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May 1, 2015 5:58 PM
Anime Relations: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
One of the many reasons that Hunter X Hunter (2011) is regarded as a unique work, especially in the context of the genre it belongs to, is its relentless aversion, subversion, and deconstruction of universal tropes but also especially of those that are common to the shounen genre (yes, I’m aware that it is a demographic, what I’m referring to here are the battle shounen in the vein of Fairy Tail, Naruto, etc). Friendship, power-ups, tournaments, boss fights, you name it. Hunter stands out in a genre commonly viewed by many anime veterans to be a bastion of mediocrity and worse, precisely because it actively defies the expectations of its genre-savvy audience.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve spent all that time talking about Hunter X Hunter when I clearly indicated in my title that this is meant to be an examination of FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. While, aside from the fact that I love Hunter to death and regard it as one of anime’s finest masterpieces, it serves as an appropriate lead-in to what I actually have to say about today’s subject. FMA: Brotherhood is an incredible piece of work practically dripping with meaning and absolutely begging for extensive analysis; its regarded by many as the finest battle shounen ever conceived, an title that wasn’t really challenged by any other shounen work until Hunter’s arrival. In any case, ever since I first read the manga roughly four years ago, I have been continuously awestruck and impressed by the sheer quality of Arakawa’s storytelling, by her ability to write such a compelling, well-organized story that dealt directly with themes and ideas that most battle shounen wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. It’s great stuff.
Which is why I was very surprised when I learned that there were FMA fans who thought that Arakawa’s original work was really nothing too extraordinary. I was introduced to these sorts of opinions through the never-ending debate within the FMA fandom: is the 2003 anime, or the Brotherhood version, the superior story? I personally believe that Brotherhood is far superior in almost every aspect, but that the 2003 anime is a pretty good work taken on its own. Passionate fans of the latter often argue, however, that it is far better than Brotherhood due to its darker tone and less shounen-esque nature in general. Even those who love Arakawa’s original tale usually agree that it is undeniably targeted towards the shounen demographic, what with its abundant humor, action scenes, happy ending, boss fight, and general adherence to many shounen tropes.

That is all fair and good. I agree that Brotherhood’s shounen origins are more visible than its 2003 counterpart, which did do things that would be exceedingly difficult to find in even the darkest shounen, and which in general did not stick to tropes common to works of its type. However, I find this type of thinking overly simplistic, a restrictive perspective that blocks the viewer from fully appreciating just how intricate Arakawa’s work is. “Shounen” isn’t an insult, and yet from the way a good chunk of anime viewers use it, it might as well be, as if it indicates a work of fiction that is inherently mediocre or poor. FMA is a shounen and a brilliant, complex work, and the two most certainly are not mutually exclusive. Seriously, in this show you have detailed explorations of morality, ethics, different schools of philosophy, and human psychology, all smoothly integrated in a story packed to the brim with thematic consistency, character development, and jaw-dropping plot developments. Not much to complain about.

But yes, FMA: Brotherhood is more shounen-like than its 2003 counterpart, even if it is so to a much lesser degree than, say, Fairy Tail. Something like Hunter X Hunter (2011) is arguably more innovative and original, since it deliberately side-steps the tropes that Brotherhood has in its story. However, to view Brotherhood as being more ‘conventional’ as a result and so inferior is, in my opinion, to miss the depth embedded in those so-called ‘shounen tropes.’ Arakawa took the often simplistic and straightforward themes of many shounen and turned them into layered ones, with hidden depths and surprisingly sophisticated meaning. In short, I believe that Brotherhood accomplished a truly brilliant thing: enriching motifs and ideas common to many shounen and thus transforming them into something truly magnificent.

