the Little Red Reviewer

The lifecycle of manga objects

Posted on: April 16, 2012

I don’t always read manga, but when I do, it’s usually Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. I got my first taste of this way back in the early 2000’s, and I’ve been following it ever since.

Ten years and 27 volumes later, two anime series, a movie and more t-shirts and fake tattoos than I want to think about, my journey with the Elric Brothers has come to an end.  Nearly my entire adult life, a small part of my mind has constantly been revolving around this series: waiting for the next issue, getting frustrated when the story moved too fast or too slow, masochistically smiling when every issue ended in a cliffhanger and I had to wait 6 months (at least!) for the next one, my shifting character crushes, losing my squeamishness towards prosthetics and amputation, etc. And unlike the jerk at the grocery store who insisted on telling me what happens at the end even though I asked him not to, this post has no spoilers. Just lots and lots of background.

More than you ever wanted to know about:

The Story

Once upon a time, there were two brothers, the elder named Edward and the younger named Alphonse. They lived with their mother and were happy. Sometimes she got this sad look on her face, especially when she thought about their father, who had abandoned them. The two brothers would do anything to make their mother smile. They studied the alchemy book their father left behind, using their new found science based magic to fix things around the house, make new toys, and make their mother smile. Alchemical transmutation was so easy, all you needed was the parts of the whole – a broken toy, a bowl of sand, a lump of metal, and you could make anything of equal element and mass – a fixed toy, a piece of glass, a new frying pan.

And then she got sick. And when she died, the brothers blamed her illness on their absent father. If only he had been there, they could have afforded a better doctor. If only he had been there, her sadness and loneliness wouldn’t have led to illness.  In the alchemy books of their father was the secret and dangerous answer. Human transmutation: take all the elements and pieces of a human body, salt and carbon and phosphorus and blood and water and everything else, and transmute the pieces into the whole. Bring their mother back, see her smile again.

But there is a reason human transmutation is forbidden, a reason it is hidden in code words and secret symbols in the alchemy texts.  Edward and Alphonse were too naive to realize why it should never be attempted. I won’t go into the details of the disaster, but the alchemical accident left Edward missing an arm and a leg, and left Alphonse as nothing but a soul attached by blood rune to a suit of armor.

In the land of Amestris, one thing is constant: the military dictatorship. Constantly instigating wars with it’s neighbors, the populace of Amestris is used to veterans who have lost limbs. Birthed by need is the industry of auto-mail. Metal prosthetic limbs that often hide clockwork, internal weapons, and other metal gizmos. As most alchemists work for the goverment, they can easily imbue their prosthetics with the their special brands of alchemy.

After recovering from his automail surgeries, Edward vows to learn everything there is to know about Alchemy. He vows to do whatever it takes to get Alphonse his body back.  And to do that, he’s going to have to join the military and become a State Alchemist, a human weapon, a dog of the military.  Only by accessing the military libraries will be able to learn the truth behind the Philosopher’s Stone, the mythical item that allows alchemists to ignore the laws of alchemy. Specifically, the Philosopher’s Stone allows one to ignore the law of equivalent exchange.

If Edward can get his hands on a Philosopher’s Stone, he will be able to get Alphonse his body back.

But the boys are the only ones on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone.  Seven un-human creatures are bound by their own laws to find and protect the Philosopher’s Stone.  Difficult to find and even harder to kill, the homunculi and their creator have a special plan for Edward and Alphonse Elric.

The Artwork

Don’t get me wrong, I me some CLAMP and some Ai Yazawa, but ladies, the esteemed Hiromu Arakawa has something you don’t: She is a master of drawing recognizable and different faces. An issue with a lot of manga and anime these days is that all the faces look exactly the same: big eyes, small noses and mouths, etc, and characters are defined mostly by different hairstyles. Arakawa definitely has a style that is uniquely hers, but all of her characters look completely different (so different, in fact, that sometimes it’s hard to believe that two characters who are siblings are even related), and trust me, this is a good thing.  Just by glancing at a page I know exactly who is in the scene, and because her characters, even the minor ones, are developed so fully over the course of the series, I can tell you something about everyone: who they work for, what their special brand of alchemy is, what their inside joke is.

She also completely spoiled me with the little reverse images (white on black) at the beginning of each chapter. They look like super quick off the cuff drawings, but the level of emotion in those images alone leads me to believe they were always something special.

The Philosophy

Because my brain rarely works, I usually revert to explaining the philosophy of Fullmetal Alchemist as “things are expensive”.  In the few moments each day when my brain is working, I can explain it using the words of the ultimate law of Alchemy: the law of equivelent exchange. basically, everything has consequences, and those consequences are of equal weight to what you’ve done. To greatly simpify things:  Break a coffee mug = small consequences.  Break a person’s life = big consequences.  Try to transmute some simple like of a wooden table, all you need is a pile of twigs. try to transmute something like a bird or a dog or a human, it’s suddenly gotten much more complicated and much more expensive. The bigger the risk, the more expensive the consequences.

