Story Pile: Fullmetal Alchemist – The Manga

There are a certain number of pieces of media that I don’t tend to want to talk about.

Sometimes, I don’t want to talk about a piece of media because I’ve never seen it, and in order to comment on it, I’d have to seek it out, and I don’t imagine I’ll be bringing anything new or interesting to the table. I’m a white cis guy, and lots of white cis guys who are straighter than me have worked very, very hard to make sure that if you get a ‘standard take’ on anything, you’re getting it from some variety of white cis guy. Watching The Room so I can say ‘yes, this sure is just as bad as I expected’ is not, to me, a valuable use of your time or mine. If I’m going to hatewatch something it’s because I know there’s something in there, some perspective I can bring to bear that’s interesting.

There’s also stuff I don’t talk about because I’ve been specifically asked not to talk about it. That is, stuff that I am known as being negative or critical about, and where sensitive people have asked, fairly nicely, for me to leave them alone as topics.

There are still works I don’t talk about, though, because they’re so good and them being good is so well known, I’m not going to tell you anything new by doing it. I don’t think, really, there’s a single thing I can tell you about Avatar: The Last Airbender that isn’t already done better by someone else, I don’t think that I’m going to provide a single extra angle on Inception, and even if I did have something to say (‘it’s fine,’ at best), I don’t find my opinion interesting.

The idea that my opinions are inherently interesting is the plague of privilege that I absolutely do not want to be comfortable.

Why then, would I talk about Fullmetal Alchemist?

Fullmetal Alchemist is a 2001-2010 monthly published manga by Hiromu Arakawa, which continues the trend of incredibly important manga being created by women with extremely niche interests. Yeah, it’s twenty years old. The end of it is ten years old.

Let that sink in.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a serial adventure story set in a kinda alt-history steampunk world where the principles of alchemy stepped in to bring about industrial revolution rather than mass labour forces and economic incentives. The result is a world where there’s a bit more bucolic farming spaces painted as an idyllic peace, and also a bit more functional mechanical limbs. The world is one where with a particular – no, you know what, let’s be honest, it’s magic. It has sciency trappings, it tries to be sciency, but fact is, FMA is a world that’s driven by nonsense magic.

The magic of this setting is driven by the idea that you can use magic to rearrange things; that is, any combination of chemicals X, Y, and Z, can be turned into any form of the same – which is the sort of thing that leads any chemist to immediately go ‘uh, well.’ You can turn the broken bits of a radio into a fixed radio, you can turn dirt into weapons, you can turn water into a bomb, and of course, crucially, you can look at a person, and think

hang on

they’re made of chemicals.

And then the setting slaps your hand because that is human transmutation, it’s strictly forbidden and it’s never been done successfully, never even attempted, and anyway, meet our protagonists, Al and Ed, who decided to do it when they were ten years old and got themselves mangled by magic in the process of fantastic dumbassery. They’re part of the State Wizards Alchemists now, and they’re on a quest to find a cure, possibly a cure for Ed’s Missing A Leg And Arm and Al’s Missing A God Damn Everything.

Hilarity ensues.

Now, the reason I specified to talk about the manga is because, well, we know there’s more stuff from Fullmetal Alchemist and we will talk about that, but there’s a certain canonicity of works like the manga. Infamously, and I say this as a Ranma fan, the first source of a work tends to be seen as the ‘proper’ story, and everything else is a retelling. And in the case of work like a manga versus the work of an anime there’s some sinew to that; manga is typically made by fewer people, which means that the work of those people, there’s a sort of intentionality.

The theory is that the work of a manga-ka, because they are dealing with the work directly themselves, is going to more closely resemble the choices that storyteller had in mind when they started the story; the notion that the original author is the best arbiter of what the story was going to be about and therefore, the place the story was going to go. All that stuff I tend to look for on this kind of media critique. It’s a bit of a flawed assumption, though, because at its very root is the idea that an author is necessarily going to be better at having all the best ideas for a story than a group of people. It also suggests that the author is in a bubble, unaffected by other people’s opinions and media as they work. It’s a simpler model, and you can absolutely point to these sorts of author-driven works as being valuable windows into things the authors want to do, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re the best.

What you are likely to get in this kind of work is consistency. To turn to the eternal example of Ranma 1/2, those stories are almost all going to feature some measure of characters getting into fights, and the ability of those characters to win fights as being important to their stories. That means keeping it straight in your head who does and who doesn’t win a particular kind of fight, or how hard it is for them to do it is important, and when you decouple that from someone with a clear central vision of how those things are going to work next week, like when you’re making lots of filler episodes of an anime, you can get irregularities or mismatches. In some cases, you can even have interpretive work that completely contradicts the themes of the original without even needing to change ‘the plot’ of the original (hi there, Starship Troopers).

In the case of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, it’s deeply imaginative, creative, thoughtful, has consistent characterisation, and accords an interesting multi-level adventure story that follows a wonderful cast of well-realised characters as the story explores questions of the meaning of life, industrialised war in magepunk settings, what can create power and who can wield it, all told through an excellently vivid, visually interesting, and dynamic storytelling method. It is boringly excellent. A reading that could best appreciate the skill in this form would be ten times the size, and much more focused on providing a detailed context, and I am not equipped to do so. All I can really do is point to the way that the manga consistently produces new ideas that the rest of the story already has space for – there’s no need to invent a new planet, or a parallel dimension or something to pull threats from.

The nature of a manga panel, where you can effectively pace every single instance of the text, is used to its utmost – there are numerous times when characters think complicated thoughts with long words in them while they’re in between the very moments of an alchemical process, which creates the (correct) impression that these characters are very smart and yet also not posturing to have these long scientific discourses in spoken conversation.

Hold onto that thought. It’ll become handy later.

Fullmetal Alchemist is not a perfect manga by any measure, but it is probably one of the best that exist from its point in time. It’s the kind of manga where I find myself wishing I could play RPGs in that world but also has an excellent story as well (to my surprise).

And it got an anime.