[Anime] Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Moral Grey Zones (Episodes 4-6)


This post is the second in a series covering ‘Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’. The previous post can be found here.  It contains spoilers for episodes four through six, with some speculation for episodes beyond that.

The last post got a little longer than I intended it to. That can happen sometimes, especially at the beginning of a series – when you’re new to something, everything seems notable and you feel that you just have to point it out. I’m going to stick to three episodes again for this post because I feel that would be the right length for a post, but I am going to try to focus less on describing what’s happening and more on thinking about what it means. It’s early days yet, so it’s hard to draw any big conclusions about what anything happening now means for the story as a whole, especially since I don’t feel like we have even been introduced to the series’ main conflict just yet.

However, what I think was missing from last week’s post – and that was partially because I was a bit exhausted from typing so much – was my first impressions of the series. I think this is as good a place as any for them, since I’ve had a little bit of time to absorb and think about it. Overall, my first impressions are very positive. I feel like the series is striking a good balance between its light-hearted moments and its much heavier themes. I think Edward and Alphonse are excellent protagonists in this setting – there are a number of ethical grey areas that have come up in these episodes alone – if we could, should we be returning life to the dead? Are you morally culpable for the atrocities that your government commits if you work for that government? Is a good person fighting for a bad side morally superior to a bad person fighting for a good cause? There are also a number of questions about the nature of faith and belief. There are a number of questions like this that I wish I had brought up last week but I was too caught up in what was happening onscreen. I’ll try to remedy that this week – if these themes return, as I suspect they will, I will definitely get into discussing them.

 

Episode 4: An Alchemist’s Distress

We open episode 4 with a murder. A white haired man who thinks it is appropriate to wear tinted glasses at night, murders a state alchemist, stating that alchemy is heresy. Strangely enough, it seems that he does some form of alchemy himself but hypocrites gonna hypocrite, I guess. Hughes and Armstrong are on the case – this is not the first and Bradley offers them whatever resources they need.

Back in the Eastern District, Mustang’s team is getting swamped in paperwork. A character named Yoki is mentioned; apparently the Elric brothers took him down in an adventure that we didn’t get to see. Mustang thanks the brothers for their help in Liore. The brothers wonder about how a philosopher’s stone – even a fake one – was able to craft a chimera, and Mustang recommends them to a specialist, Shou Tucker. Quick note here – I always love when series show the main characters having lives and adventures outside of what the audience is shown. It makes the world feel more lively and real.

Apparently Tucker became famous for creating a chimera that understood language – though its word were grim ‘I want to die’. It never ate and died soon after, and here we have a proverbial ethical can of worms. Rearing animals for consumption is already something we’re thinking of as increasingly unethical – especially in a factory, industrialised setting – but how much more so if those animals had intelligence? I don’t think this particular chimera was meant to be killed or eaten but granting something intelligence is almost like granting life. Tucker’s research is certainly questionable and I don’t know what it says about the man himself that he would embark on such a project.

I can’t get a full read on his character though; he seems pleasant enough but he has his creepy moments as well. After hearing the brothers’ story, he shows them his library and laboratory. His experiments aren’t going too well – there are multi-headed dogs and all sorts of strange creatures in the lab and the whole thing is a little creepy. I know that in the modern day, we experiment on animals a lot too and while I acknowledge it as a necessary evil, it’s still hard to see living creatures suffer.

Ed and Al get caught up playing with Tucker’s daughter and dog and aren’t very productive. Mustang reminds Tucker that his ‘assessment’ is soon – every year, the State Alchemists are meant to show the results of their research or risk losing their State Alchemist status. For someone doing borderline unethical work like Shou, losing that status, would be a huge blow and he’s already on the border. We can see that he is under a lot of pressure – his daughter depends on him (we learned that his wife left him) and his life’s work is in danger of falling apart. Perhaps he’s going to attack Edward and Al and try to learn how they did their human transmutation in order to showcase something to Central?

Edward and Al show some sympathy for Nina, who lives a fairly lonely life and play with her and Alexander – the key thing is that we learn that Ed and Al have at least seen their father before even if they weren’t very close. The light-hearted innocent fun in the gardens is contrasted with Shou falling deeper into desperate despair. In Amestris, the officers discuss the Alchemist Assassin and his motives. We also learn that Ishbal was a civil war, not just a war with an external nation. The scarred assassin is spotted at a train station and the officers begin their search.

