Edward and Alphonse Elric tried to bring their mother back from the dead using alchemy. It cost Edward his right arm and left leg and Alphonse his entire body. The story of Fullmetal Alchemist follows their quest to regain their original bodies as they search for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone.
On Monday, February 19th, Netflix begins streaming the live-action adaptation of the series released in Japan on December 1st. Debuting in Japan originally in 2001, the series has spawned two anime adaptations, one in 2003 and another (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) in 2009 1, anime movies, audio dramas, numerous video game adaptations, and now this live-action film.
And while critics have not been fond of this film, it is noteworthy that this series has received yet another adaptation, created with the potential of spawning a sequel. Yet, why does this series continues to receive new adaptations more than seven years after the initial manga completed its run. In short, why does this series still matter?
Fullmetal Alchemist’s success lies in how much this series grapples with the question of what it means to be human.
Take the example of Alphonse. Al’s soul is bonded to a suit of armor, a price he and his brother paid for trying to bring their mother back from the dead. Much of the first arc of the series deals with Al’s own question of whether or not he is human. Despite his appearance, he still has a human soul, and the brothers believe his original body still exists somewhere.
But Al’s humanity is fairly easy to accept. Other characters make that question more difficult.
Early on, the audience encounters three characters named Lust, Gluttony, and Envy, soon to be joined by Greed, Wrath, Sloth, and Pride. All of these characters, named for the seven deadly sins, are homunculi or artificial humans. Their motivations and identities can vary from continuity to continuity, but it is also clear that they too have their limits, and sometimes one of them must be replaced with a copy.
[spoilers to follow for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood]
Behind the homunculi lies a character referred to only as Father. He created the seven homunculi in an attempt to purge himself of these vices and therefore to make himself a perfect person. Without these sins to weigh him down, Father attempts to reach the power of God himself and become the ultimate being.
And sometimes these vices are more human than he is. Greed strives after possessions because he is lonely. He covets these things because he longs for connection in his life, with friends he cares for. Envy looks down upon all of humanity and intentionally interferes with human affairs in order to cause trouble and chaos. But underneath all of this is a tremendous inferiority complex. Envy plays a big game, but is ultimately very tiny.
At times, it can be tempting to think, as Father does, that we can be more human by denying those negative parts of ourselves, parts that we would rather ignore. And yet without them, we become lifeless, passionless. We exist, and we may still be able to make plans, but we cease to be ourselves. We cease to care.
One of the most striking elements of the entire world of Fullmetal Alchemist is that each of the main characters in the world are broken people. For example, Ed lives with guilt and feels responsible for his brother’s state. And it is through these wounds that the audience can really explore the question of what it means to be human. Ed and Al have to accept that they are not just broken physically. Throughout the series, we see Ed learn to share his burdens with Al and with other characters. He stops feeling sorry about the past and starts living. And so the brothers pursue their quest with renewed vigor.
The inspiration of Ed’s growth reminds us that we am not bound by the mistakes of our past nor do we have to pretend to be perfect 2. We do not have to try to carry our burdens by ourselves. When we acknowledge our scars and begin to deal with them, we, like the characters in this drama, become more fully human and become more relatable.
Author’s Note: There is so much more to this series than I could possibly cover in this article, including but not limited to worldbuilding, the system of alchemy and its philosophy, racial/ethnic relationships, and the role of the Truth.
The cover photo is courtesy of Joe Fanal of the Flickr Creative Commons.