, I’d actually rather listen to her talk first. Where would you like to start, Michelle?
MICHELLE: I hardly know where to begin. I’m still digesting the details of the story so haven’t had much opportunity to sit back and evaluate it as a whole. One thing I did realize fairly early on, though, is that Fullmetal Alchemist shares two qualities with another fabulous shounen series, One Piece—namely, a carefully considered storyline and indelible, endearing characters. Although there are a few moments in the story that made me go “Huh?” the tale builds logically while making time for the sure-handed characterization that really ties the story together. All of the supporting characters are memorable, and readers are trusted to remember small details—Kimblee’s opinion of Winry’s parents, for example—and recall them when they inform the character’s future actions. Too, I love that significant events that occurred early on continue to be referenced and motivate characters to the very end. I’m big on continuity, and FMA has it in spades.
MJ: You’ve immediately hit upon some of the points I think best illustrate what is special about Fullmetal Alchemist. I don’t know what kind of editorial process this series went through, but unlike many long-running series, it has the feeling of having been plotted out as a whole from the very beginning. There are no wasted details in this story, or wasted characters for that matter. The series’ supporting characters are as integral to its plot as its leads, and I don’t think I’ve ever read any series (manga or otherwise) as successful at fleshing out multitudes of supporting characters without duplicating or cluttering things up. These characters are so precisely and lovingly created, not even one feels superfluous, nor do we need to be reintroduced to anyone if they’ve been absent from the story a while. Each of them feels as real as if we’re remembering them from our own lives.
And the plotting… just wow. Everything in this story is important to the plot, and it all comes together so seamlessly… I kind of want to send a copy of the series to, say, JK Rowling, as an example of how effective storytelling is done, without skimping or becoming sloppy. Hiromu Arakawa is an incredibly disciplined storyteller, with the imagination and depth to back it up. Her sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
MICHELLE: It was pretty early on, when Brosh and Ross were assigned as Ed’s bodyguards, that I suddenly realized how distinct the supporting cast was shaping up to be. I have no idea how Arakawa instantly makes these characters so memorable, but she does. Towards the end, there are various illustrations with upwards of twenty people in them, and I found that I could name them all, even when their only appearance was a hand holding a cigarette. And I like that some stick around for a really long time, like Yoki, the corrupt officer whom Ed ousts as the owner of a mine back in volume one. Heck, he even gets a moment to be cool way down the road!
MJ: Maria Ross is one of my favorite characters in the series, and that’s saying quite a bit. She’s also one of a fairly spectacular number of genuinely awesome female characters in the series, which is not something one generally counts on from manga for boys. I’ve meant for a while to do some kind of “Women of Fullmetal Alchemist” feature for Manga Bookshelf, but what’s held me back, really, is that there are so many terrific characters, I fear I’d never be able to do them all justice.
MICHELLE: There really are a ton of them. In addition to Maria, who very stoically bears her exile after near execution for a murder she didn’t commit, there’s Riza Hawkeye, the devoted sharpshooter dedicated to protecting Colonel Mustang; Izumi Curtis, the incredibly intimidating housewife; Major General Olivier Armstrong, who inspires the devotion of her men at Ft. Briggs; Lanfan, the kickass bodyguard for Prince Lin; and of course Winry, who doesn’t have super abilities but who is very strong in her own right and who, by her example, inspires Scar to set aside his hatred of the Amestrians which really, in a way, makes saving the world possible. And still I feel like I’m forgetting someone important.
MJ: A few more spring to my mind immediately, like the young alchemist from Xing, May (and her adorable pet, whose expression when she was wounded in volume 26 actually made me cry). Also, I’m extremely fond of Winry’s grandmother, Pinako, who trained her as an automail engineer. I kind of love that the best engineers, the most impressive marksman, and the most feared military commander are all women. Arakawa doesn’t let traditional gender roles push her around. I like the smaller characters, too, like Sheska and Rose. Hell, even the homunculous Lust is kinda kick-ass. She’s the closest thing we see to the typical voluptuous fanservice, too, which speaks well for the series, considering that she’s dressed in a long gown all the time.
MICHELLE: I love Xiao Mei (May’s pet panda) unreservedly.
And yes, you’re right about Lust being the extent of the fanservice in the series. Most of the women are realistically proportioned. I was particularly happy with Major General Armstrong’s figure—she looks tough yet feminine—and distinctly remember a little mini comic about Arakawa assuring her assistants that Hawkeye doesn’t actually have a skinny waist, it’s just that her broad shoulders and hips of a certain age make it seem so.
