Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Fullmetal Alchemist
by Jason Thompson, Jun 6th 2013
Episode CXLIX: Fullmetal Alchemist
I've been saving this one for a long time, like a piece of cake I don't want to eat until after I've eaten my dinner. Almost every anime fan knows Fullmetal Alchemist. Even if you haven't seen the anime (BTW, it's on Netflix), you've seen the cosplayers. Edward Elric, the young hero with metal leg, metal arm, red cape, sweet military uniform and blonde hair tied back in a ponytail: he's perfect for cosplay. His brother, Alphonse Elric, not so much; it takes dedication to make an entire suit of platemail armor. But to cosplay so that you could take your own head off and reveal that you were in fact an empty shell, with just a pentagram linking your soul to your armor body—now that would be hard.
Edward and Alphonse are traveling alchemists, roaming across Amestris, a country something like a cross between Germany and Great Britain. In the wartorn world of Fullmetal Alchemist—a world similar to our own world in the first quarter of the 20th century, Downton Abbey era, when horses are just starting to give way to automobiles—alchemy is real. It's not just used by some wizards in Medieval laboratories seeking esoteric philosophical truths or trying to convert base metals into gold; it's a scientific power that lets you rearrange the basic building blocks of matter on the atomic level, like taking the iron in blood to make a metal knife. Alphonse, the one in the armor, is a talented alchemist; by scratching the correct runes in the dust, making the right magic circle, he can repair machines, build objects out of raw materials, create barriers and weapons. Edward's skills are at a whole other level: he can use alchemy like a martial art, without any circles or runes, performing magic in instants with just his bare hands. They call Ed the "Fullmetal Alchemist," but the first time people meet them together, everyone assumes his younger brother Al is the "fullmetal" one. (It's the armor.) As for Ed, people assume he's just some short kid. Their personalities are the opposite of their sizes; Ed has a temper and he hates, hates being called short. Al, in contrast, is a gentle giant, who always has to take care of and calm down his big brother.
They're inseparable, because they're brothers, and because they've been through hell together. In volume 6, we find out what hell was. When they were young, their father abandoned their family, and later their mother died. Grief-stricken, the two boys vowed to learn alchemy and use it to do the most difficult alchemical art, the one thing most forbidden to alchemists: to bring their mother back from the dead. But the ritual went wrong. The principle of alchemy is equivalent exchange: you don't get something for nothing. The price of bringing their mother back to life proved to be Edward's leg and Alphonse's entire body, which were sucked through "the door" into another realm, a secret alchemical plane. Worst of all, their sufferings were pointless: the "mother" they conjured was barely a human being, and died in agony moments after it was reborn. Having lost his mother a second time, Edward vowed not to lose his brother as well. Biting back the pain from his severed leg, Edward opened "the door" again and made another deal with the thing on the other side, trading his arm for his brother's soul and binding the soul into a suit of armor.
One of them missing an arm and a leg, the other missing his entire body; they're heroes who played with fire and got burned. The experience left Edward nearly comatose with grief; but as he and Alphonse recovered from their wounds, a visitor, Colonel Mustang, came offering yet another deal with the devil. The state military, the ruling authority of Amestris, had heard of the two brothers' alchemical might and come to make them an offer. The army needs a few good alchemists, because they're at war. (Amestris is always at war.) Become State Alchemists…use their powers in service to the military…get paid, travel the world…and be pardoned for the serious crime of using alchemy on human beings.
Edward takes the offer. His childhood friend, the master mechanic Winry Rockbell, makes him a pair of "fullmetal" prostheses: "automail" cyborg limbs that he can use like the real thing. After the year-long healing and automail-training process is completed, Ed and Al go to the capitol to join the military and accept his assignment. But Ed isn't doing it out of patriotism. He's doing it because, as a State Alchemist, he might be able to find the legendary Philosopher's Stone, an alchemical enhancer whose powers might allow him to restore his and his brother's bodies.
And so the brothers' journey begins. It's an unusual journey for a manga since they're not fighting to be the best or to take revenge on some bad guy; they're fighting to heal themselves and to undo the sins of their past. In the process, they travel around the world, fight lots of deadly, evil opponents and use alchemy in cool, heroic ways. Fullmetal Alchemist has incredibly good fight scenes. As an action manga, it's great, sometimes cross-cutting between two or more fights with different characters at the same time; and the battles always have an element of strategy and cleverness, not the typical "beat yourself against the enemy until you're almost dead and then suddenly you uncover your hidden potential and get stronger" shonen manga battles. The fight between Colonel Mustang and Lust, or between Sloth and the other characters, are some of the best battles in shonen manga. (They're also really gory, reminding me of a theory I have: children's manga can get away with being so bloody because they're in black & white. In color, having people blown into smithereens with the lower half of their bodies still walking around gushing blood would offend a lot more parents.) As an action artist, Hiromu Arakawa is one of the best. The draws muscle and impact reminds me of Masahiko Nakahira.
But this isn't just a fighting manga. I discovered Fullmetal Alchemist as an editor for Viz, when I worked on the first few volumes (this was the time period retrospectively known as "when I got all the name spellings wrong" -_-; Hey, "Xerxes" is hard to transliterate from katakana!). The art was nice, but honestly, I wasn't that impressed with the first few chapters. Superpowered heroes going from town to town righting wrongs; suggestion that the authorities are corrupt; vague distrust of organized religion. I'd seen it all before. But gradually, as the story went on, I couldn't shake the growing suspicion: this manga is really, really good.
