This entry is more of a discussion than a review in that it dwells on the philosophy and other references in the material. Full Metal Alchemist referred to as FMA. Theme of paragraphs highlighted in bold. * = new section of discussion. + and – are sub points. [ ] = me correcting myself, or annotating within quotes, etc.
* The whole series has been dubbed into English perfectly (from Japanese).
* There are many different intro and exit sequences and music throughout the series, so it's worth not always skipping them.
* The characterisations in the series are brilliant; visually well crafted and easily distinguishable. Any apparently shallow stereotypes are inevitably developed and shown to have hidden depths of emotion (either serious or whimsical) and/or dramatic history that shaped them. Change and redemption are practically a leitmotif with only Dante and Envy not executing a complete U-turn or at least significant change of heart. It seems at first that the formula for the episodes will be Ed and Al journeying to a string of random places, and thus a discarding a pile of throwaway one off characters (like some crappy Pokemon adventure), but this doesn't happen and everyone ends up being tied firmly into the story line.
Unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion, there is no real portrayal of sexuality. Winry is used to sex up the exit titles on some later episodes, and is clearly supposed to be the main female attraction; with a fetish for mechanical technology she's a geek boy's dream! Lust really does have a beautifully soft, seductive voice (in English), and a matching appearance. The females are homogeneously 'top heavy' IMHO, but personality wise the entire range of femininity is represented; from strong minded, serious career type to doting mother/house wife to genocidal super-villain and all combinations in between.
I didn't like the amount of violence Izumi inflicts on Ed and Al, at times clearly due to anger at herself. Unquestionably realistic in that the boys totally respect her despite/because of this, it makes me uncomfortable because it shows cultural acceptance of violence for education. Perhaps on this topic there is a genuine cultural gap between Japan and the West, where smacking has all but been demonised.
* There is a strong seam of humour running through the series, mostly provided by the State Military characters. There are the running jokes of Ed being short, Armstrong embarrassing everyone by getting his muscles out and Hughes being obnoxiously proud of his daughter, which are actually pretty funny in some of the contexts. Episode 13 got the biggest laugh from me, due to a little speech by Roy Mustang that starts out treasonously serious and ends utterly random. The flip side is there's a whole load of brotherly love mush, plus Ed and Al's falling out can get a little tiresome, but it's not too bad and certainly adds to the character of the series.
* When a main character dies quite abruptly it is actually a little upsetting, and the series does pretty well depicting the characters differing reactions to this loss over following episodes. (Children) dealing with death is a major theme in general, as is the willingness to take life. From meaningless massacre in wars, the murder of parents (and managing to forgive the killer), to the natural death of a newborn, or a mother, and desperate refusal of acceptance leading to attempts at resurrection. As with other fictional works, where magic or suchlike, present an obvious route to circumventing mortality, arbitrary barriers are constructed to prevent this so that death is shown to be necessary or at least immutable; a direct result of the cultural brainwashing, still ubiquitous in society today, that poses opposition to the promise of significant life extension (maybe even immortality) through technology, because of outdated rationalisations for an abhorrent tragedy we couldn't control (usually promoted by religions).
I think the anime stumbles a little when it comes to the sacrificial killing of thousands of soldiers: Scar had previously reformed, halting his series of vengeful murders, but then gives only a one line justification for genocide, when he seems to have no clear plan for how to precede from there (especially as he's dying when initialising the process). They do well otherwise, showing how reticent Ed is to kill, and how shaken up he gets over it, even when it's just Homunuli (who he believes to be soulless). Even those who kill willingly are understandable, there is no dehumanisation of murders, merely those who carry on doing and justifying it, those who make it their reason d'etre to atone or reverse it, psychopaths and the those who've lost sight of meaning in the course of being a prolific soldier.
* The artificial limbs (such as Ed's) would have been more acceptable if they where built with or utilised Alchemy (to some degree); Our state of the art artificial limbs are no where near as advanced as those in the series, because of several serious engineering problems:
- Interfacing with neurons:
Motor neurons - for control of limb
Sensory neurons - feedback is absolutely necessary for fine movement control in hands, and agile
balance in feet/legs, etc.