This reminds me that I was also delighted to discover that Hawkeye’s motivation for protecting Roy doesn’t seem to be romantic in nature. Okay, yes, sure, I think there is something there, but it’s more like a kind of atonement for her. She’s responsible, ultimately, for him learning the flame alchemist skills that took so many lives in Ishbal, and now wants to see to it that he is able to fulfill his goal of protecting as many people as possible. I love that Arakawa doesn’t take the easy route here.
And, in fact, she does this again many times. I’m thinking about General Graman now, who gets to be president ultimately and whom most series would present as a good guy, but we see his scheming, “let Roy take all the risks” side, as well. Arakawa is not afraid of presenting young readers with complex ideas and flawed people.
MJ: And I couldn’t be more grateful for that. So many authors underestimate children, as though they aren’t living in the same world as adults. I remember years ago when I worked with Maurice Sendak, he was adamant that children understood and were interested in the darker parts of their world often more than the adults in their lives. The stories I remember best from my youth were those that treated me as an equal.
MICHELLE: I think Fullmetal Alchemist definitely does that. That said, I felt there were a few cases where the explanation for what was happening just wasn’t sufficient. Like, say, when Ed is fighting Pride in volume 26 and there’s a line like “he turned himself into a Philosopher’s Stone.” I was like, “Um, what? Did I miss something?” And then it’s not mentioned again so I have no idea what happened. Eventually I just had to go, “Well, whatever, Ed got some sort of advantage there, obviously. Let’s move on.” Maybe there just weren’t enough pages for every little detail to make it in.
MJ: I don’t remember feeling confused at that point, but you know I’m less detail-oriented than you are, so perhaps I glossed over something. I don’t actually remember being confused at any point in the series, which is pretty incredible for me, since I can almost never follow the fights in shounen manga, and generally end up kind of mentally checking out during them. That never happened to me while reading Fullmetal Alchemist, which I always considered to be a minor miracle. Heh. It’s actually this series that first helped me draw the conclusion that I have an easier time following fights in shounen manga when they are drawn by female artists. This is a fact! A weird fact!
MICHELLE: Arakawa is great at drawing fight scenes. I remember that first fight scene with Ed and Greed just blowing me away with how easy she made it all look. I suppose I was less confused by other things and more “Oh, whatever” like some hypothetical musings about alchemy and Al’s situation that were eventually sort of accepted as fact. Unimportant things, really, but yeah, I’m kind of anal. (You don’t want to know how many pages of notes I took while reading this series.)
So. I said it. I said the most heartbreaking and wonderful part of the series. “Al’s situation.” I think the time has come to talk about Al. Do you love Al as much as I do?
MJ: I would have to have a heart of *stone* not to love Al. It’s Al. I mean, okay, I love Ed with the fire of a thousand suns. It’s possible I love him more than Al (if we’re measuring these things, which is a little pointless) because he’s more of a flawed person, and I tend to find flawed things more beautiful than perfect things. But there’s a purity about Al that is just… luminous. And here he’s paid the cruelest price ever just for wanting his mom back too much. Really, nobody has paid as heavily as Al, and it’s just heartbreaking.
MICHELLE: “Luminous” is the perfect word to describe Al.
I found Ed a little hard to like at first, but I thought Arakawa did an excellent job at gradually revealing the more noble sides to his character. At first, for example, Al is the “smoother” in many situations while Ed is more prickly, perhaps trying not to feel softer emotions lest they undermine what he is trying to accomplish. Gradually, though one realizes the soul-crushing depth of responsibility that he feels for what has happened to Alphonse, and this in turn makes Ed very lovable.
I’m also a big fan of his relationship with Winry. He’s such a typical boy, the way he’s kind of a git to her face sometimes, yet is fiercely proud of her abilities when discussing her with others. And though he wants to protect her from some of the terrible things she might see or learn from association with him, it’s never out of a sense that she’s too frail to cope but more like… she’s got a purity that is better unsullied. If that makes sense. It’s not a chauvinistic impulse, which I applaud. And that awkward promise scene in the final volume is so wonderful.
