I wrote this academic paper for my Children with Special Needs class. It will be the last paper of my college career! (Hopefully!!!) We were to write about the depiction of disability in a movie or book. I stretched the prompt a little to write about FMAB and its depiction of characters with disabilities and struggles as strong, competent, and empowered.
So, you know. Here is the paper I submitted to my professor who probably doesn’t know about the phenomenon that is FMA/B. I had to go a lot of explaining, because if you don’t know the background, you can’t just understand if someone says, “Edward lost his arm and leg and his brother is a soul bound to a hulking armor suit.” I had to chose it, though, because it’s a fantastic narrative, and it fit amazingly well with the prompt I was given. ❤
As an avid anime and donghua fan, I am not ignorant to the fact that disabilities are not regularly named and displayed therein. Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA), a popular fantasy shounen manga by Hiromu Arakawa, proves a notable exception. FMA has spawned two separate anime series (the original in 2003 and a revamped version in 2009), as well as three animated films, a live-action adaptation, and more than a dozen video games. In 2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB or “Brotherhood”)—created to be a more faithful representation of the manga series—protagonist Edward Elric, as he has in every adaptation, becomes a double amputee before the main events of the series. He spends FMAB’s 64 episode run searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. He wants to use it alchemically to get his and his younger brother’s bodies back.
Yes, “bodies back.” You read that correctly. The events FMAB primarily begin in 1911, when main characters Edward and Alphonse Elric attempt to use alchemy as a resurrection tool. Their mother, Trisha, dies in 1904 from an illness that spreads brutally throughout their hometown, and the boys—having already been abandoned by their father in the year preceding—feel lost without their mother’s steady presence. While both boys have inherited their father’s alchemic abilities, Edward is a prodigy. Edward convinces his younger brother Alphonse to attempt an ultimate alchemic taboo. After years of study, the boys (then aged 11 and 10 respectively) attempt human transmutation.
Human transmutation is outlawed for a reason. Explanation comes best by way of Edward. He narrates, “”Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange.” Yet, what can equal a human soul? Their attempt goes horribly wrong. A humanoid monster decays on the floor of their father’s old study. Edward is left without a leg, and his brother’s very being swallowed whole into what can only be called a deathly “eternity.” (The show has a complicated notion of God as a being they call Truth.) Edward, desperate, makes a last-ditch effort to save him. Sacrificing his arm, he uses his blood to create an array binding Alphonse’s soul to a suit of armor in the office’s corner. A few minutes later, Alphonse as a lumbering suit of armor knocks on their neighbor Granny’s door. He’s carrying a bleeding, barely alive Edward in his massive arms, and crying, “We’re sorry. We’re sorry.”
Alchemic abilities are not unique to Edward’s family. The series’ events take place in an alternate industrial revolutionary period in the fictional nation of Amestris. Amestris is a Germanic-inspired militaristic state boasting a powerful “State Alchemist” force and ruled absolutely by a fuhrer.
It is purely coincidental that Colonel Roy Mustang, a State Alchemist specializing in flame alchemy, stumbles upon them shortly thereafter. He seeks out their long-gone father for the military, but stumbles upon a horrifying scene in the man’s abandoned house and two scarred boys nearly comatose, living with their neighbor. It does not take much for the Colonel to figure out that these boys committed their society’s ultimate sin. However, while he could bring them into state custody, he is not heartless. Whereas Granny and her granddaughter—the boys’ friend, Winry—want to hide the Elrics away to protect them, Roy sees the dead look in the boy’s eyes and offers him a deal. He tells Edward to fight, to get well, to grow strong. When Edward is ready, he can apply to be a State Alchemist. Roy—a man with his own goals—will back him up if Edward will support him. The power of a state position grants him access to a host of research materials and the state’s most exclusive libraries. No child has ever been as alchemically gifted as the boy before him. If anyone can get his Alphonse’s body back, it is Edward.
A flicker of life enters Edward’s eyes. Roy leaves, and Edward makes his choice. He brings his rejuvenated brother along for the ride as Ed undergoes painful surgeries and prosthetic fittings. Over the next three years, he grows strong. Able despite his physical disabilities, he learns to master his physical body and alchemic skills. At 15, he heads to Central City with his 14-year-old brother to take the state exams. Their adventure has fully begun.
Roy and Edward have an antagonistic relationship at best because their personalities are oddly similar, but Roy—as Edward’s commanding officer—never treats Edward as anything less than fully capable. Edward respects him for it. Edward has physical struggles to overcome, like pain in his joint ports when the barometric pressure changes, lethal sensitivity to extreme cold and heat thanks to his metal prosthetics, and physical strain on his body due to the prosthetics’ weight (which even stunts growth), but the show doesn’t shy away from them. Instead, it embraces Edward’s challenges as he works through them and despite them toward his goals.
In many ways, FMAB depicts this hot-headed, determined boy as one with “differing ability” rather than one with a “disability.” Edward is competent and works alongside his brother to overcome everything standing in their way, including his own physical limitations, and in fact, his main concern is his brother. While he would like to have his limbs back, he knows he can live happily with his automail if he needs to. He wants more than anything to see his little brother restored.
When there is something Edward cannot do in the usual way, he finds another way. If he needs assistance in any way—be it self-care, emotional intervention, etc.—Alphonse is always there to support him without ever implying his older brother is helpless. These resourceful brothers are some of the most capable characters in the series, and FMAB does not shy away from depicting other character’s disabilities and mental health struggles. For example, Roy and his lieutenant, Riza Hawkeye, suffer PTSD over their time fighting in the Ishvalan War of Extermination. Roy is later left blind. The Elric brothers’ old teacher, Izumi Curtis, is chronically ill and was left barren—devastating her—after a disastrous alchemic attempt. Soldier Jean Havoc is paralyzed from the waist down after an attack, and he wrestles emotionally with his new disability, but Roy refuses to let him give up. Even without regaining the use of his legs, Havoc works his magic for his commanding officer when it really counts, using his connections to his advantage.
Our struggles help mold us, but they do not define us. We are more than our physical or mental limitations. We are more than the battles we face. Moving beyond person-first language, FMAB exemplifies person-first behavior. It stands a testament to the power of anime as a storytelling medium as the characters support each other through their difficulties rather than teaching learned helplessness. They go into situations with the mindset that if they fall, they are going to get back up. They play to each other’s strengths and work inclusively. In Amestris, deeply flawed military state that it is, being physically disabled does not disqualifying you from service.
As a person and teacher, I want to be uplifting, supporting, and accepting of people of varying abilities. I want to foster inclusion and promote empowerment, not only helping others to endure, but to thrive in the ways which they are able. FMAB illustrates this beautifully. Life and its challenges can be painful, can be hard. People of all ability levels need to be lifted up rather than torn down, because as Edward says in the show’s final narration, “if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle. Yeah… a heart made Fullmetal.”