Management: This piece is about the 2003 series. Please refrain from or at least clearly mark spoilers regarding Brotherhood in the comments!
Alchemy is the promise of power.
That doesn’t sound particularly profound – it sounds obvious, actually. Clearly stories of alchemy are stories of men of science attempting to harness the unharnessable, to make the laws of the universe bend to their will, to achieve great things. But in the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, “power” doesn’t necessarily mean “strength” or “possibility.” Power can simply mean knowing your strength exists, and the world is a place you have the chance to affect.
Alchemy is the promise of control.
The heroes of Fullmetal Alchemist live in an unfair world, full of war and disease and meaningless hardship. Ed and Al’s mother is struck down by illness for no good reason. Their father’s absence is equally senseless. The violence that besets the Ishbalans comes from a conflict they have no actual part in. In a world like this, the idea that actions could have reliable consequences, and that you can actually control your destiny or make peace with your past in a clean, equation-ready manner, has a clear appeal. Alchemy embodies that appeal, and promises much. That the things you hope for, your dreams, can be made reality through your will. That your regrets can be wiped away, the debt paid. That you can accomplish anything, as long as you pay an equal price.
In truth, alchemy is a kind of faith – a faith in our ability to change the world. The show frames alchemy as more wish than science again and again, and many times it is only Ed and Al’s conviction, not their reason, that gives them strength. Their belief that either alchemy or their own strength can bring out the desired result, in spite of all evidence against it. This is something of a grim irony, since Ed loudly and frequently sneers at the idea of overt religious faith – but that is because his faith is in the idea that the world can be controlled. He wants to think he rules his own destiny, and because of this, the idea of surrendering your agency to something irrational and beyond yourself is anathema to his values. Ed’s initial faith in alchemy is so strong, his need to believe in its promise so great, that he often frames terrible actions from others not just as “how dare they do this,” but as “how dare they use alchemy to do this.” Ed may not have religion, but he certainly has faith.
This instinct in humanity, our deep-seated need to feel we can change the world and “set things right,” causes great tragedy in Fullmetal Alchemist. “Equivalent exchange” is the promise that our actions create equal counteraction, but that simplification is proven a lie again and again. There is always a cost – not just in alchemy, though that’s certainly true. But on the individual level, all of our attempts to leverage power or change the past invite sacrifice not just in ourselves, but in those around us. And on the larger level, every attempt to meet violence with violence only brings about more of the same.
If the desire to pay for action with equal response is humanity’s reaction to an irrational world, then violence might be its most pure and human expression. Scar’s cause is righteous – his country was destroyed for reasons outside its people’s control, and their continued persecution is senseless and cruel. But all his attempts to enact revenge, to gain back the cost his people paid, only contribute to further cycles of violence. It is impossible and indeed undesirable to forget our history – the consequences for doing so result in tragedy like the military’s constant historical revisionism, and the show takes pains to state that we must always honor the victims of the past, and remember absent friends. But attempting to reclaim the past, either through violence or alchemy, only results in violence, victims, and further regrets. When the brothers’ teacher attempts to reclaim her lost child, she is punished by losing the chance of future children. When Scar attempts to take payment for the military’s violence, he only creates further tragedy – tragedy so predictable that it forms the actual basis of the military’s larger strategy, who repeatedly prompt backlash in order to retaliate with maximum force. You cannot take back what was lost, and attempting to perform equivalent exchange on your own history only passes the surplus cost onto the next victim.
The Homunculi often perform the role of that “next victim,” as their victimhood is inherent in their nature. They are living representatives of our regrets, and our attempts to undo them – they are our past come back to haunt us. They are born of our inability to accept loss, and burdened by the expectations of the past, they then come back to instigate their own cycles of violence. But they themselves are fundamentally innocent – like Fullmetal Alchemists’ human players, they are bound to suffer by the mistakes of others. And through their nature they demonstrate how hard it is to become more than your past, to not be defined by it. Characters like Lust and Envy want to become more than their past, but it continuously reemerges to haunt them, the nature of true loss reflected in how everything reminds them of their old selves. Ed and Al burn down their home and rage at their father, but they always come back, with Ed in particular constantly being directed by everything he denies. Even Scar’s very name marks him as someone reflective of past injustice, acting out not his own individual will, but his need to “set things right.” People can’t escape the circumstances that created them, and the uneven but inescapable formula of attempting to pay back the past causes cyclical pain.