MJ: I absolutely adore Winry, and I adore her with Ed, for all the reasons you mention. There’s never any question that Winry can take care of herself, and she’s at least as protective of him as he is of her, so it’s more like mutual concern than anything else, and sometimes they’re both wrong when it comes to wanting to protect the other, for both flawed reasons and great ones. Their relationship feels very genuine to me. And I think I always identify easily with characters like Ed who kind of spaz their way through emotional difficulty, so I loved him right away.
Al, though, is just a gem, and it’s clear that in many ways, he’s the strong one, and that his big brother would be pretty much lost without him. Probably what I love most about Al, though, is his wealth of compassion. He’s naturally empathetic, and it’s something he’s able to hang on to, despite the fact that he’s been more physically damaged than nearly anyone they meet. Of course, I say “nearly” anyone, because that level of damage is not uncommon in this series. I’m pretty sure the fate of Nina Tucker scarred me for life.
MICHELLE: I think the fate of Nina Tucker scarred a lot of people. But it scarred the brothers too, and I’m glad that Nina gets a mention in one of the final scenes of the series.
You’re right about Al’s empathy and strength, and when he does have moments of weakness, it’s pretty jarring. There are a couple of times when Number 66 (aka “Barry the Chopper”) says something that gets into Al’s brain and won’t let go. Perhaps, since Number 66 (whom I suprisingly came to enjoy quite a lot) is in a similar situation, Al is inclined to take his comments to heart, and when he gets into his dark moods about whether he’s actually really Al at all, or whether his body will soon reject him, it’s genuinely distressing.
And I love love love Al at the end of the series. So clear-eyed and full of purpose.
MJ: I really, really agree. I hesitate to say much more, lest we give away the big stuff to potential readers, but yes.
Al’s identity is so emotionally complicated, much of which is really brought into focus for us by his interactions with Number 66, and actually thinking about that leads me to thinking about how much everyone’s identities are complicated by alchemy in some way, from all the victims of Amestris’ horrific human experiments to the alchemists themselves. I was rereading some of the Ishbalan war sections yesterday, which reminded me just how much even the regular Amestrian soldiers feared the State Alchemists (and for good reason, given what they were witnessing), including characters we’re originally introduced to in much lighter ways, like Roy Mustang. And Arakawa never comes down clearly on one side or another on the subject of being a “dog of the military,” preferring to leave it as a murky gray area, like many of the series’ moral issues (which I love her for).
MICHELLE: I’d say redemption is probably the hugest theme in the series, and I definitely love Arakawa for allowing her characters to have done such dreadful things, to regret them bitterly, and to take action to make up for it in some way. Roy enters the series with this ambition, and Hawkeye with the resolve to support him, but it’s something that Dr. Marcoh and Scar eventually come to seek as well. Very few people in the series are without some sort of sin or great failing, but they’ve got to consciously let go of the bitterness towards each other—which at one point Envy, I believe, attempts to resuscitate to no avail—in order to work together effectively. Victory couldn’t have been achieved without everyone doing their part.
MJ: You’re right, redemption is this series’ main theme, and it’s interesting that I like it so much, since that’s not usually a theme I care for. But I think what makes it really work for me here, is that Arakawa’s idea of redemption is all about taking personal responsibility for your own actions. She’s not suggesting that you can (or should) be forgiven for your sins, or that it’s necessarily possible to really make up for them, but she’s pretty adamant that we have to own them, which is something too many philosophies gloss over, in my opinion.
MICHELLE: Definitely. It’s like with Scar… you’d think that after turning himself around and embarking upon a path to making the world a more positive place, as his brother wanted, that he might reclaim his name and go from there. But by continuing to remain nameless, it’s like he’s saying, “All those things I did are still there. I can work toward making things better now, but I can’t forget.”
MJ: Oh, well said, Michelle! Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean.
I have a lot of issues about the way our society views the concept of “morality,” and this series actually stands as a great example there, too. I remember a few years back, there was a kerfuffle involving a statement Patrick Macias made to a reporter about manga being a kind of “moral-free zone.” He was taken out of context and the article the reporter wrote was awful on a lot of fronts, so it wasn’t something to take seriously. But the whole thing just highlighted the fact that our culture thinks of morality almost purely in terms of sexual desire, which personally I see as fairly trivial. Certainly there are times when matters of sexual desire can become real moral problems, but in general there are much more pressing issues at hand when it comes to how we discuss and think about morality.
For my money, Fullmetal Alchemist addresses questions of morality with more thoughtfulness and honesty than much of the entertainment I see coming out of our culture, and it gets to the stuff that really matters.
