The Anime Noob: Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal AlchemistScience versus faith. This is the unlikely starting point of the pilot episode of the hit anime series Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-4). I am an anime noob. I grew up heavily influenced by Japanese video games, but did not have much exposure to anime—and, to be honest, some of it (Sailor Moon, I’m looking at you) is just plain weird to me.

Last year I was introduced (via my 3-year-old son) to Avatar: The Last Air Bender. Not true anime, I know, but it introduced me to the form and left me wanting more. On the advice of my sister, I recently decided to give Full Metal Alchemist a try, and, having watched the first episode, I am intrigued.

Those who Challenge the Sun

“Don’t look away, Rose. You need to see what happens when you try to bring a human to life, when you cross into God’s territory or whatever the hell it is. Is this what you want? Look.”
-Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist S1E1: “Those who Challenge the Sun”)

FMA tells the story of two brothers, Ed and Al Elric, who are on a journey to find a philosopher’s stone to restore their bodies after the failure of an alchemy experiment meant to bring their mother back to life leaves Ed a cyborg and Al a disembodied soul.

“Those who Challenge the Sun” pits the titular hero, Ed (the Fullmetal Alchemist, a member of an order of alchemists who use science to magical effect) and his brother against a faith-healer in a small, prosperous desert town.

This miracle-worker claims to be a prophet of the Sun god, and he quickly comes to stand as a symbol for any number of world faiths—here, we have nods toward Amaterasu, Shinto Sun goddess; as well as the Son of God, Christianity’s Christ, not to mention Amun-Ra or any number of other deities.

Immediately upon hearing of the town’s miracle-worker, Ed becomes skeptical. His brother, the voice of calm reason, urges Ed to consider that perhaps the prophet is, indeed, genuine, but Ed will not hear of it—science trumps faith, at least for Ed.

We have seen this before. Many times. Faith-healer/miracle-worker comes to town, brings prosperity, then is exposed as a malevolent fraud. Hearing Al’s calm reasoning, I had hope that FMA would lend a twist to the formula.

Then, the prophet was exposed as a malevolent fraud, and Ed’s narrowly-scientific worldview was vindicated.

Almost.

“It’s just a matter of time Rose. Science will find a way. Science is the answer to everything. If I were you… I’d drop the scriptures… And pick up an alchemy book… We’re the closest thing to gods there are…”

-Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist S1E1: “Those who Challenge the Sun”)

While the episode’s plot falls into traditional territory, the meaning it imparts is of a different order. First, we are left to wonder whether the exposure of the Sun prophet is actually a good thing. The town used to struggle to survive but is now prosperous—not to mention nice (the prophet’s teachings encourage them to care for one another, and it seems that they really do). Is it necessary to undo all of this?

Man or machine? Soul or intellect? God or human? I have a feeling FMA will seek to break down some of these dichotomies.

Man or machine? Soul or intellect? God or human? I have a feeling FMA will seek to break down some of these dichotomies.

Second, as Ed maniacally cries out that science is the only answer and faith is a fraud, he appears to be just that, a maniac. He becomes incapable of listening to reason, or acting empathically toward the endearing village sweat heart, Rose. Ed’s brother may have become a dismbodied soul, but here Ed smacks of a soulless intellect. This becomes further apparent when he reveals that his arm and leg are machines–his intellect may have helped him to go on living after losing his limbs, and it may have granted him god-like power, but I cannot help wondering if he is not a more dreadful deity than the one he seeks to depose.

Verdict

“Those who Challenge the Sun” is a thoughtful and entertaining pilot. Though it fails to completely avoid cliché plot paths, it treads them in a new manner, calling their assumptions into question. The fact that FMA tackles such heady material in its pilot bodes well for the direction of the series. I look forward to seeing where Ed and Al will take me as I embark on my own journey to end the anime noob-ness.

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5 responses to “The Anime Noob: Fullmetal Alchemist

  1. It’s interesting to read this now, because I’ve just started watching Fullmetal Alchemist as well — and I’m also new to anime. Friends and co-workers have recommended the manga to me as a starter manga, but for some reason I decided to try the anime first. (Probably because I’m reading too many other manga series right now!) Like you, I was intrigued by the pilot and can already tell that a really rich world awaits. I’m looking forward to watching more too and ending my “anime noob-ness.” Great summary and thoughts here. =)

    • Thanks Ashley. You will have to share some of your own thoughts as you wade into the anime (and away from noob-ness). Also, let me know if you find any other series you would recommend.

  2. I was vaguely intrigued by the first episode, pretty much for the reasons you mentioned – it does seem to start an exploration of a number of interesting themes but the plot/the spine isn’t all that original or strong.

    It gets a lot more entertaining along the way and there’s some great character development too. Arguably the story never does anything mind-bending but it’s a lot more thoughtful than other anime of the type and some of the subplots are immensely intriguing.

    Just know that there are two versions of FMA. There’s the old one and Brotherhood. The latter follows the comicbook completely and the former does its own stuff. I believe the consensus is that both have a lot to offer so you don’t have to worry about that but don’t be surprised later that someone remembers the story differently 😀

    • Thanks for the heads-up! I will have to keep an eye open for the other version.

      I’m okay with the plot not doing anything too fancy so long as the characters and ideas are there. So far I am hopeful, and looking forward to seeing where else the series will go. I’m glad to hear from a veteran that these hold up well over the series. Thanks!

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