Edward unwittingly broke his brother’s life.

and now he’s facing some of the largest consequences and Alchemist can face.

Hiromu Arakawa spoiled me for manga the way Joe Abercrombie spoiled me for epic fantasy.

The Artist

Born and raised on a dairy farm in northern Japan, Hiromu Arakawa usually draws herself as a cow.   The first chapter of Fullmetal Alchemist was published in 2001 in a monthly magazine.

She had only written a few dozen chapters (3-4 manga volumes) when she was approached for the rights to the Anime.  At the time she wasn’t quite sure how the story would end, so she shared her thoughts for where it was going and gave the studio permission to take the story in a different direction, which they did.  Recently a new anime series was made, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which faithfully follows the manga. It’s final episode ran at about the same time that she was publishing the last volume.

When asked in an interview if she used the name “Elric” because she was a fan of Michael Moorcock, she replied that she had never heard of him, and used that name because she liked the sound of it.

She currently lives in Tokyo and is working on a new series called Silver Spoon.

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27 Responses to "The lifecycle of manga objects"

LOVE LOVE LOVE FMA and I’m jealous of your collection. I ended up reading scans online each month. I was too impatient to wait for the books. But Ed and Al… there’s is just something about these stories with brothers that mesmerizes me!

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this is nearly 10 years of collecting, of buying a little bit here and a little bit there. There is a great comic shop about a half hour from where I live and the entire back half of the store is all manga. I love that place!

agreed, there is something about those boys in particular, that is mesmerizing. Their story is so tragic, and I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. I eventually grew out of it, for a while I had a massive crush on Edward Elric, he was totally my book boyfriend. brings whole new meaning to “team Edward”, doesn’t it?

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I like me some manga here and there. But the thing that usually turns me off is that the characters all look alike and, as you put it, you tell them apart by hairstyles. And that’s not contained to a single manga – grab any 3 mangas by 3 different authors and just look at the faces – too similar.

Based on your comments on the artwork, and a pointy stick wielded by a fanatic manga-fan cousin, I may have to check out Full Metal Alchemist.

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I can’t argue with any of that. There are actually different schools and styles of manga artwork that specifically push toward certain facial shapes and drawing styles. Almost like in western comics where we have stick figure style, non-realistic style (Calvin and Hobbes-esque), and a more realistic style (Y: the last Man-esque). With manga, you just have to know that for the most part it’s going to be annoyingly big eyes, short skirts, and lots of artwork that looks the same.

but Arakawa, she has got the magic touch, I’m tellin’ ya!

I wish I had a flatbed scanner so I could scan some of the images from the manga.

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I’m probably 15-20 years beyond my “manga period”, but I do still have some collections. At one time I liked Battle Angel Alita, Eat-Man, Gunsmith Cats, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, a few others I no longer have. The only one I still buy is Usagi Yojimbo.

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oooohhh, Battle Angel Alita is SO good!

I’ve see the Studio Ghibli movie of Nausicaa, was it a manga first?

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Yep. There are seven volumes of the collected Battle Angle Alita by Kishiro, Yukito: Battle Angel Alita, Battle Angel Alita: Angel of Victory, Battle Angel Alita: Angel of Redemption, Battle Angel Alita: Angel of Death, Battle Angel Alita: Angel of Chaos, Battle Angel Alita: Fallen Angel and Battle Angel Alita: Angel’s Ascension.

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As for Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, there are 7 volumes collecting the whole story. Oops, see other reply for rest of comment.

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Great, now you’ve done with FMA, you can start ONE PIECE!
:D

Addictive is only the tip of the iceberg.

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that’s the one with the pirates, right? I heard there was a few different translations, due to different studios wanting a more PG rating?

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Close.

4Kids initially licensed it for their program block (for children), but after purchasing it realized it is certainly NOT for kids, and they ended up having to heavily change, edit and PGify it…which ruined the show…and the act actually put the company into bankruptcy as they took such a big hit when it failed over here. That was way back in like 2001.

In around 2008 I think…enter Funimation who have released the entire series so far (541 eps of a projected 1000) and done faithful dubs and subs exactly as they air in Japan. You can watch these online at the Funimation ONE PIECE site for free (with some ads, like Crunchy rOll)

But yeah, once you get past the first 15 eps or so the show takes off into the most amazing story I’ve ever seen in an anime ever. I’m currently on ep 100 and the story has shown no signs of slowing down. It is flat out amazing, and I can’t recco it more.

