There’s a lot you could get out of the first season of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. This classic anime series is artistically compelling, action-packed, layered with meaning, with a good dose of quirky humor to boot. But some things shine out above all the rest. By the end of the season 1 finale you are left with these certainties:
We were not made to die. We were not made to be alone. And we were not made to be in pieces.
Every human person knows this. It’s written on the human heart. We can tell ourselves that all these things – death, isolation, brokenness and disintegration - are natural. Certainly, they are a given part of human life. But they are only a given for human life after the Fall into sin. It wasn’t how we were created. It’s not what we were made for and our hearts know it.
But these dissonances reveal what we were made for.
We were made for life. We were made for communion. And we were made to be whole, body and soul.
These truths are proclaimed boldly by our faith, explored in depth through Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and are confronted head-on in the opening season of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, now streaming on Netflix.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB) may seem an unlikely source of doctrinal truths, but this classic anime is a classic for a reason. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling bursting with questions and truths about the reality of the human person.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the show, some spoilers for Season 1 are ahead.
If you’ve seen the first season, you know that the young alchemist brothers Ed and Al Elric are alone in the world since their loving and vibrant mother died suddenly. The two boys then commit the ultimate taboo of alchemy when they try to do what any child’s heart would yearn for: bring her back to life. But alchemy isn’t free, and there is a law of equivalent exchange. In trying to bring back the body of their mother, the boys lose theirs in return. Ed loses a leg, and Al – Al loses everything. His entire body is taken from him. In a desperate effort to keep from losing his little brother too, Ed binds Al’s soul to a metal suit of armour, forfeiting his own arm in the process.
Al (left) and his older brother Ed (right) working together to start a fire (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Season 1)
The brothers do not succeed in bringing back their mother. The horrible decaying creature that emerges from their attempt to defeat death gasps only for a moment and succumbs to nothingness. Even giving everything, they cannot pay the equivalent exchange of her person.
This is perhaps the first lesson of FMAB. No one— neither the brothers nor others they meet along the way— can pay the exchange to bring a human person back into the world, because the exchange cannot be measured. The value of the life of a human being is priceless, unquantifiable, and immeasurable. We cannot cover the return on a human person, on their body and soul.
Only an infinite, almighty God could do that.
And so the brothers are left cheated by death, denied the communion of family, and in pieces.
Al’s soul in armor and Ed covering his ‘automail’ prosthetics with long sleeves (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)
We, the audience, are left absolutely heartbroken for them. Although we know that alchemy taboos are nothing to be messed with, we understand. We understand why they wanted life, communion, and wholeness… because we all yearn for that. We yearn for it because, ultimately, we are made for something more.
From this point on, the brothers make a pact: to find a way to get their bodies back. Joining the government to work as a state alchemist, Ed helps the military enforce order as the brothers search together for a way to restore Ed’s arm and leg and, even more importantly, Al’s entire body.
It is perhaps through Al’s character that FMAB brings up the most important questions of what it means to be a full human person. Al is a young teenage boy, and if we can’t tell from his body, we can tell by his maturity, reasoning, and behavior. He has a heart of gold, and his sweetness touches the lives of people they encounter. Al’s presence, his soul as expressed through that suit of armour, is deeply felt by those around him. And yet something dreadfully important is missing, and the show doesn’t pretend that that’s okay.
As Christians, we know that God created angels as pure immortal spirits, and that He created earthly living creatures with material bodies (with mortal animal ‘souls,’ or vivifying life principles that die when the organism does). But human beings are different. We are unique in creation, a kind of bridge, if you will, between the two worlds. Human beings are a union of both a material body and immortal soul. Not a soul with a body, not a body with a soul, but both body and soul.* Our soul animates our body, and our body expresses and informs our soul.
This importance of the joint being of body and soul is clearly displayed in Al’s character. Al is Al, there is no mistaking that, but he is limited in how he can express himself. He has a voice (luckily) and the suit of armour serves as a shadow of a body through which he can express some of himself. But he cannot show his brother his face. He cannot give a warm hug. He cannot offer physical sufferings for another. He cannot fully express himself, because he is no longer his body.