- Power source: battery technology is
not advanced enough to last very long, and there's currently no way to extract anywhere near enough energy from the wearer's body.
- No usable actuators of necessary strength/speed/mass/size combination yet exist.
* Lots of Philosophy: from whether cooking is a science or an art to the value of human life.
+ One philosophy is repeatedly hammered upon, is in fact the underpinnings of the entire fictional universe: "Equivalent Exchange": "Human kind can not gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost." e.g. a metal lamp must be disintegrated to transmute a dagger. Ultimately to replace a lost limb or entire body, they must be taken from someone else. [Even the energy for transmutations is found to be provided by death and destruction in the parallel (nearly real history) world] This would all be well and good if it allied exclusively to Alchemic wranglings, but the protagonists are determined to apply this thinking to everything in their lives.
This is what I think of as a 'zero sum' mentality; for someone to get richer, someone else must get poorer; every transaction in the world must sum to zero. It's somewhat akin to belief in the 'eternal return'; a cyclic universe, or world; all progress has ultimate limits and must come at the detriment of something else.
Both philosophies are inappropriate in the real world. Well, as far as we know, the laws of thermodynamics are not broken, increasing entropy means 'order' is always diminished overall (on a universal, sub-atomic level), but something for nothing is ubiquitous in everyday life: in the last couple of centuries world population has exploded exponentially, and economies appear to grow without bounds. What was destroyed for the Lord of the Rings trilogy to be conceived? Art is not spontaneously created, it is built out of existing culture, which can in turn be built upon, without apparent limit. Going deeper, all life forms evolved/emerged from pretty much nothing.
Supposedly (according to the introduction on the latter episodes) the Philosopher's Stone allows gain without loss (or, at an absolute minimum, amplified gain), but in practice it only seems to enable difficult human alchemy (like swapping soul/mind into a new body). In fact, Al uses up the entire Philosopher's stone (and thus himself) to revive Ed(only recen tly deceased) and his limbs, when it took over 9000 human lives to make the stone in the first place!....
The protagonists worry that sometimes there is loss without gain, e.g. all the candidates who worked hard for the State Alchemy exams but were not accepted. People who die for no good reason, etc. But they never consider gain without loss: Like Winrey's 'automail' creations providing equal or better function than lost limbs without equivalent loss elsewhere (let alone those things mentioned above). [Actually, at the end of the last episode, Ed does wonder why he's alive, if he traded his body and soul for Al's (i.e. something for nothing), and Al's voice over concedes that equivalent exchange doesn't apply to everything in their world.]
+ The series treats Body, Mind and Soul as separate entities. I was going to say that in practice mind and soul are not differentiated (because Ed, Al and his father's mind/soul seem to be treated as the same thing in practice), but on reflection it's actually a major plot feature of the series: the Homunculi!
Each one has the body of a corpse involved in failed human alchemy. But supposedly they have no soul, hence being indestructible; literally unable to die. It turns out they also have some access to the memories of the host's body. These have particular impact on Lust, who over the course of the series, transforms from main antagonist to tragic hero. The flashes of her past life give her a yearning to become fully human. In a way she achieves this, or at least mortality anyway, which she briefly speculates might be what she was after all along, right before she dies.
Each of the Homunculi react differently to their past memories, and all have their own motivations for seeking the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, following Dante's commands or opposing her. The series is very good in that respect: there are no mindless bad guys being evil for no good reason (just for the sake of giving the protagonists something to do).
Like many people in the world today (torn between religion and common sense), Ed and Al endure much heartache grappling with the question of mind/soul duality. Wracked with guilt over having created Sloth in the first place, Ed struggles to kill her, especially when she demonstrates she has many of his mother's memories. He insists Sloth has no soul and is not her mother. She eventually admits to agreeing with the latter (after playing mind games with him): she rejected the human memories and curses them forcing themselves upon her. An interesting reflection onpersonal identity. The homunculi do argue against Ed's assertions of soullessness, and are clearly shown to demonstrate all the behaviour and emotion expected of a regular human. The issue is never fully resolved, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions (if they have the mind for such meditations), making the series compliant with the religiously cautious but scientifically amenable mainstream sentiment of today.
