I came comparatively late, as an anime fan, to watching Full Metal Alchemist; for a long time it had been something I was aware of as being the series about the strange robotic knight and his child companion, and I gathered it had some alternate-history elements from seeing fanworks of imperious caricatures in fancy uniforms. When I finally got around to beginning it a few months ago, choosing the remake, Brotherhood, over the original series, I was incredibly impressed with what it offered as a piece of, ultimately, superhero fiction. The setup is archetypal old-fashioned superhero origin story; two children carry out a dangerous experiment to harness forbidden power, it goes incredibly wrong and they end up changed, with the changes giving them incredible power to do good or evil. The framework may be fantasy rather than super-science, with alchemy and necromancy replacing cosmic radiation or mysterious particles, but at the heart of it the Elric brothers are old-fashioned superheroes.
As a result, the series becomes a lot more interesting than it may at first appear; its focus is often on fighting, but more interestingly it is a series about the – as formulaic as it may sound – limitations and responsibilities of a hero. What makes the Elric brothers most interesting is they are powerful heroes in a world where their power is the baseline – superheroes in a world where the hero is commonplace and anyone may attempt to hold great power. Thus their story retains the unwanted responsibility aspect, but not the exceptionalism or vigilantism that being a uniquely powerful figure offers. They enter the corps of the State Alchemists, an organisation that controls and regulates those with the power to perform alchemy, at the very bottom and are the dogsbodies, people always disrespected by those with more military authority and often much greater power. What this means in a wider, worldbuilding sense is that the world of Full Metal Alchemist is one where the superior people – those with the supernatural powers – have assumed political authority and the ordinary people have got used to this. The only place for children with accidentally-acquired power (gained through illicit use of alchemy) to go is into the military. It could almost be seen as an inversion of the setup in X-Men, where mutant children are go to Xavier’s school to be helped – the State Alchemists are basically national service for superheroes and have an uneasy relationship with past war crimes.
Thus the organisation teaching the great responsibility, that as Spider-Man teaches us, comes with great power is from the start shown to be a questionable one – a state military police force that seems to also be a junta in control of the nation. How responsible is a state that combines military force, law enforcement and government into one unaccountable, empowered entity? Add to that the constant reminders of an act of genocide this government perpetrated – which motivates the protagonists to question its right to rule – and even before the growing conspiracy plot, which drives the main storyline, is uncovered what is set up is a rotten state which tries to control good people. This could be seen as the mutant-first dystopian end-point X-Men often threatens, a world where the megalomania of heroism runs rampant and those with power lose the sense of responsibility to wield it fairly. In this way, making the protagonists those who did not ask for their power is fitting; the Elrics must use their newfound abilities in service of the state to not be the rogue alchemists they hunt. What the series in turn does is present them with problems that blunt-instrument powers like those they hold cannot solve – hints of corruption and the failings of the system, enemies who do not fight fair. It is surprisingly deft and fitting, really, that the romantic interest of the series is an engineer interested in super-science from a purely practical perspective – the artisan looking to be the best – who must inevitably work alongside a military whose view of the same science is purely militaristic.
The A-plot of Full Metal Alchemist has much to say about the fiction’s world as a whole, questioning and detailing the fall of the corrupt government that has assumed control and will happily kill entire nations to fuel ambitious magical experiments. It is a broad-scale story about the risks of giving too much power to an unaccountable few that advocates responsibility and ethics over blind duty and patriotism. Its heroes are characters like General Armstrong, who will happily kill an agent of the state to aid those working against it and see this as entirely within her duties as a soldier. But this runs alongside an equally interesting – and equally telling, from the perspective of this hero-comic reading of it, B-plot. What drives the Elrics forward – initially more than the desire to find out the truth about the State Alchemists’ corruption – is the desire to lose their powers and go back to a normal life. Ultimately this is because they never wanted their powers, and those powers are a pretty poor deal. Alphonse might be a super-strong animated armour, but he is one with the mind of a child, continued doubts over how long he might endure, and no capacity to ever enjoy human contact again unless he can be restored. Edward comes off better, being “only” a powerful cyborg soldier, but the stigma of how he came to need those powers – how he lost his limbs, how he got his rapid magical education – remains.
Their quest is to find some way of restoring their lost body parts and go back to living as young people – they may still have magic, but the physical aspect of their mutation is gone. It is almost reminiscent of Robocop – where a law enforcer is injured in the line of duty and turned into a machine who tries to remember his human life and expose a conspiracy in the massively over-gunned police force. Obviously Murphy cannot stop being Robocop in the way Alphonse tries to return to being human, but the attitudes of both stories – that for a cyborg or construct keeping hold of one’s humanity is paramount – seem comparable. There is a poignant arc early in Full Metal Alchemist where Alphonse meets a failed experiment in creating something similar to him, a prisoner whose soul was separated from his body and trapped in a construct, and they talk about whether or not it is possible to tell if “the right soul” was found – and whether there is some time limit on the restoration of the body.
It is fitting that some of the early, minor yet memorable villains in the series are unethical scientists driven by the desperate need to succeed into hideous experiments because they feel they are running out time to find answers. It creates a sense of urgency for the Elrics; they now have doubts about whether their quest can ever be successful, and their hope is further undermined by how their aims intersect with the conspiracy’s. Finding that the way they believed to be a sure-fire method of restoring their body parts actually carries an even worse human cost than the method of losing them is thus a devastating conclusion to this early arc – emphasising the rottenness of being super-powered in this society. Thus Full Metal Alchemist is a strange series, taking cyberpunk aspects of the soul and mind in a posthuman world, the social commentary that stories superpowers and accidental empowerment inherently invites and at times deftly considered matters of military and nationalistic duty.