The world molded by Hiromu Arakawa is mysterious and intricate, yet there is a familiarity to it. Though the journey of the Elric brothers, our protagonists, may take the guise of fantasy, it is a deeply personal introspective into our relationship with faith, science and the human condition. Alchemy, much like natural sciences, is the knowledge through which the alchemists perceive and attempt to comprehend the world around them; it is the logic that binds the physical and the vehicle through which our protagonists will grow to understand the complexities of humanity layered by its beliefs, emotions, and kinship.
Edward (“Ed”) Elric and Alphonse (“Al”) Elric have a past charged with the tragedy of loss; first of their mother and later of their bodies, traded in a futile attempt to bring her back from the thrall of death. This defeat is part of them, but what defines them is the ability to walk on despite it. Early on in our story, the Elric brothers explore the city of Liore that stands plagued by a corrupt religious leader seeking to leverage his authority for personal gain. Ed’s skepticism and atheism are core to his disdain for a faith that has no empirical grounding, he is cynical of faith and belief. He distrusts and lacks an understanding of non-quantifiable concepts and the behavior of Father Corneo serves to validate his world view. But as their journey progresses Ed’s understanding of humanity will mature.
Ed and Al are fundamentally scientists, they understand knowledge in terms that can be researched, recorded, and tested. Yet, it ought not to be forgotten that they are children; Arakawa initially undermines this understanding through Al’s appearance and Ed’s status, but as our story goes on, we are reminded of that fact. Despite their perceived maturity, it becomes clear that they are inexperienced with life, such as through their interaction with childbirth, death, and each other. The contrast between their perceived beings and their immaturity is best shown upon their discovery of the heinous experiments subjected to Nina Tucker at the hands of her father, and her subsequent death. Their childlike enthusiasm and curiosity towards alchemy give way to perplexity and confusion as they are reminded that alchemy, much like religion, is not an end but a means and that the conclusion ultimately hinges on the user; but this also signifies that they have room to grow.
Ed and Al’s journey is one towards understanding, but the understanding that Arakawa offers to the reader is not the one that our protagonists seek out at first. Through their journey, they grow and learn through experience , rather than only through the books as they did as children. Arakawa makes the point that not all knowledge is recorded and that there is often more to things than mere appearance. Through this journey, Al and Ed, as well as the viewer, must ponder the meaning of what it truly means to be human on the quest to the ‘truth’.
Al’s predicament at being a disembodied soul affixed to armor is the catalyst of this meandering, but this struggle is as much embodied through Arakawa’s extended cast of human off-shoots like the homunculus and the chimeras. He laments the fading memories of bodily feelings and questions the experiences of his own life, yet ironically, it could very well be said that Al’s self-awareness is proof in itself of his humanity. As humans we are constantly faced with meditating the function and purpose of our existence, this feeling is very much what Al feels, but Arakawa exacerbates it through the position that she has placed Al in, a soul trapped in a shell is not far off from our ponderings. It is no wonder that we can empathize so terrifyingly well with Al’s struggle, but it also reminds the viewer to appreciate the condition of the flesh such as feeling and tasting; Al reminds us of the beauty of the senses and human design that is so easily brushed off as a given, but also that fundamentally these are not what defines us as humans.
Fullmetal alchemist embraces the naturality of life; one is all and all is one it tells us. Humans like all-natural things have their place in natural order, part of the human condition is to accept this position. That is why there is a rejection of the ideals of eternal life, whenever portrayed it is a curse on oneself and others. Hohenheim laments his condition and the grief he must experience again and again; he is unable to connect fully to those around him due to his fear of seeing them die. A stark contrast to the Dwarf in the Flask who seeks to achieve eternal perfection outside of the natural laws of thing; may it be at the expense of humanity which he condemns for its flaws and foolishness.
Unlike the Dwarf’s impression, humans are complex, their thoughts are never the product of any one factor, but rather the cumulation of experiences, interactions, and choices. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist is full of characters that strive to change and progress. This drive to self-actualization is often what defines us. Mustang strives for the top of the military hierarchy to change what he perceives is a defective system, while Scar fights to protect the Amestris he once hated, and Marco gives his all to protect people in penance of his past weakness. People are fluid, they can develop and make choices about who they are and would like to be, perhaps recalling Darwin’s evolutionary theory.