One obvious example off the top of my head is the climax and end of the whole series; basically, everything from when Edward beat Father to the final photo of him at the train station. I have seen some claim that this ending was painfully conventional, a predictable turn of events not unlike hundreds of other shounen. And on the face of it, it does seem that way. Edward takes on Father one-on-one, literally beating him up with his fists in the mandatory “main protagonist beats Big Bad” shounen cliché, while all his friends cheer him on and give him strength through their words. In the end, Father is vanquished, all of the suffering ends, and all the characters lead happy lives. Edward sacrifices his alchemy willingly, telling Truth that he doesn’t need it when he has his friends. Cue “Nakama” trope, which in this case are all the people that Edward has gathered with him on his long and often painful journey. Things end in peace, with a bright future ahead. It’s something that would look totally at home in One Piece (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love One Piece).

But beneath all of that lies a very intricate, beautiful, and philosophical narrative, one that renders a reading of all of the above as “shounen happy ending” a very shallow reading indeed. There is a lot of meaning packed into the final episodes of the show, things which bring it to a perfect ending in terms of thematic continuity, much of which is beyond the scope of this essay since it requires discussing the series as a whole. Instead, there are just a few things I want to draw attention to.

Firstly, Edward’s battle with Father. Towards its end, after Father had been severely weakened and Edward regained his missing arm, he engaged Father in a literal fistfight. In some ways it can be seen as bizarre, as the audience watches Ed take down the primary villain of the whole series by a flurry of bare-handed punches. Edward’s last strike, the one that finally finishes Father, also comes in the form of a hand curled into a fist. Odd as it might appear, the way this scene unfolded ties in perfectly with some of Brotherhood’s larger thematic ideas. Note that Edward, in the very end, never used his alchemy to take down Father; he did it using nothing more than his hands. Edward, in this instance, symbolizes humanity’s power as a whole, a very prominent idea in FMA. Throughout the show, over and over, the homunculus had wondered at the seeming irrational persistence and strength of human beings despite their fundamental weaknesses. Edward pushes down Father, the being who simultaneously mocked human beings and yet desired to be just like them, with the pure, raw power of humanity, no magic a.k.a alchemy involved. Not only does this fit in with the larger ideas of the show, it also effectively foreshadows Edward’s eventual decision to abandon alchemy, which in turn means that it serves as a subtle indicator of his character development. After all, Edward’s character arc was about learning humility and about swallowing his pride, about realizing that the answer to everything did not always depend on science, which he had essentially taken as a religion despite his claims of atheism, and which he had used to bolster his ego and arrogantly declare that human beings were great. Human beings are great, but it is not because they have extraordinary capabilities and intelligence, not because they are individually powerful. Rather, it is because they are persistent and have each other. They stand together, each person a worthy individual and yet also an integral part of the whole.

Edward takes down his biggest enemy not with alchemy, but with good old hand-to-hand combat. He does not use his beloved science as a crutch; rather, he stands independent of it. In the end, he finally defeats Truth by willingly sacrificing his alchemy, with the keen awareness that his strength came not from the alchemy he practiced, but from the wonderful people he surrounded himself with. That the title of the entire series is "Fullmetal Alchemist" works to excellent effect here, because in the end the titular alchemist is no longer an alchemist. Edward had prided himself on his incredible alchemy for most of his life and loved the title granted to him by the state system; that in the end the title no longer applies to him underscores the significance and importance of his character development. His realization echoes the philosophical lesson that Izumi wished to teach Edward and Al by abandoning them on an island for a month: “All is one, one is all.” This philosophy permeates Brotherhood’s narrative. Human beings are part of nature’s never-ending cycle, weak and dependent on the larger world around them, but not worthless, as they play an integral function in keeping it operational and living. This same idea applies specifically to the human community: every individual is special and of worth, but is weak and defenseless without the strength and power of the people around him or her. All the individuals in the community come together to form one living, breathing entity, but each and every individual also embodies all the values and strength of that community. It is through this that people grow and change, until they finally reach their full potential.

