Obvious disclaimer: we are absolute nerds.
When “Western” consumers think about cartoons, they usually think of two things. Cartoons, to them, are about funny stories, most likely involving humanized animals that do all sorts of crazy things like in the Looney Toons or Micky Mouse; or they are about superheroes who usually have dark origins that make them fight for the good of humanity. Superman, Cpt. America, and Batman come to mind easily here. Japanese cartoons, on the other hand, have not made their way into our culture that much (yet). “Animes” are usually seen as underdogs, as inferior to their Western equivalents, which is weird, given the fact that cartoons/animes and comics/mangas have a very long tradition in Japan and are deeply rooted in its culture. Hence, to the Japanese, cartoons don’t necessarily have to be about funny things or superheroes. Animes can be as much about trivial things, like chess or gardening, as they can revolve around deeply philosophical questions – like Ghost in the Shell, which is about a humanlike robot and which asks the audience where an unemotional robot ends and a sentient humanlike being starts.
Another of these philosophical animes is Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMA) by Hiromu Arakawa.
FMA is set in a fictional, pre-world-war-one-like land called Amestris and tells the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric. Their mother Trisha is raising the two brothers on her own, as their father has abandoned the family. Soon after, Trisha gets ill, and dies of her illness. Fuelled by grief, the two brothers learn the hidden arts of alchemy.
Let us level with you for a second here.
Amestris is a fantasy world in which natural laws are governed by alchemy. Alchemy is the transformation of one thing into another – iron into a sword, wheat into bread … you get the idea. Using the right “ingredients” or components enables an alchemist (someone who has learned the art of alchemy and is therefore able to manipulate the elements) to deconstruct, reassemble, and reconstruct everything at will. Well, not everything. The law of alchemy states that humans cannot be resurrected using the components of which a human is made up. Humans are more than the sum of their chemical components since they have souls, so attempts to resurrect them usually end in disaster.
Back to the story.
After thorough training and a lot of reading up on human resurrection, the two boys try to bring their mother back to life. The experiment ends in chaos, as the brothers not only fail to resurrect Trisha but also lose something of themselves in the process: Edward loses his leg and has to sacrifice his arm to bring back the soul of his brother, as all of Alphonse was taken in the experiment. In a last effort, Ed traps Al’s soul in a suit of medieval armour, giving him at least some physical form. After this, the brothers burn down their childhood home, which is a symbol of their determination not to look back, and they try to get back Al’s body as well as Ed’s arm and leg. They soon figure out that the only thing that could help them carry out such a powerful transformation is a Philosopher’s Stone. While trying to find – or create – one of these, they are sucked deeper and deeper into a conspiracy, as they are not the only ones searching for such a stone.
Unlike many cartoons, FMA has been created with a clear starting and end point, which is definitely a strong suit. Look at cartoons like Superman, or Dragonball, which have what feels like millions of episodes and eventually leave the audience suspecting that the makers are out of ideas. Furthermore, they have to introduce new characters all the time, while also giving them depth and room for development, which results in episodes that don’t help the main story to progress but that are simple flashbacks to create the illusion that a new character has depth. FMA, however, only has slightly more than 60 episodes (depending where it is aired), and it never skips a beat in bringing the story to its conclusion. Every episode matters in terms of the plot, while it also adds new plotlines that are elegantly elaborated and finished throughout the series.
But that’s not why FMA so interesting.
See, the world of Amestris is dictated by alchemy. Throughout the story, alchemy is introduced as the cartoon’s version of science, the very thing with which we can justify almost everything as long as we claim it’s about finding “the truth.” Conducting painful experiments on animals? Playing God by creating life? Producing and testing weapons of mass destruction? All of it is okay from a scientific point of view. This notion is elaborated throughout the story and it shows to what lengths humanity is willing to go in order to find “the truth.” Alchemists conduct painful experiments in which they fuse the bodies of animals and humans to create obedient soldiers. In general, alchemy is most often used in the military where the “state’s alchemists” are used as weapons who can slaughter thousands of humans. The Elric brothers, however, refuse to use alchemy to justify being cruel, which becomes obvious when they figure out what Philosopher’s Stones are made of – human souls. Even in a world in which it is considered legitimate to use alchemy and the pursuit of the truth to justify one’s own lower desires, the brothers are not willing to sacrifice the lives of others just to correct their mistake of messing with alchemy’s laws. The two ideologies – the unchecked and cold use of alchemy vs. the Elric’s ethically checked alchemy – clash throughout the story and provide the viewer with food for thought as both standpoints have their pros and cons.
FMA never stops elaborating this question and asks serious questions about both approaches towards alchemy/science. It illustrates the perils to which unchecked alchemy can lead, while also showing that progress in society cannot always be ethical. What keeps the viewers hooked is that they want to know how the Elric Brothers will find their own path between the two extremes. We can clearly recommend the anime to everyone who likes a story with depth that does not have millions of episodes.
Ole Kasch & Alexander Jahn