Human life has intrinsic value, Arakawa tells us. Fullmetal Alchemist is fundamentally a story of the importance of life; to this end, we are often reminded of the horrors associated with dehumanization. Soldiers like Armstrong, Hawkeye, and Mustang continue to suffer from their involvement in the massacre of Ishval, while Scar, a product of the same massacre, has his monolithic understanding of state alchemists and Amestrians criticized and ultimately reformed. While Hughes death is a heart wrenching experience, as he often incarnates what was best in people as a devout family man and friend, his existence is irreplaceable. Arakawa reminds us that the human condition is indissociable from our consideration of others and warns against trivializing existence.
This point is driven through the revelation of the character of Father, the history of Amestris, and the nature of the Homunculus. Alchemy had been a constant throughout the story, but by making it subservient to Father, Arakawa subverts the view of it as an objective and universal knowledge and tool. As she reveals that Amestris’ existence is engineered by Father and that alchemy is but a means to his end, the viewer, like Ed and Al, feels lost, the ground they stood on having given way. Father stands at the opposite spectrum of the Ed and Al, moral beings that cherish humans, it only considers humans as disposable, in his view, they have no value of their own beyond what they may be used for. ironically, it is because life is invaluable that the philisophical stone Father relies on is so potent.
Yet, this is not this worldview that crystalizes Father’s antagonism, but rather his drive to rid himself of his humanity, as he strives to be a perfect being without the impurities that he believes riddle humans. To this end, he separates the homunculus from his being, each embodying one of the seven cardinal sins he has given up. As Ed and Al interact with them, the viewer however comes to realize that human emotion is not so easily demarcated, again Arakawa reminds us that it is wrong to think of the human condition in quantifiable terms.
Time and time again the homunculus display human characteristic beyond the limitations of their beings; Wrath for instance is hinted to feel love for his wife. Envy, when confronted with the realization that what he was envious of, was the kinship of humans, is overwhelmed by the emotion of his self-awareness, and chooses to take his life in shame and a display of pride as a homunculus. Greed, both as himself and as Ling, cherishes camaraderie as a target of his greed. Pride, becomes quizzical at human behavior and especially at that of this ‘mother’, as she puts herself in harm’s way to protect him. By contrast, Sloth who is confined to his underground tasks remains a one-dimensional character to the bitter end. The homunculus through sheer logic as to their nature and origin should have been simple creatures to understand, but their experiences and exposure to the outside world and humans have changed them; a testament to Arakawa’s message of the strength that resides in human society as a collective and the importance that it holds in the understanding of the individual.
Arakawa’s portrayal of the strength of humans as a collective and as a society is also done through the help that the Elric brothers receive throughout their journey from a varied ensemble cast ranging from friends, foreign royalty or former enemies. Ultimately, it is through collective effort that Father is defeated; like his ambition, his ‘truth’ is also defeated by what he had up to this point disregarded. It is the emotions and inherently humane characteristics of everyone that have brought them together in their effort to defeat Father.
In his final choice to give up his ability to use alchemy, Edward acknowledges what truly lies beyond the gate of the truth. As symbolized by the incarnation of truth, or God as it may be, taking on the characteristics of those before him; and through Father displaying human emotions after it absorbs God, what lies beyond the gate is everything that exists, including humans; it is the all that is within everyone one and everything. What matters is not anyone’s belief or system of knowledge, like in our world, these are fluid, discoveries will be made, morals will change. Like Edward we too realize by the end that these are unimportant compared to the people in our lives and those that populate the world, as they are the true vehicle of progress; so long as there is life there is a way Arakawa reminds us, even without alchemy.
There is simplicity to Arakawa’s truth. In a world constantly in movement it is too easy to lose sight of what truly matters. The ideology, faith and sources of knowledge we subscribe too can overshadow what ought to be truly important, that life is in fact invaluable. Arakawa invites us to peel away at what we know and believe and to think back at what we truly hold dear. It is baffling how Arakawa’s tour de force of complexity can hide such a primal and basic tenet of life.