So I’ve been trying to figure out why Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t my number nine. I mean it has everything I could ever want in an anime. It has a multi-layered plot, a great cast of characters (many of whom are pretty morally gray) and an actual Western style fantasy world that doesn’t suck.
And to be fair, it’s taken me two weeks to come to an answer. It pretty much boils down to two things. First the hype. Oh god, was there hype. I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting someone yelling about how stupederrific the show was. And how I was missing out on the Second Coming by not owning it RIGHT NOW. Now I’m a contrarian by nature. If someone tells me I’m going to love something, I’m automatically skeptical. And the more they tell me I’m going to love it, the more skeptical I am.
Then I watched it. And it was good. But, something bugged me about the series and it wasn’t the ending, or rather it was the expectation of what the ending should have been. Which leads me down the twisting road to the second thing that bugs me about Fullmetal Alchemist.
Now this second part may have some spoilers. If you haven’t seen the show, I’d recommend watching it, just so you know what the hell people are talking about when they bring this series up.
On Edward Elric
So, it all starts with the fact that I read a lot of fantasy novels. I’ve read all of the new classics and some of the old classics, and in general there are a lot of similarities between the classic shounen hero and the classic fantasy hero. Basically, your classic fantasy hero is usually a young person, who has either some extraordinary power or destiny which will alter the course of the world as we know it. For example, Frodo has the ring which he must destroy to save Middle Earth. Another example would be Arthur and pulling the sword from the stone.
Basically Edward Elric by all accounts appears to be another case of young hero/big destiny. He’s got all the traits, he’s idealistic, he can perform alchemy without a circle and all the powers that be want him to dance to their tune or want to kill him, whichever is more convenient. In fact, he goes through all the steps of the classic epic fantasy. He finds out the secrets of the world, after being involved in major battles and ends up taking on the big evil of the world.
And wins… kind of.
Wait. That’s not right. Middle Earth was saved. Sure Frodo had to leave but that was an afterthought. The long history of classic fantasy heroes like Shea Ohmsford, Garion, Pug, Erik von Darkmoor, etc never ended up losing. Sure things might get dark for them, but could you imagine Luke Skywalker getting banished from the galaxy at the end of Star Wars? Of course not.
So, there has to be something else going on there. Why would Edward just get banished at the end? It had to be on purpose. Why else would a very well constructed story risk losing the viewer at the end? Then it dawned on me. Edward Elric isn’t a classic hero at all. He’s a tragic hero. And when I say tragic hero, I mean in the Greek sense.
Something that always bugged me about the series was that in cast of morally gray characters ranging from Mustang to Scar, why were the only morally pure characters Ed and Al? Sure they’d attempted a human transmutation, but it wasn’t out of an act of malice or greed, but an act of love. Now if Ed was a classic fantasy hero, it’d make sense because he would be the moral pole everyone would flock to.
But as a tragic character, that same idealism turns into his fatal flaw. He didn’t just attempt human transmutation out of love, but out of a belief that he could make things right. And again, even after being punished for his hubris, he sets out to make things right by finding the Philosopher’s Stone. When he finds out that his search is being manipulated, he sets out to make the world right. And ends up losing his brother in the process. And in a final act of hubris, he makes one final attempt to set things right and ends up banishing himself from the world entirely.
So while ostensibly his quest is for the Philosopher’s Stone, really his quest is to find a way to set things right.
On the nature of Fullmetal Alchemist
All of that lays the foundation for what my real problem with the series is because in the end Fullmetal Alchemist is social commentary. And fantasy has a long history of good social commentary. The parallels are pretty obvious. Alchemy is science. The State is America. Ishbal and Lior are the Middle East.
So the question becomes what does Fullmetal Alchemist say, in this case, about what is wrong with the world. The quest starts with alchemy. Now the series pretty quickly dismisses alchemy itself as bad. It’s merely a tool it can be used for good or evil. It’s how people decide to use it. So does the root of the world’s suffering simply come from the darkness of man’s heart. Well sort of, but it goes deeper than that.
The biggest type of suffering there is in Fullmetal-land comes from war. So of goes our intrepid hero, like Antigone to her brother, he must find the cause of war. At first, he questions the soldiers, finding out that while they did commit the acts they were under orders to do so. And they did not feel any joy in following those orders.
So down the rabbit hole we go. If it isn’t the soldiers that cause the problems, then it has to be the government. After all it is they people in charge sent those troops. But the government is controlled by soulless puppets who serve another master. So who’s in control of the government? Why someone with a different agenda entirely. In fact, it seems the root of the war is someone who wants to accumulate more power for herself.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. After all this searching and all this digging, what do I get at the end of it all. That people in power have an agenda that isn’t in the nation’s best interest? What the hell? With all the gray, all the multiple layers I have to peel away to get at the center, I find a truism that sounds like it came from a Ralph Nader ad.
Not only that, but the central message is: Sure you can challenge the powers that be, but you’ll end up with nothing but pain and loneliness.
That’s what bugs me about Fullmetal Alchemist. That behind all the smoke and mirrors, what we get is a blanket theme that has no gray in it.
And another one for the pile.
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