Fullmetal Alchemist and the Promise of Power

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist

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.”

[AHQ] Fullmetal Alchemist - 32 - Dante Of The Deep Forest.mkv_snapshot_18.35_[2015.03.06_19.08.26]

“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.

Fullmetal Alchemist

28 thoughts on “Fullmetal Alchemist and the Promise of Power

  1. Another great essay, Bob. This is a sincerely empathetic take on the ideals of the young and clever. One thing I enjoyed about the 2003 FMA is that Scar’s moral stance as an Ishballan terrorist isn’t portrayed as clear cut. His actions may not be justified, but his anger comes from a very understandable place, especially since the horrors of the military are shown in quite a lot of detail.

    By the way, you may want to clarify somewhere that this essay is talking about the 2003 FMA, not Brotherhood. I picked up your intent from the essay’s themes and screenshots, but yeah, some people might be confused. And you wouldn’t want Brotherhood spoilers in the comments if you intended this essay to be about just the 2003 anime.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! And yeah, I started off not a fan of Scar even though I understood the ambiguity of his position, but he won me over by the end. He and Lust go through a lot of great development.

      Good call on marking this as about 2003. I’ll add a note.

    • The way Scar is treated in 2003 is one of the major reasons I prefer it to the manga/Brotherhood (among many, many others). I think Brotherhood’s treatment of him is kind of insensitive and clueless, for starters (for those who are familiar with “Mangahood” or don’t mind spoilers, this essay from my friend elaborates there: http://amarielah.tumblr.com/post/44722439761/the-problematic-portrayal-of-minority-characters ), but I also like that 03 deals with him with so much subtlety. It shows his revenge is counterproductive and just leads to more violence and pain, but it doesn’t devalue the feelings that lead to it. It doesn’t treat it as just a mindless “roaring rampage” like so many other series do with that kind of character and struggle. I really appreciated it, and I think it’s a great and thoughtful portrayal of minority resistance to a conquering power (and it didn’t surprise me at all when I learned later that the writers based that conflict in the then-ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

      • I think the core of the problem with that scene is simply a difference of opinions on the topic. The post you linked expresses an idea on how to deal with issues of race which is very common today in the west (especially USA and UK). FMA was started more than ten years ago and was written in Japan, a country which actually has much more overt racism which is widely accepted (mostly against Koreans and Chinese).

        About Scar, I think the fact he’s basically pardoned and fundamentally seen in a kind of positive light throughout the story says volumes about the fact that we’re not supposed to consider him evil. It’s just that the manga has a very non-violent stance, so of course his methods aren’t considered GOOD (and their problems are shown in the form of him going after people who’s actually innocent of the crimes he want to avenge), but the reader is supposed to look at him in a more detached and sympathetic way than Edward does; after all, Edward’s past with Scar has been (1) being almost killed by him and (2) finding out his best friend’s parents were killed by him – I don’t think he can help being a bit bitter.

        About Miles and his discussion with Edward, I think the point is, again, that Edward is refusing to take part in the guilt of actions that he didn’t commit just based on his race. He’s often shown interest and empathy towards what happened in Ishval, but that doesn’t mean he’s very keen to take any shit for it personally, not having had anything to do with it. He also says that he doesn’t see race which I can only read as him not JUDGING people based on their race. It’s not denying Miles’ cultural heritage, which is his own business. We’re talking about ethical judgement here, and saying “I don’t see race” in that context simply means he’ll judge a person based on his/her personal actions, not racial reasons. Seems legit to me.

  2. Sadly for this essay, I have a gut disgust towards the first FMA series, which transcends the simple “they changed it now it sucks” repulsion towards unfaithful adaptation and goes straight into “it completely destroys and occasionally negates every good philosophical and ethical point the manga was trying to make” territory. Though it must be said, most of the points you make here (especially the ones about the cycle of hate) are still valid for the manga/Brotherhood as well.

