“Do you have the courage to face the truth?”
Too often, artists promote their own inexperienced and narrow-minded agendas in their stories, shamelessly condemning the actions and decisions of those living in circumstances they couldn’t possibly imagine accurately. Hiromu Arakawa, thankfully, is not one of those artists. Where her ignorance would have left holes in her story, she did research and conducted interviews. When opportunities came during the story in which she could pronounce judgment on one type of people or belief, she refrained from making naïve and arrogant assumptions. As her characters experience the sorrows and joys that come with facing the truth, that crouching monster who laughs in derision as it reflects one’s own soul and reveals the stark realities of life, she herself refuses to embellish the facts.
That is not to say that Fullmetal Alchemist is any kind of allegory. This series goes so far as to include characters named after each of the seven deadly sins, and most of these characters, in many ways, come to embody how peculiarly pathetic these sins actually are. But the series remains a fleshed-out story until the end, with no character or event reduced to simply playing out one “message” or another. Fullmetal Alchemist is really entertainment at its finest, though the subtle blade of the truth nevertheless cuts right through the barrier between fantasy and reality.
The series begins with a few somewhat episodic adventures of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, two alchemists in search of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which is said to amplify the user’s transmutation. (Alchemy itself, a “science” of deconstructing matter and reconstructing it into something else, is a really imaginative and unusual type of “magic,” and there are several different styles in which it is used.) Edward and Alphonse have committed the ultimate taboo in trying to resurrect the dead using alchemy. This mistake literally cost Edward an arm and a leg, and it cost Alphonse his entire body. Edward's lost limbs have been replaced with “automail,” and Alphonse is now a soul bonded to a suit of armor. The two are on a journey to find a way to recover what they lost.
The story unfolds at a relaxed but gripping pace. After a couple of volumes, the series leaves behind its episodic feel and begins to accelerate into one grand story in which everything, including the early episodic sequences, begins to tie together. All of the characters are thoroughly developed and explored over a long period of time. At first glance, Edward seems a smart-aleck who loses his cool easily (especially when remarks are made about his height), and Alphonse seems to be the dull, plodding sidekick who must hold back the hero from getting into a fight with everyone they meet. This first impression of the latter is partly due to the inability to see Alphonse’s facial expression, and over time, as the two brothers are forced to act independently, we begin to see the quieter and more cool-headed Alphonse’s individuality. Edward, too, though somewhat hotheaded, is revealed to be more complex than he seems and undergoes subtle but well-done development throughout the series. One of the most defining moments for the two brothers is at the end of the second chapter, in which a young woman loses everything she clung to for so long. As she collapses, weeping, and demands to know what she should do, they both walk calmly by her with the admonition to get up and move forward. Edward and Alphonse, despite what it might seem at first, do not go around taking it upon themselves to solve everyone else’s problems.
The secondary characters are also slowly and completely developed, showing up and disappearing at natural times, enhancing the story without serving as mere devices to move it forward.
Wound throughout the story is an inexhaustible sense of incredibly wacky humor. Just when things could become melodramatic, the characters morph into chibi characters and jarringly draw the reader’s attention to the humor in the event at hand. These moments rudely break the spell of the story and bring you crashing back down to earth. This element is partly what makes this series so real. You aren’t allowed to morbidly dwell on the seriousness of the events; instead, you are prompted to laugh at yourself. As some might contend that the world isn’t all sunshine, Fullmetal Alchemist will remind you that the world isn’t all shadows, either.
The world in which the story takes place is fascinating but not one you would necessarily want to visit. There are layers of culture and history that include wars and racial discrimination. However, it does not possess the unnatural hellishness that colors dystopian-style fantasy. Fullmetal Alchemist explores numerous interesting and thought-provoking ideas that all escalate into one final confrontation with the truth that can resonate with us more deeply than all the calculated tearjerkers in the world.
The panels flow as naturally as the story, and the artwork itself, especially in the facial expressions, is great, but not pretentious. It is complex when it needs to be, but hardly noticeable the rest of the time, which is an accomplishment in itself. The character designs are diverse and unique.
In short, Fullmetal Alchemist is both honest and optimistic, entertaining and thought provoking. I highly recommend it to anyone.