It has great characters, especially lots of great female characters for a boys' manga. Winry, the boys' childhood friend. Izumi Curtis, who trained Ed and Al in alchemy; an iron-hard, no-nonsense woman, despite her incredible alchemical and martial arts abilities, she lives humbly running a butcher shop with her husband, and in one scene when she beats up some goons, she has them running in fear from her battle cry "I'M A HOUSEWIFE!!!" Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, Colonel Mustang's faithful right-hand woman, the only one who sees beneath his playboy exterior to see the man who truly cares about his country; when he tells her of his ambition to one day become President of Amestris and change the country for the better, he tells her to shoot him if he ever compromises his dream. Prince Lin, a traveller from the eastern country of Xing (basically China), one of 24 princes who has come to the West seeking Western alchemy for the power to beat his rivals and win the throne. Major Armstrong, the ever-earnest, excessively-friendly strongman, who's always telling Ed and Al about the pride of the "great Armstrong family" and throwing off his shirt to reveal his rippling muscles; he's a comedy character, but even he's got a serious side (not to mention a badass big sister). Most of the FMA characters have two faces to their personality, a silly omake gag side and a deeper side; unlike some mangaka, Arakawa pulls off this delicate trick without destroying the believability of the series. Even the bad guys—the Seven Deadly Sins, "Homunculi" who are inhuman beings created by alchemy—are appealing while also being totally evil. The first Sins we meet are Lust, the temptress whose forms razors from her body and carves her victims to pieces; and Gluttony, a big fat simple-minded guy who looks almost like a chibi caricature on the surface,but who's actually a monster who eats his victims up, flesh and bone, wood and stone.
Speaking of those bad guys…they are REALLY bad, the kind of bad that makes your back shiver. Considering the almost family-friendly superheroic territory it starts in, Fullmetal Alchemist goes to dark, dark places, like governmental corruption, war and genocide. From the beginning it's apparent that all is not right in Amestris, but as the manga goes on, and the heroes go to more and more places, they (and we) realize that it's worse than we thought. (You might get a hint the government is not entirely to be trusted by the title of the head executive, "Führer President.") In the manga's grimmest plotline, several years before Ed and Al become alchemists, Amestris invaded the country of Ishbal (aka Ishval depending on the Romanization), slaughtering the natives with the help of their State Alchemist army. "Ishbal was nothing but a huge, bloody laboratory with human beings as the guinea pigs!" Volume 15, the flashback to the Ishbalan Extermination Campaign, is graphically violent and morally troubling, as we see characters that we thought were good guys participating in genocide. Of course, they still bear the scars of guilt, and they were "just obeying orders," but this only makes them the moral equivalent of low-ranking Nazis. Edward and Al, thankfully, were too young to be involved in the slaughter, and like most people in Amestris, they don't even know anything about it. When an Ishbalan survivor with a scar on his face shows up and starts assassinating State Alchemists, Ed and Al are just angry and want to avenge their friends, not knowing that Scar, too, is an avenger. But almost no one is morally pure—not the State Alchemists, not even Scar, as we see in one shocking scene that I couldn't believe actually happened. We've seen the "government is the big bad guy" meme in other, more lighthearted manga, but FMA goes a hundred times farther than, say, One Piece. In FMA, "good" people actually commit crimes, and "good" people actually die.
There is a terrible evil in Amestris, and Fullmetal Alchemist is about how Ed and Al—who start out just wanting to get their bodies back (and in Ed's case, get taller)—end up fighting it. But can the nation of Amestris be saved, or is it doomed from its corruption? I doubt that Hiromu Arakawa would ever say a word about real-world politics, but I should mention that the Ishbalans are dark-skinned and live in the east in a desert-looking place and are strongly religious…and if I was pushing, I'd mention that the first two katakana in "Amestris" are the same as "America." But Fullmetal Alchemist is a manga, not a Howard Zinn book. Hiromu Arakawa remixes real-world elements, ones that are darker than usual for a tween manga, but it's ultimately a heroic fantasy. The common point between Ed and Al, and Colonel Mustang and Major Armstrong, are that they are heroes who committed terrible sins and must try to redeem themselves. Is it too dark? That's up to you, the reader, to decide. But don't let my summary scare you off by, of course, immediately jumping to the most controversial bits.There's inhuman evils here, not just human ones. There are great fight scenes and great surprises and really, really scary monsters.
Hiromu Arakawa is an interesting mangaka. She comes from a family of dairy farmers and was raised on a farm, which accounts for all the pro-milk advocacy in her manga. (It's nice to know that Japanese parents, at least Arakawa's, also tell their kids to drink lots of milk to grow taller.) Her life also gave her source material for Hyakushō Kizoku ("Noble Farmer"), her one-volume essay manga about dairy farming, which was available on JManga before the site shut down, and her current new manga Silver Spoon. Apart from this, Arakawa has stayed out of the spotlight like most mangaka, but it's known that she had a child in 2007, and she turned 40 years old this year. (Happy birthday! May 8th!) Hopefully Viz will license and translate Silver Spoon soon (only Viz can license it, since it's a Shonen Sunday title). The story of a kid growing up in a farming town might not sound as exciting as a story about alchemy, cyborgs, demons and parallel earths, but manga is about the slice-of-life stories too. And the funny moments, and the love story (yes, love story) in Fullmetal Alchemist are as good as the science fiction parts.
It'd be fun to write more about Fullmetal Alchemist but unfortunately, that would involve spoilers, and I've already given away too many. Ideas that would be the climax of a normal manga are just the jumping-off point in FMA. It will be remembered as one of the classic shonen manga series of the 2000s. If you haven't read this one yet, I envy you. You'll enjoy it.
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