To my established readers, this may be obvious, and to my new readers, it will quickly become apparent: I am something of a bibliophile. I love reading, I love collecting books, I love merely being around books. Whenever I go to a bookstore with other people in tow, they always have to drag me out after about two or three hours, because if it were up to me I’d probably never leave. There’s an unmistakeable comfort in being surrounded by stories – and while I do love traditional literature, there’s no place that comfort is stronger than in the manga section.
This is the first in a small series of posts that will be analyzing my favorite graphic novels, manga or otherwise, but manga in particular has always held a special place in my heart. I’ve loved Japanese graphic novels for years, since middle school at the very least. I started out reading things like Naruto, Pokémon Adventures, and Tokyo Mew Mew, mainstream action series or ones geared toward a younger audience. In my freshman year of high school, however, I was introduced to my first “grown-up” manga, one that would (at the risk of sounding cliché) change my life: Fullmetal Alchemist, written by Hiromu Arakawa.
FMA takes place in a world where the almost supernatural science of deconstructing and reconstructing matter is commonplace. This science, alchemy, is guided by the Law of Equivalent Exchange: “In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed.” In accordance with this law, the science has one taboo: never try to bring the dead back to life using alchemy, because the human soul has no equivalent value. The story begins when two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, try to find a way to circumvent this taboo and use alchemy to resurrect their dead mother. Not only do they fail, but the transmutation rebounds, causing Edward to lose a leg and Alphonse to lose his entire body. Desperate, Edward uses alchemy to sacrifice his right arm in exchange for his brother’s soul, which he seals to a suit of armor. Ed (now outfitted with prosthetic “automail” limbs) and Al leave their home to travel the country, learning more about alchemy and looking for the Philosopher’s Stone, a mysterious substance that will allow them to amplify their alchemic powers and return their bodies back to normal.
And just like that, I was hooked. FMA‘s plot is a thick, thought-provoking, and often heart-wrenching one. It isn’t afraid to tackle tough questions about morality and ethics, relationships, even the meaning of human life itself. This isn’t a fantasy manga where the ever-present and mystical “power of friendship” always prevails, and the characters have to get through by depending on each other and themselves in an imperfect world, as best they can. In fact, I can express why this series means to much to me through what the characters say better than I could in any other way.
“What do I do? What am I supposed to believe in now? Are you going to tell me? Well, are you?!”
“You need to figure that out on your own. Stand up and walk. Keep going forward. At least you have strong legs to take you there.”
– Rosé and Edward Elric, Chapter 2: The Price of Life
This bit of dialogue found its way back to me only a few months ago, right when I needed it most. A metaphorical rug had been yanked out from beneath my feet, leaving me falling, hopeless and confused. I had know idea what I supposed to do, or how to put the broken situation back together. And yet somehow I knew that no matter who I turned to for answers, that answer would always be: “You’ll have to find out for yourself. Keep moving forward. Stand up and walk.” I had lost something and was grieving – just as the supporting character Rosé had lost her boyfriend and the Elric brothers had lost nearly everything. But I couldn’t let that pain drag me down. Remaining stagnant wasn’t an option because I was strong enough to shoulder my pain and move, even if going forward was the only thing I knew I could do at that point.
“One is all, all is one.”
– Izumi Curtis, Chapter 21: The Brothers’ Secret
This is the first official alchemy lesson that Ed and Al received from their mentor, Izumi, as children. Edward often contemplates it in the present storyline. I had actually known and believed a similar statement before I saw it in FMA: the “we are one” and “everything is connected” ideas often expressed in New Age philosophy. I had always interpreted it in a grandiose way. Wow! Every living thing is connected! How powerful is that?! In Fullmetal, however, the lens is opposite. The World is All, and “I” am One; the All and the multiple Ones are inextricably linked, with the tiny and relatively weak creatures like humans and animals keeping the world going. When One dies, All continues on, but continues to beget more life, another One, in an endless cycle. (You can start singing the Lion King opener at this point, I won’t stop you!) I think that perhaps, in both FMA and the real world, that both ways of looking at this lesson can be true. Humans are indeed small, inconsequential even, in the big picture, but together with other living things keep the world moving.
So often in fiction (especially manga), and even in real life, humanity is either depicted as “The Bane Of Existence” or “The Best Thing To Ever Exist Ever And The Center Of All Creation”. It’s very rare that we’re depicted as we truly are: vulnerable, fallible, capable of doing both amazing good and falling painfully short of it. FMA makes it clear that alchemical ability does not equal superhuman. Edward uttered this line in grief after his and Alphonse’s alchemy had been unable to save the life of a young girl they had befriended. Calling humans “insignificant” was not a deprecation, but rather an honest admission of weakness, that perhaps humans aren’t as terrible or as noble as we’ve built ourselves up to be. This is something that took me a long time to fully realize even after reading Fullmetal, and is now a constant personal reminder against both self-deprecation and arrogance.
The final quote that really hit me close to home is actually the last line in the entire series: in the manga, it’s delivered by an omniscient narrator, but in the anime adaptation of the series, Edward’s voice is used to close out the final chapter. It’s basically everything Fullmetal Alchemist taught me, everything I loved about it, in one line. The anime version resonated with me the most, and honestly, I can’t break down this truth any further:
“There’s no such thing as a painless lesson. They just don’t exist. Sacrifices are necessary; you can’t gain anything without losing something first. Although, if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle. Yeah…a heart made fullmetal.”
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