That is how Greed’s character arc ties into the larger themes of the series. He is, more than anything else, a materialist, someone driven completely by worldly desires. He believes that happiness comes from having everything: wealth, women, power, anything the world has to offer. No matter how much he gets, though, Greed never ceases being greedy; he is never satisfied, always wanting more and more, no matter how much is already in his possession. The origins of this constant yearning, which is what makes him so greedy, is the emptiness he feels. All the things he has fails to satisfy him, and it’s not until the ending of the series, when he sees everyone fighting Father, that Greed realizes what he’d always wanted: not the world and everything in it, but something much more intimate and beautiful: friendship. On the surface, this is typical cheesy shounen, nakama and all of that. Here, though, it is deeper because Arakawa built a deeper foundation for it, something that renders a seemingly straightforward theme more complex and more meaningful. Greed’s character arc is a reflection of one of the central themes of the story and yet another echo of Brotherhood’s philosophy of “All is one, one is all.” In the end, Greed’s satisfaction came from building close bonds with others, and he is the only homunculus who is able to have that, which is why he willingly selflessly sacrifices himself to help defeat Father, in one final act of friendship for the sake of the people he’d come to care and love, people whom he saw not as possessions, but as equal comrades.

I strongly believe that Arakawa subscribes to the humanistic view of human psychology, which holds that all people have the potential to be great, and that the quest of every single human being is to achieve that potential. This idea is integral to Brotherhood’s narrative, which deliberately imbues almost all of its characters with numerous flaws at the start so that they may change and grow by learning from their mistakes, while also contrasting this growth with the stagnation of Father and the homunculus, who for all of their power and abilities are still ultimately alone and continuously fascinated by human beings, even as they put them down as inferior. Father wishes to become the Perfect Being, to swallow God so that he may reign superior over all, so that he may finally conquer what he sees as flaws holding him back from achieving the perfect existence. That is the reason why he eliminated from himself the seven deadly human sins, so that he may not be enslaved to them. However, removing them left him apathetic and even more alien.

This gets at the narrative’s assertion that Father’s entire goal from the outset, the premise that he operated from, was fundamentally flawed. Human beings are not God, and Brotherhood’s narrative repeatedly punishes those who attempt to be (the Elric brothers, Izumi, etc). People should not strive to be perfect, not only because human nature means that it is an unattainable goal, but also because perfection leads to stagnation, which is exactly what afflicted the power homunculus and Father. Human beings must always be flawed so that they may continue to grow and develop themselves, so that they may continuously improve in ways beneficial to both themselves and society as a whole. Human beings strive for self-actualization, and even though some do reach that stage, their journey never ends, because achieving your potential does not mean that you have become a Perfect Being. By the end of Brotherhood, most of the characters have undergone an extensive character arc and emerged at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. However, their journey is not done. They will continue to work, to strive and work for greater and greater achievements.

This is why Brotherhood’s happy ending is so perfect and beautiful, because anything else would have been a gross betrayal of everything, of all the ideas and thematic threads, that it had achieved to that point. Even a bittersweet ending would have undermined it, which is why anything like the 2003 anime is out of the question. Far from being a flaw or from somehow being mandatory since it served as a conclusion to a shounen work, Brotherhood’s ending is piece of brilliance and the natural conclusion to everything the story had been about. There was no need for it to be ‘darker’, ‘edgier, or even ‘more realistic,’ because Brotherhood never had any pretensions of being such a thing. It had its fair share of brutality and truly horrifying plot events, but only if such things served the greater story.

Here’s one of the most astonishing aspects of Brotherhood’s entire narrative, including its ending: it was all about building a philosopher’s stone. In-story, this was Ed and Al’s goal, to recover a philosopher’s stone so that they may fix their bodies and make things right again. In the end, they never did use a Stone to fix their bodies; despite that, things ended well for almost everyone, as if they had all gotten their hands on Philosopher’s Stones and used their powers to make things better. In the literal sense, they didn’t, of course. But in terms of meta, they most certainly did. After all, the whole show served as a metaphor for the process of creating a Philosopher’s Stone. They transmuted a Stone through their own personal and spiritual development, through the completion of their character arcs.