* Anyhow, kids (and adults!) in the west would be much better off watching this calibre of cartoon, rather than more locally produced shows involving giant robots hitting each other repeatedly. There really doesn't seem to be an English language (or even European) equivalent for anime; Something flexible (and cheap) enough to be able to risk taking a plot nearly anywhere the writer/director wishes; with the scope/depth a full TV series allows. And also a big enough market for such productions, that enough are made, so some good ones are bound to come out too.
Also, it's ironic that a Japanese anime(/manga) can inform a westerner so much about his own region's history/philosophy/religion. Well, it at least it got me Wikipedia-ing a whole load of interesting culture.
==Review: Conqueror of Shamballa==
* Subs only, presumably not been aired in the US, because I know of no version with dubs yet.
* It follows on directly from the end of the series, and although far from being bad, one might well consider that the series had a much better ending. It seems somewhat like a monetarily motivated band reunion tour (or the last series of Friends), with Winry only appearing so as to turn up with a replacement arm and leg for Ed, that she knew, by omniscience, that he'd need (just because she had to be included somehow). I'm not too keen on the movie format in general, it seemed rushed, with too much prancing back and forth between parallel worlds, etc.
Likewise Dietline Eckhart; she tells Ed she is terrified by the parallel world (during their battle), which is perhaps good enough, but she seems to claim the opening of the gate, using the dragon (Envy), precipitated this fear. But she only just opened it? ... Is this a paradox, or was she actually referring to when the dragon/envy first appeared 2 years before?
* The Lance of Longinus appears again (as in Neon Genesis Evangelion), but here there are multiple lances! It's supposed to be the weapon that pierced Jesus's side in John's account of the crucifixion of Jesus, (later) named after the soldier bearing it. Oh well, artistic licence based on legend...
* The historical events of the parallel world are pretty faithful to real life: Hitler's attempted coop is foiled at the end, just as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 in real life.
References to the Nazi uprising in Germany are of particular note, given that Japan was allied with Germany during the 2nd world war. Perhaps contemporary Japaneseharbo ur feelings of national guilt, but they also have extra incentive to demonstrate how easy it can be, for a nation ofgenerally benevolent individuals, to end up supporting a n 'evil', fascist dictatorship. There's even a brief mention that the Nazi desire [for unilateral control over surrounding lands] was inspired by certain member's visits to Japan (seeing it all ruled by a [single emperor]).
I consider this healthy introspection compared to the continued demonisation of Nazism in English speaking media; To contemplate any similarities between Nazism and one's own government is therefore taboo. This creates a dangerous blind spot. Particularly in the US, I think there is an arrogant presumption that their nation is fundamentally righteous and could not possibly be subverted. But evidence the following symmetries, highlighted in Zeitgeist (The 2007 internet movie):
+ Hitler's parliament burns down in 1933: habeas corpus (right to relief from unlawful detention) suspended, “Enabling Act” soon passed.
- After 9/11 the Bush administration pass the: “Patriot Act”. Indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial.
+ The invasion of Poland was justified as a pre-emptive attack (against British encirclement).
- Pre-emptive war on Iraq (based on wrong intelligence). Vietnam war starts after incorrect report of attack on US destroyers, etc.
+ Hitler announces Gestapo:
“An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child in this great nation. We must take steps to ensure domestic security and protect our homeland.”
- 2003 Department of Homeland Security created (biggest reorganisation of security agencies since creation of CIA and NSC in 1947). And how many times did Bush Jr. use the word “evil”...
....anyhow! (I should really get around to that Zeitgeist movie follow up blog post)
* There's no hint at how Gluttony became a massive, multi-headed monstrosity, presumably it's to do with whatever transmutation Dante is attempting when stuck in the lift with him/it at the end of the series. But mostly, I guess, it makes for a cool action sequence in the movie.
* Wrath's motives seem entirely absent. Perhaps he would want to die/return to his mother beyond the gate, but I don't get why he would be so keen to help Ed return to the Amestris universe.