The manga is done by VIZ and unfortunately when it was begun they had started translating it when 4Kids was doing the show so Roronoa Zoro’s names (which 4Kids changed to Zolo) was matched in the manga so kids wouldn’t be confused…so Zoro’s name is wrong in the manga, but otherwise it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. You can also read more about it on my post: http://icebergink.blogspot.ca/2012/02/anime-wednesday-february.html

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I just read your article, and you had me at Colleen Clinkenbeard and Vic Mignonga (singing??? squeee!).

I must have caught some crappy 4Kids eps of this way back when, written it off, and been dissing it ever since. Looks like i’m gonna be watching some One Piece, as I certainly don’t mind a few ads here and there on streaming. thanks for the great explanation, and how in the world did I miss your Anime Wed article of this???

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I like FMA, though I’m afraid I have to admit that it was the first anime that drew me in, and which I still think is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Haven’t actually read the manga, though.

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I’m sure I got started on this when the anime ran on Adult Swim way back when. The episodes ran at either midnight or 12:30, and I was in my early 20s, which means i was out partying every weekend. I would leave the bar early so i could get home in time to watch Fullmetal Alchemist. total otaku.

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Oh, there are so many things that I like about FMA. So very many things, most of which you’ve outlined in this wonderful post.

One discussion I’d like to have: it seems to me like female mangaka (such as Hiromu Arakawa, Akira Amano, CLAMP, Katsura Hoshino, Watase Yuu, Yuki Urushibara) such as demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to create a successful series without using some of the troubling tropes (e.g. fanservice, harems) found commonly in manga.

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Trope heavy manga stories are fun and all, the traditional shojo and shonen, but that gets boring fast. Iit’s not even the “troubling” tropes that get old fast for me, it’s the standard shonen stuff like team mate collecting, special moves and boss fights and the annoying over emotional moe saccharine’d shojo stuff. . . one bores the crap out of me, the other makes me want to barf. you guess which.

Of the mangaka you mentioned, I only know Arakawa, CLAMP, and Urushibara. And I completely agree, female mangaka seem more interested in the art of storytelling than the art of staying within a prescribed genre or trope pattern. Have you read Ai Yazawa’s stuff? She did Paradise Kiss and Nana, among others. Certainly shojo, but the focus is on characterzation and storytelling rather than making sure everyone knows she’s doing shojo.

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Amano: Reborn!
Hoshino: D. Gray-man
Watase: Fushigi Yugi

Agreed on manga tropes getting tiresome. I enjoy a good shonen now and then, but I feel like so often the conflicts devolve into this:

BOSS: Ha, ha, ha! I have defeated you!
PROTAG: No! If only I was X units of power stronger!
BOSS: I shall leave you alive for completely unknown reasons! Ha, ha, ha!
(Time passes)
PROTAG: I must become X units of power stronger!
(PROTAG trains to become X units of power stronger)
PROTAG: Take that, evil dude!
(Defeats boss)
BOSS: Impossible! You have become X units of power stronger!
(Dies)

I don’t read as much shojo, so I’m less familiar with the tropes there, but what limited experience I do have leaves me similarly annoyed.

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Ben, that is so exactly how so many Shonen manga are! so predictable and annoying! But fun to make fun of!

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FMA gets respect for beng so imaginative but as much as I like manga I have to admit that anything that looks like a long series is a complete turn-off. I like short series like Biomega and Pluto.

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long series are intimidating! it’s like starring at a shelf of Wheel of Time novels. I think this one worked for me because i got into it right at the beginning, when only the first few volumes were out. If I was to get involved in it fresh, today, the thought of purchasing and reading 27 volumes would be a complete turn off.

There are some other series I’m currently interested in, but they are already running 20+ volumes. ehhh, maybe not.

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Haven’t read the Manga, LOVE the Anime though!!!!

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yeah, but *which* anime? ;)

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I just started watching the anime last week. Watching the original series first, will switch to Brotherhood afterwards. Let’s see which one is better.

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I’m a total sucker for the original. it’s a bit darker, where Brotherhood is more humorous. I’m curious to know which you end up preferring. you should do a blog post (or even better, a series of posts) on it!

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Great idea! Though I am not sure how I would structure the posts…
Just reviewing both versions just seems too plain.

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I recently finished the FMA manga too! It’s the first long form manga I’ve read that isn’t shounen (I’ve a tonne of Naruto and Bleach under my belt, though I’ve abandoned both now). There are many things that I Iiked about the series, but I think my favourite element was the quality of the character development, in particular the flame alchemist and the brothers’ dad.

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the characters in FMA are just stunning, the only mangaka who I thinks get even close to this level of character depth is Ai Yazawa, and you’d only read her if you wanted super-shojo.

ahh, Naruto and Bleach. how many volumes are those series up to now? like 70?

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