The process used to make a Philosopher’s Stone is called the ‘magnum opus’ (Latin for “The Great Work,” and contains four distinct stages: nigredo, the “blackening” phase, albedo, “the whitening” phase, citrinitas, the “yellowing” phase, and finally, rubedo, the “reddening” phase. The entire plot of the series is structured according to these stages. Before we get to that, though, notice the brilliance of Arakawa’s design for Edward. The colors of his original outfit symbolize the colors of the magnum opus: black shirt and pants, white skin, yellow hair, and a red jacket. Very deliberate choice of color there.

The first 20 episodes or so of Brotherhood represent the nigredo stage, the “blackening.” This blackening is associated with burning and burnt objects, and in fact those are frequent visual motifs shown repeatedly during that time. Edwards wears his black outfit most prominently during those episodes. Things are burnt black over and over; for example, Roy’s fake burning of Maria Ross. Fittingly, this stage also closes with burning, specifically Roy’s brutal burning of Lust. Note as well the black thing that appeared after Edward and Al’s failed human transmutation. It also appears in episode 20, the closing episode of the nigredo stage. This stage is characterized by darkness and bleakness, and indeed Brotherhood is darkest in its first third; things get better as the show goes on, rather than the other way around. Within these first 20 episodes we have the Nina incident, Hughes’s death, the deaths of Greed’s entire circle of friends, and finally Edward’s discovery that he and Al lost everything for nothing.

The episodes in the 20’s represent a transition phase that symbolizes other alchemical processes and philosophies beyond the scope of this essay. The start of the Brigg’s arc marks the beginning of the Briggs arc represents the beginning of the albedo stage, and indeed this ‘whitening’ shows itself everywhere, most significantly in the blindingly white setting of Briggs, coated with ice and snow. Note too that the character arcs of the characters follow these stages too, and their gradual development occurs alongside it.
The buildup to the Promised Day and the brunt of the events occurring that day can be seen as the citrinitas stage, the ‘yellowing’ stage where everything starts to come together. The last few episodes mark the final completion of the Philosopher’s Stone, the rubedo stage. All of the above can be discussed in a lot more depth; I’ve seen people elsewhere do it. What is here, however, is sufficient to make my point about the brilliance and genius of the entire show’s structure. Brotherhood is not just about alchemy, it is structured according to an alchemical process, one which is tied directly into the unfolding of events and the developments of the characters, and one that strengthens the thematic threads of the whole work as well. It is very carefully crafted and is truly awe-inspiring.

I don’t believe the makers of the 2003 anime were aware of exactly how the manga was structure, which is to be expected since they produced their anime when the manga was still in the nigredo phase. Of course, this led them to misunderstand what type of story Arakawa was going for, and when they veered away from the original manga storyline and began making anime original work, they kept Fullmetal Alchemist in the nigredo stage for its entirety, which was never meant to be the case. The story was never meant to be as consistently dark as it was in its beginning- the structure of the magnum opus demanded that it change. The 2003 anime didn’t follow this, however, and so kept its tone bleak for its whole run, resulting in a show that was indeed darker than Brotherhood (sometimes to the point of silliness, in my opinion) but that was missing the deeper meaning in terms of its structure.

The comedy in Brotherhood is another example of its brilliance. Like most shounen works, there are a few running gags in the series, usually involving the shortcomings or odd quirks of the characters, which are almost always played for laughs. The most prominent one here is Edward’s short height, which he is exceedingly insecure about and which basically functions as his ‘berserk’ button. Another one is Roy’s uselessness in the rain, seeing as his alchemy is flame-based. What differentiates these gags from those found in hundreds of other shounen works is, as is customary for Brotherhood, their deeper meaning.

Roy’s gag, for example, was used to heartbreaking effect at Hughes’s funeral. There, as he stood before Hughes’s grave, he told Riza that it was starting to rain. Riza began to point out that it wasn’t, but stopped when she saw tears rolling down Roy’s cheeks. Roy’s reference to the rain is actually a reference to how rain renders him useless. Similarly, Roy feels useless and worthless in the face of Hughes’s death. It’s a wonderfully poignant moment that somehow elevates itself by making use of what up to that point had been nothing more than a comedic gag.