    The thing is, as a scientist, I read FMA mostly as a parable about the ethical use of knowledge. Belief in alchemy is belief in the human ability to better itself, go beyond its limits, and pursue good by better understanding nature and the world. It is a fundamentally humanistic proposition; but it also has the potential of being twisted into a limiting, oppressive thing when it’s twisted by faux rationalistic thinking. The best example is (FMAB SPOILERS ahead) the Kimbly and Alphonse scene where they debate equivalent exchange. Equivalent exchange is basically nothing more than what we would call the principle of conservation of mass-energy. It’s a natural law and as such is a useful tool in understanding the world. But Kimbly turns it into a moral principle: he says “why don’t you take the stone and run? You can’t save yourself AND the country at the same time, because then you wouldn’t sacrifice anything”. But Alphonse rebuts that he’s wrong: there’s no point in feeling LIMITED by that principle which clearly doesn’t apply to this situation. Being a rational, scientific person doesn’t equate with being nihilistic or cynical. There’s more to the world than survival of the fittest, and those who pretend that science and rationality objectively justify that are being intellectually dishonest.

    • I think some of his points are valid for the manga/Brotherhood, but not all or even necessarily most of them. A big take-away he had was this “the world isn’t perfect, and equivalent exchange isn’t real, but we keep believing in it and trying because that helps us create a better world for each other.” The manga and Brotherhood uphold the law of equivalent exchange in the end, and things work out ALMOST exactly as we want for the heroes. Their sacrifices generally don’t stick, or aren’t meaningful if they do (with that one big exception).

      Maybe having equivalent exchange be real worked out if you’re into this series for the intricate world-building that is creating a really coherent and elaborate form of magic-science. But I do think it sacrifices a lot when it comes to thematic complexity and resonance (since that’s just…not the way the real world works, and so I don’t feel like I have as much I can take away from the manga/Brotherhood there). And also for Ed’s character growth, too. He grows in resilience, but never really has to question any of his underlying beliefs.

      • It’s like you’re saying that the problem with Brotherhood is that it’s too optimistic, thinking that if people put enough effort and goodwill, they may actually get to improve the world they live in. What’s wrong with that? Of course it won’t actually necessarily turn out so well IRL, we know that, that’s why it’s called fiction. On the opposite hand, I see the first FMA as being pointlessly angsty and grimdark just to be OH SO REALISTIC.
        And Ed’s character growth comes in the form of shedding much of his pride and becoming more mature and able to rely on people around him. He never gets to question his underlying beliefs because there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. He questions a lot of things, but the core idea, that alchemy can and should be used for good, remains his firm belief all the way through and doesn’t change because he’s 100% right about it, or at least that’s how both Arakawa-sensei and I feel about it. It doesn’t mean you have to be obsessive about using it as a means to achieve power, or steamroll over people’s feelings and needs for the sake of your own quest for knowledge: that’s what Father does – he represents “bad” science. But we shouldn’t chastise ourselves for our desire to both understand and control the world. Of course we want to control it! Not having ANY control means being at risk of dying at any time of hunger, cold, disease. Control is synonymous of stability. Of course one needs to find a balance between just desire and crazed obsession, and be wise about accepting what can’t be controlled. But that’s what the “All is one, one is all” lesson on the island (incidentally, one of the best manga/anime scenes ever) is all about.

  3. Great work as always, Bob.

    Something I’ve always admired about FMA and FMA:B—and it’s something that not a lot of people mention—is the diversity of its characters. I don’t mean that its character designs are all unique, or that almost every player in its ensemble cast feels distinct, though it certainly has those two things going for it as well. Instead, what is FMA’s greatest strength is that the series shows its audience that human strength can come in so many different shapes and sizes.

    It’s hard to think of other pieces of fiction where the main protagonists are two disabled teens. The loss of his mom, his arm and leg and his brother’s body almost crushes Ed, and yet he somehow finds the strength to bounce back and continue on with his life. In this I think FMA has one of the most positive portrayals of disability I’ve seen or read in a piece of fiction.

    But the series doesn’t stop there. FMA has a slew of strong female characters—Winry, Hawkeye and Lan Fan—as well as characters who are older—Fu and Dr Macoh—and, of course, ones that come from different religions or entirely different parts of the world such as Scar.

    Whether they know it or not, I think this is why so many people love FMA. In FMA, it’s easy to see someone that resembles your self doing amazing and powerful things.

    • I hadn’t considered that in a representational sense, but yeah, the show definitely has a diverse cast. The author is clearly interested in all kinds of people, as demonstrated by how much the show respects such a diverse variety of contradictory perspectives.

    • I don’t know if I’d say that the “Xingese” characters in the manga and Brotherhood are that great of a stab for diversity, though. They’re pretty similar to Chinese stereotypes that show up a lot in manga and anime, and are based in crappy ideas about Chinese people that are common in modern-day Japan. (For example, the idea of Chinese people being cheap/greedy/stealthy, and that’s not only a defining trait for Ling but he actually MERGES with the homunculus called Greed… And he’s easily the most complex character among the Xing bunch.)