* The psychic girl is a contradiction with reality that seems totally unnecessary and out of place in the movie. I know alchemy isn't possible either, but that the whole premise of the fictional universe, if one starts introducing any arbitrary nonsense for no particular reason, it may as well be the Marvell comics universe, with less rhyme or reason than one's dreams.
==References looked up==
* Arakawa's Inspiration:
+ Philosopher's stone & books on alchemy.
+ 'Equivalent exchange' of farmer parent's working just for the food to live.
+ Europe during the Industrial Revolution.
* Lance of Longinus: There are in fact multiple historical artefacts going by this name. There is no record of any existing until AD 570. Current lances:
+ Echmiadzin (in Armenia) – long ago lost to the Turks and may actually be the same item as is now in the Vatican.
+ Vienna: dating back to the Holy Roman Emperors (around AD 1000). This last enshrines a nail believed to have been used in the crucifixion (and indeed recently dated to the correct time). Hitler took this lance from Austria during the “Anschluss” later , the inspiration for conspiracy theories that WW2 was expressly for this purpose: “The Spear of Destiny” (1973 - by Trevor Ravenscroft).
+ Various copies were made incorporating a sliver of metal from an 'original'.
* Thule: Origin in Greek legend. A place, usually an Island, in the far north (perhaps Iceland, Greenland or Scandinavia). "Ultima Thule" in medieval geographies may also denote any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world."
The Germanenorden (Germanic or Teutonic Order) was a secret society of neopaganism, occultism and magical philosphies, structurally similar to Freemasonry, founded 1912. They believed themselves to be the purest branch of the superior, Aryan race. Thule, Hyperborea and Atlantis were synonymous as the Aryan's ancient origin.
* Thule Society was originally a “study Group for Germanic Antiquity”, named after a Germanenorden Lodge in Munich, who's members founded and chaired the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP - German Workers' Party) in 1919. When it became the NSDAP (or Nazi party) in 1920, they resigned after contesting Hitler's growing power. Whatever the assertions of
Hitler's links to the occult, the Germanenorden, and esotericism in general, was actually suppressed in Nazi Germany under the National Socialist anti-Masonic law of 1935, and the Thule Society disbanded in 1925.
* Dietrich Eckart was (in reality) a wealthy Newspaper owner and high Nazi Party official (and coincidentally a man, unlike in Conqueror of Shamballa), to whom Hitler's “Mein Kampf” was dedicated. Believed to have taught him a number of persuasive techniques, but despite attending Thule Society meetings, he was not a member and there's no evidencehe al so passed on any occultism.
* Shambhala: In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Shambhala is a mythical kingdom hidden somewhere in Tibet. Believed to be a society where all the inhabitants are enlightened. In Asia the name literally means: "the place of peace, of tranquillity".
The Kalachakra (a Buddhist tradition and Tantra) prophesies that when the world declines into war and greed, and all is lost, the 25th Kalki king will emerge from Shambhala with a huge army to vanquish "Dark Forces" and usher in a worldwide Golden Age (about 2424AD).
* Alchemy: is both a philosophy and a practice with an aim of achieving ultimate wisdom as well as immortality. From the Arabic al-kimia: "the art of transformation." In turn borrowed from Geek or Chinese. Chemistry was 'born' from Alchemy in the 17th century when Robert Boyle rejected Paracelsus and the old Aristotelian concepts of the elements (earth, fire, wind, water).
Paracelsus, originally Phillip von *Hohenheim* (b. 1493 Switzerland) - Medieval physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist. Academically progressive,travel led a lot in the pursuit of hidden knowledge. [He's of pretty much exactly the right age to be Hohenheim Elric] Is often cited as coining the phrase "the dose makes the poison" (toxicology). Perhaps the origin of the contemporary use of the word bombastic (from hisadopted middle name, to describe his often arrogant speaking style). He extolled the "Three Primes" (elements): Sulphur, Mercury & Salt.
Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (late 16th century), sponsored various alchemists in their work at his court in Prague. Empire continually ceded power to local princes until it's dissolution in 1806. [The H.R.Empire seems like a good basis for the fictional Amestris]
* Amestris: (Friend in Old Persian) was the wife of Xerxes I of Persia, mother of king Artaxerxes I of Persia. Her reputation is very bad among ancient Greek historians. [no connection there]
* Elric = Elrich = Eldritch = Strange or unearthly; eerie.