What Arakawa did with Edward is arguably even more brilliant. Throughout the entire series, Edward is extremely insecure about his height and hates being referred to in any way that implies that he is short. The reason Edward is so sensitive about this is because it is insulting to his pride, something that he has an abundant amount of, and is actually his biggest personality flaw. Ironically and hilariously, Edward dislikes milk, especially because he knows that drinking a lot of it could help him actually physically grow. For the vast majority of the show, Edward’s short stature is used solely for comedic purposes. However, it pays off brilliantly in Edward’ s final confrontation with Pride. There, Edward successfully defeats pride by using his knowledge of how “short people fight” to overcome his opponent. In short, Edward defeated Pride by not only acknowledging the biggest insult to his pride, but also by actively using it to his advantage, thus accepting it as a part of himself. This is all a symbolic representation of Edward actually overcoming pride as his central personality flaw. What we have here is a beautiful marriage of extensive symbolism with a comedic gag to mark a milestone in a character’s developmental arc. I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: brilliant.

There’s more that can be said on this topic, and I’ll probably eventually write a second part for this. For now, though, I hope what’s been written so far sufficiently communicates my point that what Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood did was take simple shounen concepts and transform them into layered ideas with sophisticated meanings. Where Hunter X Hunter (2011) averted, subverted, and deconstructed shounen tropes, Brotherhood kept them but transformed them into something more.

And that’s something worth admiring.
Posted by MrAM | May 1, 2015 5:58 PM | 3 comments
tingy | May 1, 2015 11:49 PM
I enjoyed reading your analysis, it makes me appreciate how well written Fullmetal Alchemist is, and also how skillful Arakawa is in writing. I was confused when you started off talking about Hunter x Hunter, but then I realized how fitting it actually was, at least for someone who has watched both shows. Aside from learning about how the narrative correlates with magnum opus and the four stages, which I have not known about before, I really liked how you tackled the critiques about the happy ending. I also felt that the ending was really fitting for the series because of the overall tone and what Arakawa was going for in terms of the theme of humans. I had a vague idea why I felt it was fitting, but you explained it clearly. It's a shame how many would associate dark with quality or shounen with bad. While people love HxH for its aversion, subversion, and deconstruction of (battle) shounen tropes because it's more obvious, fans and critics of FMA don't understand how well Arakawa uses the shounen tropes and themes to her advantage. If anyone has any qualms about FMA and it being shounen, I will point them to your essay :)

I would love to read the continuation on this topic!
kisamethegrey | May 1, 2015 10:46 PM
Very nice comparison in the beginning to introduce the reasoning of the Brotherhood Shounen issue. Your analysis was concise and logical, and at times extremely deep, for example, with Edward and his fight with pride, a revelation that never hit me till now. I think that changing the ending point toward the end would have been better so you could wrap it up, but its placement allows you to start off strong and exemplify the reasoning to the reader. I do agree with you about brotherhood being better, giving me a bias toward your work, but you used a plethora of excerpts with multiple layers of analysis, and your shifts in conversation are clear. The way you tied in symbolism, psychology, and philosophy was brilliant, and in the order as well, even breaking down to points in each subject. A wonderfully done analysis and hope you finish it!
kisamethegrey | May 1, 2015 10:46 PM
Very nice comparison in the beginning to introduce the reasoning of the Brotherhood Shounen issue. Your analysis was concise and logical, and at times extremely deep, for example, with Edward and his fight with pride, a revelation that never hit me till now. I think that changing the ending point toward the end would have been better so you could wrap it up, but its placement allows you to start off strong and exemplify the reasoning to the reader. I do agree with you about brotherhood being better, giving me a bias toward your work, but you used a plethora of excerpts with multiple layers of analysis, and your shifts in conversation are clear. The way you tied in symbolism, psychology, and philosophy was brilliant, and in the order as well, even breaking down to points in each subject. A wonderfully done analysis and hope you finish it!