MICHELLE: I agree. In addition to being full of characters who have questioned whether it was right to follow orders that they knew in their heart to be reprehensible, you’ve also got the Elric brothers who are adamant about not using a philosopher’s stone to rectify their own mistake, despite being given several opportunities to do so. It was simply something they’d promised each other never to do, and they upheld that vow.
This makes me think of Major Armstrong, who torpedoed his career advancement opportunities when he questioned the validity of the Ishbalan war. He alone could not put his duty to follow orders above personal feeling. When the time comes later to engage an enemy that is unquestionably evil, however, he gives it his all.
MJ: Major Armstrong is a really interesting case to look at, I think, because on one hand he’s used for a lot of comic relief, with all his overblown emotions and his sparkly physique, but he’s actually a fairly dramatic figure when you look at him over the course of the series. I’m really glad that Arakawa makes it clear that there are often genuinely negative consequences for doing the right thing. You know, I remember when David Welsh listed Armstrong as one of his Valentine’s Day manga crushes and at the time I found that kind of hilarious. But really, it’s the best choice ever, now that I think about it.
MICHELLE: I ended up liking him quite a lot, too! Despite his bulk, he’s really a softie, and perhaps the next most compassionate-toward-others character after Al. Plus, his silly posturing becomes endearing and I love the instantaneous rapport he develops with Izumi’s hulking husband, Sig, and how they communicate through manly handclasps.
MJ: Another character whose moral dilemmas helped me to get to like him is Lin Yao, the prince of Xing who initially really rubbed me the wrong way. Characters whose top objective is achieving immortality tend to really grate on me. But during the period when he shares his body with the homunculous Greed, I actually got to really like him, which helped me develop real respect for Lan Fan too.
MICHELLE: Same here. I felt that he acquired more depth once we saw what he was really willing to do to achieve his goal, and also gave us an “in” to the personality of the most fascinating (to me) homunculus, Greed. I hadn’t found the “fainting from hunger” Lin Yao to be much of an addition to the story, but after he melded with Greed, I looked forward to his appearances.
I wish Lan Fan got more screen time, but I like her a lot, too. And, again, the way in which Winry led Scar by her example to set aside his hatred, Dr. Knox inspires Lan Fan to beseech the prince to protect all the clans, not just his own, probably not realizing that she also gave back to Dr. Knox by showing him that he needn’t be a coroner forever, but still had the right to treat living patients after the atrocities he committed for the military.
MJ: I feel like with all our enthusiasm over things like “redemption” and “morality” we’re making the series sound like one big after school special, but it really couldn’t be further from it. It’s also a really exciting adventure story, a gripping fantasy, a moving tale of brotherly devotion, an often scathing political commentary, and really, really funny.
MICHELLE: The first time I tried to read the series, I was surprised by how funny it was, so I definitely had gotten an impression of it as being something serious and epic. Which, of course, it is. But then you have characters like Armstrong, and the wonderful four-panel strips at the back, and chibified super-deformed Al, which never fails to elicit a giggle from me.
On the topic of scathing political commentary, another thing I liked is that even the good guys use spin to their advantage. One of Roy’s subordinates, Breda (who looks like a grunt but who is actually extremely clever), concocts a way to portray the big battle at the end to the public, making one realize that even our heroes are having to play the public relations game to some extent. They have to take public opinion into consideration, if they ever hope to have the power to steer the government and country into a better direction, which makes the whole story feel more complicated and realistic.
MJ: Heh, yes, definitely. And there’s really no sense that politicians, even the “good” ones, are necessarily upright people. Roy, for instance, who is set up as an ally pretty early on, is portrayed pretty consistently as a super-ambitious womanizer. And though he mellows over the course of the series (and certainly we’re made aware of his deeper, more virtuous motivations), it’s not like he changes into a different person. He’s still that guy, and I feel like it’s made clear that “that guy” is the kind of person who goes into politics. Even if some of his motivations are genuinely righteous, he’s also in it for himself.
MICHELLE: Yeah, there’s a certain amount of ego involved in seeking public office, methinks. I do wonder, though, how much of the womanizing was actually genuine. I was under the impression that the ladies are his personal information network, and the lothario reputation is a ruse to cover his meetings with them.
MJ: Well, I kind of got the impression that it was a little bit of both. :D Perhaps I’m being unduly influenced by the omake strip in which he declares that female officers should be required to wear miniskirts.
MICHELLE: Ha! Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was both!
