It’s tricky to deal with the Japanese anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
The review will focus on FMA: Brotherhood. But I’m not disregarding the original series. Although I think Brotherhood is a slightly better series overall, both are first-rate stories.
When they are still young boys, Edward and Alphonse Elric plan to use their skills in alchemy to bring their dead mother back to life. But this act violates the rule of alchemy against human transmutation. In trying to perform this act, not only do they fail to resurrect their mother, but they also pay a harsh price. Edwards loses two limbs, an arm and a leg, and Alphonse loses his entire body, becoming a soul bonded to a suit of armor.
A few years later, Ed joins the Amestrian military to become a State Alchemist. He thinks this will give him and Alphonse the chance to learn more of The Philosopher’s Stone–an object of great alchemical power that may help them restore their bodies.
That’s story’s basic premise. But viewers quickly learn one great strength of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. There is whole lot more going on, and the story dives into themes such as political corruption, personhood, genocide and revenge, immortality, guilt and redemption, and trying to play God. There’s even a bit of romance, if you’re willing to be patient with it.
What to say, what to say?
With so much going on, another tricky part is deciding what to write about.
We could explore one secondary character, an Ishvalan man known as Scar. Given the corruption in the nation of Amestria, is his hunt for State Alchemists merely a revenge quest? Or is this the closest to justice that he and his people could hope for? Do his attempts to fight these State Alchemists–many of whom had been involved in the war to exterminate his people–make him a murderer? Or is he more like a gunman in a story of the old American west facing his enemies at high noon on the dusty streets of Dodge City? Or does he cross a line when he attacks State Alchemists who weren’t a part of that war?
Or are the Elrics and their allies like Colonel Mustang–people who are committed to not killing other humans– hypocrites for allying themselves with General Armstrong and her soldiers from Briggs, because they are people much less hesitant to take lives when they think it necessary? Is it a strength or a weakness in the overall story that two such different ideologies about taking human life are presented on the side of the “good guys,” and neither is plainly supported or condemned?
Then there’s Shou Tucker. He did one action that has made him, a very minor character, into one of the most hated characters in all of anime–though to be fair, he played a bit more of a role in the original FMA.
Guilt, regret, redemption
Most of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood‘s main characters struggle with guilt and regret. Many of the military people, who were a part of the Ishvalan War, fight regret for their guilt of doing horrible things during that war. The Elric brothers know they are guilty of violating the rule against human transmutation, and they do not try to excuse their actions.
Can these characters be redeemed? Not by the version of “God” the series portrays–that is, if we assume the entity several of the characters encounter at the gateway of truth is analogous to God. This being judges, takes away, bargains, and even seems to mock the humans. But he can also be beaten as if he were little more than the host of a TV game show.
Thus the god of this series is not really a redeemer. He’s not a being who gives when the people have proven that they themselves have nothing to give back to him. He’s not a being who offers help to people who know they are helpless, or forgiveness to rebels, or life to the dead. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is great, yet one of its best results is that viewers can find greater thankfulness: the true God is far better than the “god” of this series.
View Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood with discernment and wisdom. Keeping this in mind, go watch this series! It’s one that’s well worth seeing. And, contrary to my norm practice, I’d recommend watching it dubbed, not subbed.