Who knew such a simple choice of checking the manga section in my high school library when I was a library assistant would leave such an impression on my life? To put it simply, Fullmetal Alchemist is my favorite story of anything. Not just “favorite manga” or “favorite anime”, it’s my favorite piece of storytelling. It is the story I compare every thing to, regardless of genre, medium or creator. This is not only the standard against which every anime must be judged, but it’s like it integrated so many elements from the best of anime that it can stand toe-to-toe with even the genre-defining progenitors.
What is Fullmetal Alchemist?
If you’re an anime cognoscente then Fullmetal Alchemist most likely won’t need an introduction. This is the anime the current generation of anime fans hold above all others as the greatest anime EVER made! It started off as a manga written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa that was serialized in Square Enix’s Monthly Shonen Gangan from August 2001 to June 2010 and lasted 108 chapters. Arakawa Hiromu’s tale of two brothers and their adventures in alchemy has spawned games, a movie, numerous figures and plushies, piles of merchandise ranging from tattoos to clothes and two different anime series. Fullmetal Alchemist takes place in an alternate history which combines medieval and WWI-era European aesthetic and the forerunner of science known as alchemy. Alchemists have the ability to create almost anything they desire. The only thing alchemists are forbidden from transmuting are humans. However, after the death of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric, two bright kids who are brilliant at alchemy, try to resurrect her.
Despite their best efforts, suffice to say things turn into a nightmare for the siblings that day. Edward loses his arm and a leg and Alphonse loses his entire body, his life was saved by Edward being able to attach his younger brother’s soul to a suit of armor. From there, Ed accepts the military’s offer to become a state alchemist (becoming the youngest ever) and with his brother, begin to find the Philosopher’s Stone, an enigmatic substance which allows alchemists to bypass the Law of Equivalent Exchange in hopes of getting their bodies back. This starts a powerful human adventure that takes them all across the country and has them confronting moral, philosophical and even religious situations as they make their journey toward their destination.
I never had any familiarity with Arakawa’s other works, but I have read manga before when I was a kid. Even though this is a shounen, there’s complexity and innovation applied to engross the reader and it’s one of the best aspects of Fullmetal Alchemist and Arakawa’s way of writing.
There are themes most people who read shounen will notice such as never giving up, friendship is the best thing ever, etc. and it does a good job in presentation and execution.
One of the darker themes is revenge. The character out for revenge like it’s the sweetest joy is Scar, a man from the country of Ishval that was destroyed by Amestris in The Ishval War. As such, he has become an assassin, targeting state alchemists who destroyed his country and people. The war is what shaped the personality of not only Scar, but most of the characters in the military.
In this world, science takes the form of alchemy. It’s based around one basic concept, The Law of Equivalent Exchange. This law states that in order to gain something of value, something of equal value has to be lost. Essentially this means that in alchemy and in life, an alchemist cannot create something without losing something in return. This itself is based around the law of conservation of energy stating that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but transforms from one form to another.
Family is another theme and it’s arguably the most enduring. What is a family? Is family someone you share blood with or a bond with or both? What would you do to protect your family? The Elric brothers are the main vehicle for this particular theme, but there are other characters that touch on the subject as well such as the villains who are all technically brothers and sisters. Family is what started the story and it’s also what concludes it.
It’d be hard to talk about Fullmetal Alchemist without talking about one of my favorite characters in anime. Yeah, there are a lot of anime characters I like, but not all of them can be called a “favorite”. I think well written characters are ones you can connect and resonate with. I like how relatable and genuine Edward is as a character.
Upon joining the military Edward earns the title “Fullmetal Alchemist” (you know, like the title of the anime) and I think this is a fitting name, but not because of his metal limbs. Ed is very protective over his friends and family, especially his brother Alphonse. This always puts himself in tragic and dangerous situations. I think it’s safe to say everyone would do everything they can to protect the people they love. This personality trait is what makes him save and befriend a lot of characters throughout the series.
One of his most noticeable and comedic traits is his denial of his short stature. Obviously, he’s short even for his age standing at 4’11. Even during the most calm moments any and every reference to his height is met with physical and verbal abuse from him. Despite his height he’s a competent hand-to-hand combatant and a genius in alchemy making him able to hold his own against armed fighters and skilled martial artists.
I wanted to give the female characters their own section. No, this isn’t going to be me fawning over them and talking about how beautiful they are (even though they are). The variety of female characters is astounding, with all of them having their own personality, skill and morality. Winry Rockbell is the optimistic, strong-willed childhood friend of the Elrics. She’s also a skilled mechanic and makes sure Edward’s metal right arm and left leg are always working properly. The beautiful, but equally bad ass Riza Hawkeye who could bust a cap in your ass with the greatest of ease *Booker T voice*. There’s Izumi Curtis, teacher to Edward and Alphonse who takes great pride in being a simple housewife and introduces herself as such to anyone who asks. Of course there are other compelling women such as Maria Ross, Lan Fan, May Chang, General Olivier Mira Armstrong and more. The women here aren’t just pretty faces, they all have a purpose.
I don’t know if there is a debate concerning who’s your favorite homunculus, but mine is easily Envy. I’m sure the head writer of the 2003 series favorite is Envy as well (lol, if you watched it you’ll probably get the joke). Despite being the most sadistic character, he’s the most popular homunculus. Why is that though? He harbors a bitter resentment toward humanity as a whole and thinks and treats humans in the worst way possible. He takes delight in human suffering and does whatever he can to inflict it. Doesn’t seem like a very likable character to me. He has one of the most useful superpowers: shape-shifting. He can transform into anything and anyone as long as it doesn’t exceed his true from which judging by his actually size and weight most likely doesn’t cause much of an issue. He also uses it to play on his target’s emotions which comes in handy when he wants to kill someone or get the advantage.
Beneath his tough and heartless exterior Edward explains how Envy is envious of humans. He envies their inner strength, standing up every time they fall and the friendships they share. In his life, Envy was never able to experience true contentment. Despite all of the deplorable stuff he did, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor son of a bitch in his final moments.
A Roller Coaster of Emotions
^I still cry manly tears watching this scene. I was thinking “They did it! They fucking did it!”.
I laughed, I cried tears of sorrow and joy, I was angry, I was happy. As you can see, it’s easy for me to convey the emotions that went through my mind as I read the manga (and watched Brotherhood). I think there are a lot of scenes others will see that will make produce similar thoughts and feelings. A scene of hope. A scene of despair. A scene of loss. A scene of gain. Every facet of the plot gives some insight to this weird experience we call “life”.
It would be almost two years after the last chapter was published until I was able to experience it for myself. Before then, my opinion on anime was not a good one. A childish form of “entertainment” made to cater to the needs of perverted nerds with only shows such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Pokemon and Tenchi being the anomalies and worth anyone’s time. When I was vacationing in Florida back in 2007 I remember seeing scenes of Fullmetal Alchemist on Adult Swim and merchandise being sold at Hot Topic. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s kind of funny to see how things turned out.
I don’t know what made me change my mind senior year. What compelled me to read Fullmetal Alchemist? I hated anime, so why? Too much free time? I guess I should be thankful I had free time. I honestly didn’t think it was going to change my opinion and I had no idea at the time it was incredibly popular. I soon realized I couldn’t wait until sixth period where I would be able to put my nose between the pages of a manga.
Will there ever be an anime greater than Fullmetal Alchemist? Of course and I can’t wait to see what it is. I just hope it’s released in my lifetime though.
Fullmetal Alchemist is more than a classic. It’s an accomplishment in the anime medium.
Thank you, Arakawa Hiromu. I’m glad I was able to find an anime like Fullmetal Alchemist.