At the same time, because our human body helps to inform our soul, Al is missing many key experiences that could have the power to touch him deeply. One of the things Al does to cope with his situation is to keep a list of all the foods he wants to try once he has his body back. It’s adorable, but also heart-wrenching, because it is another reminder of what Al is missing – the human experience of sharing a meal, which is both an act of communion and a love-language that he cannot participate in or receive. Certainly Al’s soul continues to be informed, but it lacks the wealth of experience it was meant to have through his body. So even when Al is cheerfully adding new foods to his ever-growing list,’ we ache for him, because we know this disintegration of his body and his soul is not what he was made for.
Ed and Al at dinner with their teacher (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Season 1)
In creation, both our body and our soul were created for life. But with sin came disintegration, and what was meant to be a permanent union of body and soul was wrenched apart. This was the deformity of death, splitting who we are in two. Yes, our soul can live without our body, and with the grace of God our souls are kept safe and well. But we are not whole without the body that allows our soul to be properly expressed, and constitutes the other half of who we are. This is why Christ’s resurrection in the body was so important, so earth shattering. He defeated death. He defeated brokenness and disintegration. He proved that he really could make us whole. He did not ascend only in the spirit, like the saints who await the resurrection of their bodies. He ascended body and soul, himself the promise of the fullness of being that is found in Him alone, as well as the promise of our own future resurrection of the body at the end of time.
That is the fullness we want for Ed and Al and the characters of the show seem to agree with us, until one pivotal scene in the last episode of the season.
In the final episode, Al is kidnapped and interrogated by a villain named Greed. True to his name, Greed wants something for himself—immortality (like everyone else in this show!) He sees how Al is an immortal human soul bound to a form that cannot die, and he wants to know how Al did it.
Of course poor Al doesn’t know, because Ed was the one who tied his soul to the armour. When Ed bursts in to save his younger brother, Greed turns to the tormented teen to compliment his handiwork. It’s the perfect way to live, Greed tells Ed. Al doesn’t get fatigued or sick or hungry, he doesn’t need to rest, he doesn’t need to convalesce, he doesn’t need to eat.
Even if we were conflicted enough between efficiency and nature to let the first two go, when we hear Greed rejoice that Al doesn’t have to eat, we all get angry, almost as angry as Ed since we know, and Ed knows, how much Al is missing. We know that exchanging the vulnerability of the human body for the convenience of disembodiment is not efficient living. It is the dismemberment of the human person. It is death. And we all want Al fully whole and alive because he was made for that!
Ed explains none of that to Greed. He doesn’t have the vocabulary, but his utter rage is indicative of just how deeply Greed insulted Al’s humanity by suggesting he was better off without his body. Ed might not have the vocabulary, but we do. The God that Ed claims he doesn’t believe in, yet still finds himself praying to in one of his most helpless and vulnerable moments in the season, is that God that has given us the vocabulary. He has written a revelation of Himself into every human being who is made in His image and likeness. Our human being, body and soul united, tells the story of life. Our human being, body and soul united, tells the story of identity and belonging and our human being, body and soul united, tells the story of God.**
And as God himself tells us – it is very good. (Genesis 1:31).
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is pretty good too.
Ed and Al sharing a cheerful moment together on the train (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Season 1)
While this classic Japanese saga is not for the faint of heart, it strikes deep precisely because it asks questions so fundamental to who we are as human beings. Whether you are an old fan of the series or are hearing of it for the first time, FMAB is worth watching for anyone who is interested in human personhood, Theology of the Body, or brilliant anime storytelling. It grapples with some disturbing issues and mature questions, and will challenge you to take another look at who and how you were made to be, and to realize what the amazing creation of your being, fully alive, reveals about the One who created it.
* John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” 2006 edition, section 2.3, 2.4
** John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” 2006 edition, section 19.4