      • Eh, I’d contest that characterization of Arakawa’s “Xingese” characters (and specifically Ling’s) insofar as Ling is the only one out of that lot you could argue represents that prejudice against the Chinese. Additionally, whatever gags have been made about Chinese stereotypes (ignorant and hapless foreigner, for instance) that I can recall have been ones that have more mocked them as ridiculous rather than embrace them as truthful. I also feel they’ve been constructed as pretty solid characters, so unless you’re targeting how the Xingese are represented for their looks or dress, I don’t see much in the way of unfair ethnic/racial stereotyping.

        Barring ethnic/racial identity for the sake of diversity, the one of the key plot and thematic points of Brotherhood is the introduction of the alternate Eastern-influenced philosophy-discipline of Alkahestry to the mainstream Western-influenced philosophy-discipline of Alchemy. It’s not discriminatory to place these philosophy-disciplines as dichotomies to each other for rejection or synthesis if these philosophy-disciplines were inspired by historical life ways of looking at the real world by different peoples in different parts of the world.

        Accordingly, it would make narrative sense to include the Eastern Chinese-inspired “Xingese” as a counter-view to the Western German-inspired “Amestrian” perspective. It also makes sense that the place where Alkestry and Alchemy synthesis together in Brotherhood is the person of Scar, who is of Middle Eastern-inspired Ishvala descent. The Middle East, geographically speaking in the real world, is between the West/Germany and the Far East/China. After all, Islamic Empires have historically stretched from the Middle East to the West and the Far East, serving as a conduit for the flow of trade and ideas between these two regions.

        • I see what you’re saying about the themes of the different types of alchemy, with the Chinese kind serving as a more humanitarian, nonviolent version compared to Amestris’s weaponized alchemy. That said, I really have to disagree on the characterization–partly because I don’t think any of the Xingese characters HAVE much in the way of characterization with the exception of Ling. Mei Chang, maybe, but certainly not Lan Fan, who never develops beyond “badass ninja girl slavishly devoted to Ling” (which is another stereotype of Chinese women that shows up in other anime, like Black Butler). As for Mei, she’s powerful, she’s a fangirl with a huge crush on Alphonse, and she learns that being power-grabby might not be the best thing for her country (though it’s never really developed organically how she gets there), but other than that, there’s not much to her. And when you look at the rest of her…she’s a Chinese warrior princess with a pet panda. Yeah, not exactly the most progressive, non-stereotypical portrayal of her race.

          There’s also that most people I know who’ve actually lived in Japan and seen its stereotypes of Chinese culture and people firsthand, are the least forgiving of the portrayal of the “Xingese” characters in that manga (and in other series with crude Chinese stereotypes). I tend to defer to them in there being some uncomfortable there that’s maybe hard to put our fingers on.

        • Oh, and apologies to Bobduh and anyone else who might not have seen Brotherhood yet: My above post includes some subtle spoilers for it.

          I can’t find a feature to edit that in there, though.

  4. Fun read, though I picked up the series around the same time you did so I could understand your essay better when you finally wrote it, so the details aren’t fresh in my mind. I’ll remind myself from now on to pick up series once you actually finish them.

    I prefer Brotherhood myself, but the one thing I remember the 2003 series doing better were the villains. It gave all them their own motivations and goals, and due to alchemy, forcefully had them have a connection with the other characters. It allowed the characters to get underneath each other’s skin, which is something Brotherhood severely lacked.

    Also, shouldn’t “Ed and Al stumble a dozen minor tragedies” be “Ed and Al stumble UPON a dozen minor tragedies”

    • I for one felt that part about the villains was in fact so hamfisted as to become dull and uninteresting. It’s mostly an attempt at forced drama, when the Brotherhood villains are often much subtler. I don’t think anyone except maybe Envy is truly, downright, moustache-twirling villainous in FMA:B; everyone has believable motivations, weak points, thoughts, if twisted ones. From Lust and the subtle pleasure she takes in interacting with humans and claiming her own humanity on them through inflicting pain, to Wrath and his chivalrous admiration for his enemies, to Kimbly and his bizarre honour code, to Father, ultimately a lonely, fragile being overcome by the apparent pointlessness of his own existence who only pursues knowledge but does so in the worst possible way, by dismissing the worth of everyone else around him. And I think that the fact that homunculi are decidedly not human (as opposed to the resurrected humans from FMA) and yet there’s a point made of treating them as such (“what makes a human” being a major worry of the series, and the answer clearly being “agency and free will”, certainly not a mere human body) is especially relevant to the series. It’s subtle, but for me, it’s all there.

