"You can't gain something without giving something in return."
― Hiromu Arakawa
Alchemy, political unrest, and two brothers simply wanting to lead an everyday life, Full Metal Alchemist is often regarded as one of the best anime series. Often ranking #1 in popularity among sites such as MyAnimeList.net and Looper.com, Full Metal Alchemist has sold over 80 million volumes since being released in 2001. However, what makes this series interesting, and ultimately what has helped it maintain its popularity over the now decades, is the amount of heart, soul, and nods to the human work ethic and spirit depicted in this series.
On top of wanting to make it big as a mangaka, Hiromu Arakawa (the series author) wanted to express her belief that: Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return.
In fact, Edward Elric (the shorter, blonde-haired brother of the Alphonse brothers)
mentions this mantra often in the 2003 anime adaptation.
Anyone and everyone can something, from men to women, the elderly, and even children. On top of that, everyone has to make ends meet, having to do so within significant government turmoil and upheaval. Personally, it's interesting to see that within a show, anime or not.
The story's setting takes place in a fictionalized rendition of the German countryside during the European Industrial Revolution. Being heavily inspired by how the industrial revolution brought many technological changes, the author Hiromu Arakawa has a soft spot for German culture… Now, what is the plot exactly? The series follows the journey of two alchemist brothers, Edward, and Alphonse Elric. They search for the philosopher's stone to restore their bodies after a failed attempt to bring their mother back to life using alchemy. Now, what is a philosopher's stone? And how did these two brothers get into this situation?
Because of their dad, Hohenheim, who is actually an ancient being and alchemist, who spent the series on a journey correcting his wrongs (and this could be an article in itself!). Due to being an alchemist, the brothers also picked up not long after they learned how to read.
When Edward (the eldest son was roughly 5 -6) Hohenheim left to pursue his studies and correct his wrongs (which we explain in a couple paragraphs!). Edward and Alphonse's mother (Trisha) dies during their father's journey. Of course, being children, they want their mom back- and decide to try and bring her back. While doing so, they make a horrible mistake and realize the risks of human transmutation.
While they get her back to life, she's not what they expect.
Shortly after this traumatic incident, however, the Amestration State Military (the government of the universe) soon discovered that these two children could transmute a person. Because of this attempt, they become the youngest state alchemists in history. Shortly after joining the military and becoming "government dogs," they use that to track down the "philosopher's stone."
(While named the philosophers stone, it can be in other forms-from crystals and even liquids.)
The philosopher's stone is a specific type of item that can override the equivalent exchange law and adequately bring one back to life. How is it created? It's oddly never explained in the series. However, it is known that the stone contains the souls of thousands of people, millions of people, or even more. Most of the story revolves around finding the stone, as the Elric brothers want to use it to gain their original bodies back.
The main antagonists of the series – "Father" (Who is actually the original Homunculus who gave Hohenheim his longevity and is at war with) and the Seven Deadly Sins, want to use the stones to become fully human. A bit further history on the homunculi (which, fun fact, means "little human"!), they were created hundreds of years before the main story. The first of these was "Father," but its real name was "Dwarf in the flask".
Shortly after being created, it had a strong desire to be "the perfect being ."
(Spoiler Alert: The goal of being the perfect being is achieved, although only for a short time.)
This desire to be the perfect being actually led to the creation of the "Seven Deadly Sins," as the father needed to purge himself of those sins, thus; Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Pride, Lust, Sloth, and Wrath were all created.
Hohenheim plays a part in this, as he was an enslaved person in the same lab where his father was. Through some deception on the Homunculus's part, he helped in the attempt to help create the first philosopher's stone in hopes of gaining immortality.
While Hohenheim didn't initially realize that he was betrayed, it didn't take long for him to learn when the process of creating the stone took place, as he inadvertently found out what helps make a philosopher's stone: human souls.
However, the realization came too late, as through this revelation, releasing the Homunculus and gaining immortality, he had caused his own city to be sacrificed (another fun fact, the population size was 536,329). After such a tragic mistake, he vowed to the right this wrong and thus started this journey.
Fast forward a few hundred years to where the main story begins; there were tensions within the region of Amestris (where the primary setting takes place).
The Homunculus took advantage of the tensions between the government and the people of Ishval- an annexed group of people near the desert within the area, and the homunculus actually caused the Ishval Civil War (also known as the Ishvalan War of Extermination)! The homunculus Envy (insert photo of Envy) was the one who explicitly started it.
Envy started the war by shooting and killing an Ishvalan child. It escalated to riots and fights, then eventually an all-out war.
Through all of this turmoil and suffering, what is the story's ultimate meaning? You could make a case about the philosophical concepts or the science behind the alchemy (there are LOADS to unpack with those! Go to any FMA subreddit, and you will be entertained); the ultimate theme for the story is this:
Family is the most significant driving force throughout the entire series. This makes sense when you look at the overall narrative: Their dad had left them, their mom died shortly after leaving, and the two boys want to revive her (and sadly fail). Their neighbors take the boys in, becoming a tightknit surrogate family. Lastly, towards the end of the series, we see many of those family threads come together: Hoenheim sees his kids and can reconnect with them (if even for a while before he dies), Al gets his body back, Ed and Winry get married, and ultimately alluding to a new era.
Switching over to the manga and anime, the manga's original run ran from July 2001 all the way through June 2010; it totaled 10 total volumes! All of the volumes were published in Enix (eventually Square Enix) in Japan and Vid Media. The anime adaptation is where things get rather interesting from an adaptation standpoint.
It has 2 seasons effectively, where the first season ran from 2003-to 2004 and was merely called: Full Metal Alchemist. This season was rather interesting for many fans of the series, as it started alongside the manga. However, it veered off, thus causing this specific season of the anime to become its own rendition. The second season, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, was more faithful to the manga. It aired closer to the manga's ending and thus was more accurate to the source material. In my opinion, if you want an excellent FMA anime experience, watch Brotherhood!
A live-action adaptation of the series was also released in 2018 (similar to Ghost in the Shell). Despite only getting mediocre reviews (28% by critics/ 73% overall audience), it received positive praise from Hiromu Arakawa, the creator (who sadly was not involved with the movie). She was greatly impressed by Ryosuke Yamada, who played Edward Elric.
The comical timing and physical prowess were really impressive to Hiromu. Now, garnering a Hollywood adaptation, you might conclude that the show has a significant grasp of pop culture, right?
Well, you'd be correct! Since its inception, it has developed a vast fanbase all across the globe!
People have gotten tattoos inspired by the series, including yours truly!
Like Naruto, it really drove home the idea that anime can have profound, mature topics, and make them digestible.
Overall, with a show filled with political unrest, religious and spiritual questioning, racism, and more, topics still relevant today, it should come as no surprise that Full Metal Alchemist has maintained its popularity for as long as it has. Growing up with the series helped me recognize that the world is a prominent place with many different people. In fact, I got my tattoo (see above) because the show helped me grow to be confident in myself. Being confident in yourself can help you reclaim yourself, grow up through the hardships, and be ok.
We'll use our own power of equivalent exchange to move from the 2000s to the 2010s! The following article in the series is:
To read the previous Anime that Made Us article, click here!