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:
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.
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.
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.
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.