Back with Tucker and the boys, we learn that Tucker was not financially well off before becoming a State Alchemist – this is adding to his desperation to find a solution. I’m a little surprised, to be honest – I would have thought that an Alchemist with the skill to manipulate living things would find be able to find work easily in areas like medicine. Perhaps that’s too close to human transmutation and people get weirded out by it? However, Tucker seems to have realized that he’s been neglecting Nina and offers to spend some time with her. It’s a nice wholesome family moment.

The atmosphere changes the next day however, when the boys return and can’t find anyone around. Things get intensely fucked up, real quick however – Shou claims to have created a chimera that can understand human language, only for us to realise that he’s somehow merged Nina and Alexander. The brain hair trails on Alexander’s white body should have tipped me off, but it didn’t. The horror only increases when we realise that Tucker’s wife didn’t just  ‘leave’ him – she was his first experiment subject when he gained his State Qualification! When Ed realises, he flies into a rage, beating Tucker senseless but Tucker gets equivalent verbal jabs in. Edward and he aren’t so different he claims – they both experimented with human life, they both sacrificed what was precious to them in the name of science. It stings Edward to know that his innocent and, perhaps, naive attempt to resurrecting his mother is being conflated with this monster’s desire for recognition and material goods. Edward only stops when Al, and especially Ninalexander, ask him to. His devastated face upon realising he can’t do anything to salvage the situation is simply heartbreaking.

Mustang is called to the scene and asks Edward whether he ever truly understood what it meant to be a State Alchemist. Mustang has probably had to do things that have gone against his own conscience in the past; he asks if Edward can afford to let his moral dictate so much. He’s not helping much but I think it’s a point worth noting, especially if the brothers will be confronted with more morally complex situations like this. Just when the episode couldn’t get any gloomier, the scarred assassin kills Shou and the Nina chimera.

Before we move on to the next episode, maybe we should unpack the tail end of that episode a little. There are a lot of questions to ask but they all come down to one thing: did Shou Tucker do anything wrong and if so, to what degree? We can all agree that he certainly did do several things wrong. In order of increasing severity –  he is guilty of a.) using a human test subject b.) using a minor, especially one under his care and c.) using the human without consent. My personal stance here is that if we take b.) and c.) out of the equation then the situation becomes more acceptable but still would make me a little uncomfortable. The bigger problem here is that some amount of what we know about the human body has come from an unfortunate amount of torture and cruelty. We are quick to label those who performed that torture and cruelty as the worst examples of our species but at the same time, we make use of their work and apply their findings regularly. It seems incongruous to cherish the work while simultaneously condemning those that did that work. This is not me arguing that those responsible for the torture and the cruelty are somehow getting a raw deal in all of this. Rather, I want to point out that we as a society have accepted that in order for our collective quality of life to improve, certain sacrifices will need to be made and yet we avert our eyes from those sacrifices and pretend, to whatever extent we can, that they do not exist. Leaving aside the particularly grotesque examples of living humans being cut open to examine the body’s inner workings, even today we are happy to reap the rewards of advances in medicine but grow uneasy when reminded of how many animals are fed toxic chemicals in order to test and improve those new medicines. So to answer our initial question – I think what Shou Tucker did was evil and I don’t think it was a necessary evil but I do think he raised some interesting points. I also think that he himself knew that what he was doing was evil; there was a reason that he did not attempt the experiment on Nina until he was at his most desperate.

We also need to consider what all this tells us about the Government in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Apart from the fact that they are led by the bizarrely titled ‘Fuhrer President’ King Bradley, we already kind of know that this is a government that has taken part in atrocities – including atrocities bad enough to get its own soldiers to rebel against the government. The fact that Tucker could become a State Alchemist after transforming his wife into a chimera is troubling; it suggests that either there were no questions asked at the time or that the government knew exactly what he did and did not mind. Neither answer is great. This episode also forms an interesting companion to the previous episode. Where the last episode focused on dispelling the mysticism of faith and showing religion to be a morally bankrupt scam, this episode does the same to science and shows how the pursuit of knowledge and achievement without morality and compassion leads to an undesirable outcome. Cornello and Shou Tucker’s deaths at the end of the respective episodes could be one way that the series shows that there is an overarching karmic morality that exists outside religion and science. Specifically, perhaps its a way of showing that greed – whether for power, money or knowledge – will be punished in this universe.