* Philosopher's stone: was believed to be an essential ingredient for the transmutation of lead into gold. Which is sometimes considered to be an analogy for the transmutation of the physical body (Saturn or lead) into Solar energy (gold) with the goal of attaining immortality.
* Equivalence: 1st law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy).
* Homunculus: (Latin for "little human") generally, a representation of a human being, also alludes to a 'prime actor' (psychology). It has strong historical connections to alchemy. Carl Jung's studies of alchemy sites Visions of Zosimos (3rd Century AD) as the first reference to this concept:
Zosimos mentions encountering a man who impales him with a sword, and then undergoes "unendurable torment," his eyes become blood, he spews forth his flesh, andchan ges into "the opposite of himself, into a mutilated anthroparion, and he tore his flesh with his own teeth, and sank into himself," which is a rather grotesque personification of the Ouroboros, the dragon that bites its own tail, which represents the dyophysite [understanding of how the divine and human related in the person of Jesus Christ] nature in alchemy: the balance of two principles. [Various attributes of the FMA Humunculi can be seen here (spewing forth their red crystal life force); Arakawa probably read up on this.]
The symbol of the FMA Humunculi (their tattoos), and what Envy turns into when he crosses the gate: a dragon/snake.
It has been important in religious, mythological and philosophical symbolism. It may actually come from Norse tradition (Jörmungandr – World Snake), also a major influence of Ariosophy (i.e. esoteria; 20th century Germanic occultism, see above).
Frequently used in alchemical illustrations, it is/was a purifying sigil: i.e. a symbol created for a specific magical purpose, usually a complex combination of several specific symbols or geometric figures each with a specific meaning or intent.
Carl Jung saw it as the archetype [literally the origin?] and basic Mandala of alchemy. A Mandala being a concentric diagram of spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Jung saw Mandalas as a representation of the unconscious self, of use in identify emotional disorders and working towards wholeness in personality.
Ouroboros could be considered as the continual cycle of birth and death, a destructive loop that alchemist sought escape from, through their work. Conversely, it can depict wholeness (unity, infinity, immortality). I suppose it could represent the process of making one's psychological self: the way we all bootstrap our identity/conciousness into being, seemingly from nothing, then continually redefining that through self contemplation and the feedback loop formed by our actions and their consequences on us.
It is synonymous with the 'eternal return', courtesy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). I remember Frank J Tippler writing of the diabolical misappropriation of Nietzsche ideas, on this subject, by the Nazi party, in his “The Physics of Immortality” (a seminal book for me). He quotes Nietzsche: “the goal of humanity cannot lie in the end” “but only in it's highest specimens”. Genuine belief in an eternal return (where one can only be immortal in the sense that one is fated to repeat the exact same life again and again) might seem to help justify eugenics, even genocide if it is to create a transcendent race of mankind; the loftiest of goals. Thus this concept can be considered evil. However, I strongly suspect that Hitler's genocidal ambitions came before the incorporation of this philosophy into Nazi rhetoric (if indeed it was officially adopted). Also, Nietzsche's writings are, overall, very open to interpretation, so will have been selectively revisioned to work as Nazi propaganda (as with most everything under that regime).
* Dante: Alighieri
His main work - The Divine Comedy (1308) Explores the Christian afterlife, from the point of view of the Western Church, in the medieval world. The episode title "Dante of the Deep Forest" describes the character's home but is also a direct reference to the first tercetof D ante's Inferno (1st part of 3 of the Divine Comedy).
He was on the side of the Papacy, against the Holy Roman Empire (Guelph-Ghibelline conflict). This is probably why the FMA character Dante appears to be Christian: using a church as an entrance to her super-villain base in the lost city under Amestris, and quite probably being responsible for naming the Humunculi after the deadly sins. With Hohenheim of Light's namesake (Paracelsus) having lived within the Holy Roman Empire (albeit centuries later), the battle between the to aged characters (who were lovers 400 years past), can be viewed as further allegory with real history.