I’m going to talk about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood for a bit.
Fullmetal Alchemist (specifically the manga and the Brotherhood adaption) is not only one of the greatest anime ever made (fight me) but also one of the most well constructed fantasy stories I’ve ever encountered. It has everything; likeable yet deeply conflicted protagonists, a really cool magic system, freaky monsters, a well thought-out world with deep history, and incredibly compelling thematic resonance.
It’s that thematic resonance that I want to focus on today. Some of these ideas were inspired by this excellent youtube video on FMA and philosophy from Wisecrack. (SPOILER WARNING) The key theme of Fullmetal Alchemist can be summed up as something like this:
Science cannot solve all of your problems. It does not paint a complete picture of the world, particularly in moral terms. Belief that it does leads to atrocity and horror. Science is only a tool, and must be paired with humanism (or some other broader source of moral value) in order to function morally.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, as it has some delightful twists and turns to it, but I am going to spoil the first episode and some of the backstory of the setting. Fair warning.
This theme of science as tool, rather than source of all truth and meaning, is most potently delivered through the backstory of the Ishvalan Genocide. During the Ishvalan War, the military of Amestris deployed alchemists (think: wizards) to break the entrenched Ishvalan rebels. While some of the state alchemists sent to fight the war are nihilistic sociopaths, others are genuinely good people (Alex Louis Armstrong is essentially a giant, protective teddy bear) but their knowledge was bent to horrific violence irrespective of their individual morality. These state alchemists themselves become an amoral tool of the Amestrian government, and their alchemy–which is a power with great potential for creativity and beauty–becomes a symbol of terror and evil to the Ishvalans.
There’s a parallel here to the atomic bomb, itself a product of science (and cousin to the nuclear power plant, a productive technology) which became a symbol of terror all throughout the globe during the cold war.
As the story of Fullmetal Alchemist continues, the theme that science is nothing more than a limited tool and a poor moral arbiter is only amplified. I won’t say much more than that–the show is absolutely worth watching if you haven’t already–but I will drop a few allusions in the hopes that those of you familiar with the story will pick up on what I mean. Nina. Philosophers stones. Father. Apotheosis by equivalent exchange. Ed’s final choice.
Got it? Ok, good. But my point isn’t really that these themes exist in Fullmetal Alchemist, it’s that author Hiromi Arakawa was weaving them into the story from the very beginning.
The first major event in the plot of Fullmetal Alchemist is Edward and Alphonse’s attempt to resurrect their mother with alchemy. Within this event we see the theme of science as imperfect tool and poor moral arbiter spelled out in excruciating (and stomach churning) detail. Ed and Al have a problem. They think that science can solve it. They find the right formula, but forget one missing piece.
Their attempt to resurrect their mother is literally soulless, a brute attempt to bend reality to suit their needs and desires without any concern for the damage that attempt might do. And it costs them an actual arm and a leg (and another arm and another leg and another of each of those and a torso and the rest of a small boy), and the thing they create is not the mother they long for, but a twisted, hellish version of her that dies moments after being conjured into hideous life.
Ed and Al, from the very beginning of their journey, are faced with this truth: science cannot solve every problem. Specifically, it is powerless to fill the void left by their mother. There are human hurts (and loves, and joys, and sorrows) in the world that science does not account for, and cannot replicate. Science is still a powerful tool, and knowledge of what it can do is useful, but reliance on it as a sole source of truth and power in the world is not only ignorant, it is dangerous. Instead of the mother they think they’re conjuring (or the just war one might believe they’re fighting), it gives you instead a horrid, broken thing, lacking soul.
This weaving of theme into story from the very beginning is brilliant. Arakawa is priming her reader to understand the meaning of her story right from the start, which makes that message feel authentic to the world and experiences of her characters. Fullmetal Alchemist is not the only great story that does this. Many authors talk about the importance of “making promises to your reader, and then delivering on them” (the folks over at the Writing Excuses podcast repeat this idea over and over, and for good reason) and this kind of thematic front-loading is a great way to do that. You might not pick up on these specific themes during the introductory arc of the narrative the first time your read, but they are there, and striking a specific thematic note on which later chapters can layer new perspectives and iterations on that theme, helping the whole work feel thematically complete.