Episode 5: Rain of Sorrow

The next episode doesn’t show any signs of getting lighter. Edward is plagued by his powerlessness – he could not bring his mother back, he could not save Nina and waking up to see Alphonse, he probably was reminded that he still can’t save Al. The news of Shou and Nina’s deaths hits the boys hard as well. Mustang thinks that Hughes expected Shou to die and wants to know why. In Liore, Envy – another one of the sin named antagonists – is impersonating Cornello and stirring up a religiously motivated civil war. The Sins note that Edward is an ‘important human sacrifice’ but honestly it just feels like an excuse to keep the antagonists from confronting the protagonists too early on.

The military officers have creatively named the scarred assassin ‘Scar’. I guess that’s his name for our purposes too, till we get an actual name from him. He has come across like a bit of a religious nut job so far – killing Alchemists because they blasphemed against ‘god’. Has he seen the same God that Edward did? Because that god doesn’t give two fucks about anything. Mustang seems to be the next prime target but he suddenly realises that the brothers are in danger too. Unfortunately the brothers are not ready for that encounter; Edward is deep in reflection, wondering if he really truly absorbed any of the life lessons imparted to him by his former teacher. It’s quite a sombre scene, made worse by the fact that Al can’t feel or sense anything and thus can’t even really experience the world. Their solemn philosophising is interrupted by Scar, who attacks them. For the first time, the boys seem caught on the backfoot and are forced to retreat. It seems like Scar’s powers are anti-alchemy, he can somehow destroy things made with alchemy? I’m not too clear, but it seems like he is not ‘building’ things the way that alchemists do, he is just destroying.

The brothers are totally outclassed and Edward is caught and more or less surrenders, once Scar promises he won’t go after Al. Mustang shows up in time to save Edward but is useless on rainy days and has to himself be bailed out by Riza (Lisa?) but Scar escapes in the process. Armstrong appears on the scene as well and Scar is heavily outnumbered but doesn’t run. It turns out that I’m right! Scar stops midway through the normal alchemy process of understanding, decomposition and reconstruction – perhaps because he thinks that reconstruction is where alchemy becomes a sin? (Something like only ‘god’ can create, but humans are destructive sinners so it’s ok for us to destroy?) Everyone is shocked when Scar turns out to have red eyes and brown skin (could they not see the brown skin already?) – the physical markings of an Ishbalan. So I guess it wasn’t just a civil war it was also against a specific group of people? This just keeps getting more and more problematic.

In the aftermath of the fight, Al scolds Edward for trying to sacrifice himself to save Al but both brothers are pretty badly banged up. Ed can’t use alchemy without his automail arm and Al lose half his metallic body as well. Hughes notices the boys’ secrets and promises to keep it from the higher ups as well. We then get the backstory of the Ishbal War and the map clarifies a few erroneous assumptions that I’ve been making – first of all, Eastern City is not the Eastern District of Central, it is likely the chief city in the Eastern Area of the country (not city) of Amestris. Ishbal was a key location in the East, newly annexed and whose people worshipped Ishbala as their sole god. I sort of thing of them as an analogue for real world Indians? Or maybe Arabs? The name sounds more Indian than Arab, but anyway I digress. We also see that Ishval (ugh is it Ishbal or Ishval, officially? I’m gonna change over to Ishval cos it feels right) is pretty close to Resembool – where the boys grew up. The civil war started when a military officer shot a child and (racial) tensions spilled over. The Ishvalan Lives Matter movement turned violent and soon it was an all out war. I wonder why other regions rose up so readily to fight the Government? It can’t be because Fuhrer Bradley is kind of an asshole by any chance could it? Or that there were generations of deep seated resentments against the Central Government? Well, Bradley decides to show them all that he’s exactly as level headed and generous as someone the title ‘Fuhrer President’ is likely to be and orders genocide. State Alchemists are ordered to slaughter the poor Ishvalans en masse. Mustang was part of that slaughterfest, as were a few other State Alchemists we already know, including Isaac McDougal, Kimblee, and Gran. Edward feels strongly that Scar’s past is no excuse , but I’m not so sure it’s that simple.