So, this is kind of abrupt, but one character we’ve not really talked about yet is King Bradley. Arakawa handles his introduction so brilliantly, because I could just feel the creepy waves coming off of him even before his origins were revealed. It was telling that Al was more terrified of him than Greed, for example, and even shielded one of Greed’s minions from him during the raid on Devil’s Nest. But like the best villains, he does have a past that one can sympathize with, and is a victim of “Father” in his own way.
MJ: Oh, good call, Michelle. He really is a great villain, because he’s so complex, and honestly he surprised me to the end. His final words in the series actually made me tear up, and that just shocked me. I wouldn’t have thought that could happen, yet it felt completely natural and real in the moment.
MICHELLE: I think I’ll remember best the scene where he’s talking to Hawkeye about how his life has been planned out for him, and how the only thing he ever chose for himself was his wife. Maybe he’s the embodiment of someone who follows orders without question, because he could’ve rebelled like Greed, but instead walked the path he was assigned, with only really one connection that he had forged himself.
MJ: And he chose well, too. I really liked his wife.
MICHELLE: Me, too. I kind of wish we could’ve seen at least one unguarded demonstration of his love for her, but perhaps that would’ve made him too sympathetic.
Another character who loved his wife dearly but had an odd way of showing it was Von Hohenheim. His story was handled somewhat opposite to King Bradley’s, in that he is presented at first as someone suspicious, especially considering his resemblance to “Father,” but who is revealed to be the one person who knew what was coming and sacrificed his personal relationships in an effort to do something about it. He kind of reminds me of Wesley from Angel in that respect, actually. He’ll do the right thing and be hated for it because it’s what he believes must be done.
MJ: And he’ll even do the right thing while also doing the wrong thing, which makes him more interesting. I mean, yeah, you can look at him as someone willing to sacrifice his personal relationships for the good of all, but he’s also making that choice for his family. He’s deciding that it’s okay for them to have to sacrifice having a husband and father so that he can do the right thing. It’s not actually wrong of Ed to hate his father for abandoning them, after all. He really did that, and it really hurt them, to the point that his sons were so desperate to get back their only parent that they’d cross a line and destroy themselves to do it. His choice isn’t simple in any way, and Arakawa doesn’t let him off the hook for it either. I love that.
MICHELLE: Yes, exactly. That’s why I likened him to Wesley, whose “I’m the only one who can save them” complex led him to take actions on his own that were ultimately ill-considered. Though it’s clear that Trisha understood Hohenheim’s decision, communicating this to the boys would’ve been meaningless because it still meant their dad had chosen to do something else besides be with them. Only his sincere regret later on allows Ed to want to get to know him.
And while we’re on the subject of Whedon shows, am I the only one to get an occasional yet strong Firefly vibe from the series? At first it was all the trains. Trains coupled with dusty towns and advanced human experimentation by the military. And then you’ve got the relationship between Roy and Hawkeye, which reminds me a lot of Mal and Zoe. Especially when you’ve got Roy saying things like, “In the end, the people who understand and support us the most seem to always be the comrades we once fought alongside.”
MJ: Heh, I hadn’t thought of that! I know people have speculated about Firefly being influenced by things like Cowboy Bebop. I wonder if Fullmetal Alchemist was an influence as well. Is Whedon a manga fan?
MICHELLE: Not that I’m aware of, but I suppose it’s possible!
Anyway, once I hit upon the Mal and Zoe parallel then of course it made sense that Hawkeye and Roy were devoted to one another, an incredible team, but not destined to be together romantically. Considering how thorough the ending was otherwise in terms of letting one know what happened to everyone, if they had gotten together, I feel like Arakawa would’ve included that. Maybe Hawkeye just needs to meet a guy who bothers her. :)
MJ: Well, part of me ‘ships them desperately, and another part of me declares, “She doesn’t need a man! She has a dog!”
MICHELLE: He is an awesome dog.
MJ: So, thank you, Michelle, for indulging me in marathoning this series! I hope the experience was rewarding.
MICHELLE: Oh, definitely! Though now I’ve got one more day of vacation left and I’m somewhat at a loss with what to do with myself, since I’ve been so absorbed in FMA for the rest of it!
MJ: Well, you could always watch the anime!
MICHELLE: Believe me, I plan to!
More full-series discussions with MJ & Michelle:
Princess Knight | Fruits Basket | Wild Adapter (with guest David Welsh)