"Don't forget 3.Oct.11," read the carving in Edward Elric's State Alchemist pocket watch. That was the day he burnt his home to the ground, and his childhood along with it—the day he left to join the Amestrian State Military.
For fans of Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA), October 3rd is also a great day to express appreciation for the series, which has stood the test of time as one of the most impactful stories ever told. But what exactly makes FMA so special?
Long-standing as the top rated anime on MyAnimeList, FMA is the rare show that has it all: expert plotting, fully fleshed out characters, tense action, and complex, underlying themes that speak to universal issues. But it's that last point where FMA truly shines. Plenty of beloved series have great characters and cool battles, but the most memorable stories are the ones that actually have something meaningful to say.
Watching FMA gave me a lot to think about philosophically. These were my main takeaways that stayed with me even years after finishing the show.
(As a quick side note, for the purpose of discussion, I'll only be referring to the events of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, as it most closely follows the manga.)
The Value of Human Life
In FMA, alchemy is a scientific technique that revolves around deconstructing and reconstructing matter. This hinges on the law of Equivalent Exchange: "Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost." But how do we define something that exists beyond the mere realms of matter?
While FMA explores a number of complex themes throughout its run, including religious freedom, racism, anti-militarization, and the pain of growing up, almost all of them lead into this single question: What is the value of human life?
Set in a fictional world based on Europe during the Industrial Revolution, FMA mainly follows Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers who suffered a horrific accident while trying to revive their deceased mother through alchemy. Their failed experiment resulted in Edward losing his arm and leg and Al's entire body being destroyed, leaving his soul bound to an empty suit of armor.
Edward's subsequent desire to restore Al's body leads him to join the Amestrian military in hopes of acquiring leads on the "Philosopher's Stone," a mythical alchemical substance that supposedly allows an alchemist to "break the rules" and transmute human life. But as Edward learns more about the Philosopher's Stone and the military's reasons for researching its existence, he also discovers a terrible truth.
As it turns out, Philosopher's Stones don't break the rules at all. Great power comes at an exorbitant cost. Philosopher's Stones are created using thousands of human souls and are typically the result of genocide. Moreover, the military's top brass is willing to engineer genocide in the name of obtaining the power of a Philosopher's Stone.
In short, Edward discovers that technological/military advancement, most commonly fueled by selfish desires, comes at the expense of other people and leaves untold human suffering in its wake. Edward rejects these means of obtaining his goals, deciding that human life stands above any sort of personal wants or needs he has. Ultimately, he manages to restore Al's body not through a Philosopher's Stone but by sacrificing his own ability to perform alchemy.
So if I had to boil this takeaway down to the essentials: Human life is more valuable than anything else, and while it's okay to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of one's goals, it's never okay to harm others in the process. In a lot of ways, this has shaped my views on social and political policies. I genuinely believe that minimizing human suffering should be the primary concern of any government or movement and that human progress should never come at the expense of suffering.
Scar has always been one of my favorite characters in FMA and easily one of the best-written villains I've ever seen.
Initially introduced as a merciless serial killer targeting State Alchemists, we eventually learn that Scar was a victim of the Ishval Civil War––essentially a genocide wherein the Amestrian military razed a province called Ishval (whose population were of a darker skin color and followed a different religion). Having witnessed the death of his brother at the hands of a murderous State Alchemist, Scar views it as his responsibility to enact divine retribution against the State Alchemists for their war crimes against his people.
Scar could have easily fallen into the pitfall of a one-note villain with a tragic backstory who comes to see the error of his ways only on his deathbed. But FMA is a far better series than that, and Scar is anything but a one-note villain. He's an actively complex human, driven primarily by rage and revenge while still holding onto the kindness he once held deep in his heart.
In some ways, this comes through even during his murder spree. While Scar has essentially renounced his own religion, knowing that his vengeful actions go against the core teachings, he still gives his victims a chance to pray before he kills them. He also finds himself conflicted at points, especially when attempting to kill alchemists who weren't actually active during the Ishval Civil War.
Eventually, Scar encounters Winry Rockbell, the daughter of two Amestrian doctors who Scar killed in a blind rage after they helped him through his wartime injuries. He gives her the opportunity to kill him, but she doesn't. She won't forgive him, but she won't murder him and continue a cycle of revenge.
This ultimately leads Scar to an epiphany that shifts his entire motivation. While he doesn't necessarily forgive Amestris, he dedicates his life to healing Ishval and reinstating his people's culture in the hopes that one day the fracture can be mended.
FMA teaches that forgiveness is not cut-and-dried. One does not need to forgive and forget; and in many situations, forgiveness is not warranted. But in order to heal, breaking the cycle of revenge is a necessary step towards progress.
You Can Be Short and Also Cool
Edward is so short. So am I.
He's also really sensitive about his height. I was too when I was younger.
But Edward is also really cool and super good at alchemy. So, I guess if Ed was my height and I still thought he was cool, then hey, maybe I could be pretty cool, too.
Silly, but true.