Let’s not beat about the bush here – Ishval was a genocide, pure and simple. The characters we are looking at here, including the sympathetic ones like Mustang, are participants in the mass slaughter of innocent civilians. Legally, that should be a war crime and morally, that is beyond repugnant. You might want to make the argument that they were ordered to and thus should not be judged for their actions, but I’m not buying it. I’m sure that their military is not particularly modern in its ethics – I doubt that you can excuse yourself from killing innocents on moral grounds here but somehow it didn’t appear like the State Alchemists were all that reluctant to slaughter so many. Stuff like this was common in the past too – in the Roman era, any kind of uprising was punished with extreme prejudice, indeed, when the Jewish people revolted in Judea way back when, what the Romans did to them was not very different from what we’ve seen here. It wasn’t ok then and it shouldn’t be ok here. Based on that, it’s a little strange that Ed doesn’t feel at least some sympathy for Scar – agreed, Scar is a cold-blooded killer himself, which complicates things, but my stance is similar to Mustang’s – Scar is a criminal who should be brought to justice and punished, but he should also be pitied. I don’t think the Government or the State owes him a pass because of their past actions but damn, we need to take a hard look at exactly how sympathetic Bradley is supposed to be, because for all the light-hearted moments he’s involved in, there is something dark lurking in that man’s soul.

Overall, this was a bit of a strange episode – I think of it as the boy’s being forced to confront the reality of what it means to be State Alchemists (I’m including Al even though he’s technically not since he seems as talented as Ed). It means that you’re forced into morally compromising situations and you have to do things that you don’t approve of or like. The episode showed the audience and the protagonists that this is not a neat and tidy world where good and bad are easily discernible and I love that. So far, it is striking an excellent balance between being light hearted at times while also dealing with some rather heavy subject matter. It has some darker elements without letting those elements take over the story’s whole atmosphere – it’s a balance that is so rarely struck (most series go all into one or the other) that it’s worth pointing out when a series does it well.

Episode 6: The Road of Hope

The boys (with Major Armstrong, who’s grown on me) head to Resembool, to get Winry and her grandmother to replace Ed’s arm. Armstrong recognises someone named Dr. Marco, but Marco does not want to be recognised. Marco was a talent biological alchemist who had gone missing during the Ishval War – perhaps another man unhappy about what the War was asking of him? The group visits him to learn what they can about the medical alchemy that the doctor is famed for. He is hostile at first but is forced into accepting their hospitality – it seems has he a bunch of stolen secrets from his days in the military.

The big secret Macro is sitting on was that he was asked to research the Philosopher’s Stone and it in turn was used to kills thousands in Ishval. The guilt of his research being used in this way drove Macro to desert and flee. Macro has bits of an incomplete Philosopher’s Stone and Edward is excited about perfecting it in order to restore his and Al’s bodies. Macro is less enthusiastic though; we also learn that many State Alchemists did give up their positions after the civil war in protest of what they had been made to do (I wonder why they didn’t do it before they killed all those innocents, but I guess Bradley wouldn’t have allowed that). The boys reveal their secret to Macro but he insists that the research is evil and should be left alone. The boys, unfulfilled, leave, somewhat happy that they at least know that the Stone can be created. Armstrong promises to keep the doctor’s existence a secret – and is immediately rewarded by Macro appearing and handing the group his research data. Interesting how immediately karma works in this universe isn’t it? I wonder if Bradley got what he deserved back then too. The research is in National Libraries in Central – but I thought that Marco took the research with him when he fled? When Marco returns, Lust is waiting for him.