But pain is not the only cycle apparent in Fullmetal Alchemist. All of nature moves in cycles, and many of the show’s most positive moments are those spent reflecting on how we are a part of something larger. Living things die, and though we can’t bring back the dead, new life always emerges from old. When we stop relying on the promise of ultimate power, we can often mend things with the power we already hold. There are things we cannot change, but if we accept our place in a larger, ever-shifting system, there is still great strength within our hands.
Unfortunately, humans are not good at accepting the things they cannot change. Characters rage and crash all through Fullmetal Alchemist, pursuing impossible hopes and striking grim bargains and destroying themselves and the people they love in the process. Wars are sparked by unwilling players who become victims themselves in turn. The homunculi seek meaning, vengeance, or humanity, and pay for their past in spite of their power. Ed and Al stumble through a dozen minor tragedies while Roy Mustang makes offerings to the military in pursuit of his own peace. The show ends in tragedy for many of its heroes, but though the cycles and grim bargains of our nature are not overcome, there is hope in its conclusion.
There’s a strange contradiction in Fullmetal Alchemist’s resolution to its own somber questions. Alchemy’s hope and bargain is reflective of everything that informs human violence – our attempts to reshape the world, our inability to accept the past, our self-destructive desire to see justice applied to an unjust life. Part of the escape from this comes in abandoning it altogether – in no longer projecting your need for revenge outwards, and taking the pain of the bargain onto yourself. Characters like Scar and Lust each embody this escape in their own way – Scar lets go of his anger, and takes all the hurt of Ishbal onto himself, while Lust ultimately makes peace with the life that informed her own. Other characters are eventually destroyed by their pursuit of revenge, like Envy. But the ultimate message doesn’t just reduce to “the instinct towards alchemy is bad.”
“Only humans can perform alchemy” is a constant refrain in Fullmetal Alchemist – alchemy is reflective of something inherent in ourselves. Our striving to fix the world is arrogant and treacherous and results in constant tragedy, but it is also ultimately noble and human. It is a beautiful contradiction of our nature. We may always strive to control the past, but we also strive for things like peace, or for good people to be rewarded. The same faith in humanity’s power that leads so many to attempt ruinous actions also informs its characters’ most noble goals. Even the idea that Al in his automail is real depends on a kind of charitable, faith-based reading of reality. Even after witnessing all the violence brought about through alchemy, Ed’s conviction in its ability to do good is unwavering to the end. “If you pay the price, you can obtain an equal happiness. That’s the type of equivalent exchange I’d like to believe in. Reality isn’t like that, I know. If you say it’s a childish theory, then I’m fine with being a child.”
“The world is imperfect, and thus it is beautiful.” Our nature will causes violence, but we can rise above it at times, and it is that nature that makes us strong. Our obsession with the past can drown us in cycles of retribution, but to forget the past is the greatest sin. The world doesn’t truly work according to equivalent exchange, but our engagement with its imperfect formulas can bring about great triumphs just the same. Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t end with any easy solutions, because the world doesn’t offer simple, resolve-for-the-answer problems. It ends where it started – on the journey, moving forward, maintaining faith in your strength while hopefully a little wiser in the bargain. The show lauds natural things – what we can perform with our hands, what we can accomplish without alchemy, and even the natural cycle of death and new birth. But it does not give up on its high-minded ideals, either. Ed eventually loses his unerring faith in alchemy, but he still believes its promise is a noble one, and he still fights to change what he can. “Alchemy isn’t special. But it can help people, and that is. I’d like for people who strive to be happy to be rewarded for as hard as they work.” It’s a simple hope, but it’s the best we can do.