    • I also believe the villains were given this “human” factor that Brotherhood could never hope to achieve with its silly villains and their flat personalities. As Bobduh highlighted in the review, their shifting feelings between turning into complete monsters and rising above their human counterparts is /truly/ fascinating.

      • I don’t get how anyone debates which set of villains were more complex. They (well, most of them) were fully-fleshed out characters in the 03 anime. In Brotherhood, they were archetypes. They were walking symbolism of Father’s sins. And little more than that.

        If you prefer simplistic, black-and-white villains that’s one thing, and they certainly fit the story Brotherhood was trying to tell. But that doesn’t make the writing “subtler” or more intricate.

        • I see that as completely reversed: to me in Brotherhood they were actual characters, and in FMA 2003 they were empty blobs of tragic backstories meant to sound as sob-worthy as possible. They were the caricature of the “monster who only needs love” archetype. I guess this really depends on what you feel like is the proper definition of “realism”, but personally I’ll take FMAB’s mix of sweet, sour, drama and silliness as a better representation of real life than FMA 2003’s monotone emoness any time.

    • I actually finished all but the last episode back in September so, so I guess it’s a good thing I took so many notes! And thanks for mentioning the typo, fixed it.

  5. This post does a good a job of capturing my takeaways from the show. Particularly on how Edward puts his faith in a law of thermodynamics in a way similar to how folks put much stock into their scripture. The reason why he’s able to keep going in spite of being wrong is because he’s never made immediately aware of the lives he inadvertently helped. He never knew that surrendering Marcoh would result in him being devoured by a monster, nor was he aware of how instrumental the priest he and his brother deposed was to the stability of Liore. Clinging to the law of equivalence is essentially a way for him to numb the pain of all the things he’s done wrong by convincing himself everything would come around in the end when the magnitude of that pain isn’t even fully within his scope.

    This all comes to a boiling point in the end of the series. Edward in a way finally confronts himself and admits what likely long knew was true deep down to an extent yet didn’t want to think about as he casts himself into the unknown.

    • Yep. Edward’s friends somewhat kill him with kindness there, in letting him maintain his faith through ignorance past the point where it’s really helping him. But it’s not surprising they’d do so, considering how headstrong and brittle Ed is.

  6. Given the vastly different subject matter of Brotherhood, I look forward to your take on that as opposed to this. I really appreciated your take on one of my favorite shows. 🙂

    So, its gonna be a year at least before you start on on Brotherhood, right?

  7. I’m 4 days late in commenting, but I’ll still give it a go.

    I just don’t understand Ed’s final conclusion: “If it’s childish, then I’ll be a child”. Yes, it is very romantic and provides hope, but surely the point of growing up is that you accept that there are forces outside our control. Yet, Ed retains faith in his power, and the power of “hard, determination etc etc”, despite all his experiences. What’s with the willful illusion?

  8. The 2003 series is better than Brotherbood imo. The manga was pretty good, but brotherhood just ruined the pacing and tone. And even in the manga I had a problem with one dimensional villains as opposed to what we had with the homonculi in 2003. I’ll wait for your opinion though; I just thought I would leave this here since the overwhelming majority think brotherhood is infinitely better.

  9. Biblical perspectives do not apply. Fma is an anime about an Atheist, and was not written to suggest anything the blogger wants it to be about.

    • What. This article is not about the Bible, and atheists are very capable of reading the Bible and still being atheists. The Bible has atheists in it but I’m pretty sure Biblical perspectives are relevant to it. From what I understand, the Bible is very relevant to many atheists’ lives because of its societal influence. There’s so much “what?” here.

    • It’s pretty blatant that the ancient faith that created the city beneath Dante’s lair was some form of christianity. There’s even a church in the show.

      The manga does not have christianity in it but there are several parallels with the faiths present.

      Now the main issue is that this article mainly refers to faith as belief or conviction,both in religion and ideals. Not to Christianity in particular. FMA isn’t an anime about an atheist, it just happens to have a character who is an atheist.

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