In Resembool, Ed and Al return to Pinako and Winry Rockbell. Winry is pissed off that her high quality automail has been wrecked (this is clearly not the first time either). It’s a nice family scene – I always like these scenes where characters return to their hometowns and characters that knew them from before can see how they have grown. Given how close the Rockbells and the Elric brothers are, it’s a pretty cute scene. Ed goes to visit their mother’s grave, while Armstrong and Grandma Rockbell talk about the brothers. We find out that Papa Elric was Grandma Rockbell’s drinking buddy, which is a bit strange, isn’t it? It guess that means Ed’s dad was rather old or that Grandma Rockbell is pretty young. Winry’s parents were doctors/surgeons but died in service on the front lines. The scene grows progressively heavier as it proceeds, however. Ed and Al burnt their old house down when they decided to leave Resembool to go to Central, as a sign that they would never turn back and keep moving forward. The idea of moving forward no matter the hardship seems to be a theme linking the ‘good characters’ together. Also Ed and Winry are really cute together – just throwing that out there. OTP established.

Ed gets his arm and leg fixed up and fixes Al as well – we find out that Al’s blood seal sort of ‘contains’ his soul (at least that’s how I understood it). Al gives the Rockbells his deepest gratitude in a rather touching moment and soon after the gang is off back to Central. I see this episode as a breather episode – after all the emotionally taxing episodes regarding Cornello, Nina and Shou and later even Scar, it was nice to get a bit of a change in pace. One of the benefits of a longer series is that you can have calmer, quieter, ‘slice-of-life’ episodes like this from time to time without having to worry that you ‘wasted’ an episode that could otherwise have been spent advancing the story. This episode gave us a bunch of information we didn’t know and it remains to be seen what relationship Lust and Marco have as well as what will come of Marco’s research. For now, the big next milestone is for our protagonists to actually become aware of the fact that there is some group lurking behind the scenes, though even we don’t know what that group is or what it wants.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

That’s everything from me! Maybe for the next post, I’ll try to get a bit more ambitious and push for maybe 5 episodes. I stopped here for this post since this breather episode seemed like a natural place to stop before a new ‘mini arc’ comes up.

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3 thoughts on “[Anime] Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – Moral Grey Zones (Episodes 4-6)

  1. I don’t really have much to add here, but I wanted to touch a bit on your point about longer series having downtime. I think it’s a bit of a necessity to be able to have these kinds of moments from time to time in a series, but the shorter ones are often so constrained that finding the space for them isn’t always an option.

    It seems strange to me though because often these kind of quiet, personal scenes are the ones that endear the characters to us or help us get a better grasp on them and their place in the world. I suppose it just brings home to me how difficult writing a cohesive script is and choosing what to keep and what to cut must be a nightmare.

    FMA/Brotherhood has always been a series that keeps morality in the spotlight. Particularly the morality of science. The show goes out of it’s way to show us that alchemy is just a tool. It’s wondrous and can be used to do incredible things that could benefit the lives of others, but it’s also capable of destruction and violence when used inappropriately. In turn, it seems to breed different kinds of alchemists. Soldiers, killers, scientists, healers, so many possible applications but like any tool it’s all in how you use it and why. I think this portrayal of alchemy as both blessing and curse has been a theme that served both series very well.

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    • I’m actually a fan of downtime – I think it gives the audience and the characters time to process the things they went through. It’s a bit like working out – you actually build muscle when you rest after putting your body through the strain of a workout. In a story, the tension creates a situation which makes the characters need to grow but it is in the downtime that their personalities actually shift. Hope that makes sense.

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      • No, I understand completely and agree with you. I think a little bit of downtime is always a good thing in anime, games, any narrative based medium really. Anime, in particular, tends to have issues finding the space for it though since most series only have around twelve episodes to do what they need to do. So it’s nice when you get to watch something that makes space for it. And you’re right, taking a break from the main plot lets us see our characters in new situations and does really bring out new aspects of their personalities.

        I think that’s something filler episodes try to do but fail at because they are so removed from the source material and kind of exist in a bubble so to speak. You know they’re probably going to be a waste of time because any character growth or what have you isn’t really relevant to the main series. Downtime is more like making room to breathe after a major plot point or allowing space for your characters to just be themselves in a more natural way. That makes it not feel like a waste of time.

        I guess you could wrap up this tangent with a statement like “taking a break from the plot, isn’t the same as abandoning it”.

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