Only Human: An Analysis of Humanity in “Fullmetal Alchemist”

In Fullmetal Alchemist, a manga by writer and illustrator Hiromu Arakawa, the main characters invite us to question what it means to be human. Trying to define what it means to be human is one of the central conflicts of the series. Are humans defined strictly by their chemical components, which are listed dispassionately by the series’ protagonist, Edward Elric, in the first chapter of the manga or does the definition extend to something broader and less substantial? Every new case of supernatural the brothers’ meet forces them to confront the question of what it means to be human or else risk committing a moral crime such as murder.

For the sake of continuity and simplicity, I will only be discussing the manga since both anime adaptations stray from the source material (one more so than the other). As previously stated, Fullmetal Alchemist follows the journey of the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, on their quest to restore their bodies after they commit an alchemical taboo. The series takes place in Amestris, which is a military-run country inspired by England after the Industrial Revolution. In this world, the characters use alchemy, which to outside viewers looks like magic, except that those who practice it call it a science. Since it is a science, those who use it are forced to adhere to a strict set of laws that are enforced by both the military and the inherent laws of nature. These laws are summed up as “The Law of Equivalent Exchange” which is essentially the “technique of understanding the structure of matter, decomposing it, and then reconstructing it.” Alchemists can only work with the matter they are given and cannot create or destroy it. There are two main tenants for Alchemists: do not create gold and do not create humans. It is the last taboo that the Elric brothers break when they attempt to bring their mother back to life. Their failure causes Edward to lose his leg (and later his arm) and his brother, Alphonse to lose his entire body. In order to try to restore their bodies, the two brothers go on a journey to try to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which is said to be a miracle substance that can allow alchemists to bypass the law of equivalent exchange. However, their plans change after they discover that the stone is created through the sacrifice of human life, which causes them to question alchemy and whether it should be used at all.

Alchemy becomes the catalyst that allows characters to look retrospectively at their perspective on humanity and their moral compass. This was intentional. As Arakawa explains, “I was more attracted to the philosophical aspects of [the Philosopher’s Stone] than the practical ones.”[1] Essentially, Fullmetal Alchemist offers us a chance to view what it means to be human through the introduction and reaction towards the Other. Within Fullmetal Alchemist there are four examples of Other shown: the homunculi (both through Father and the homunculi created by Father), the humanoid chimeras, which are human-animal hybrids as opposed to normal chimera, living armor beings who, like Al, are humans that exist as a soul within a suit of armor, and in his own category, Van Hohenheim, who is a human Philosopher’s Stone and the father of Ed and Al. Of these four, the homunculi are generally shown to be the most inhuman, despite being the closest beings to humans in terms of appearance and biological makeup. Initially, humanity is defined in terms of composition. As previously mentioned, we see this within the first chapter, when Edward Elric takes out a list and reads off the components, which are later explained to be the elements needed to create the average human adult. He then reveals, to the disgust of those around him, that humans are cheaply made before adding,

“Well…it’s like that myth about the hero. He made wings out of wax so he could fly…but when he got too close to the sun…to God…the wax melted and he crashed to the ground.”[2]

This changes as the series continues and the brothers meet different supernatural beings. Ed’s remarks help to set up one of the major conflicts within series, the ideological war between what humans can do and what humans should do. As the series progresses, it is revealed that more often than not, the monsters are created through the intervention of humans. These “monsters” are a mixture of both innocent victims and willing participants and generally, they are still seen as people to pity or empathize with. This is set up by the reactions of the protagonists as the “monsters” reveal their stories, forcing the reader to feel sympathetic towards the Other. In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, the Other is more often than not a body-horror creation of alchemical science. The “Other” is tragic and the humans who created them are the monsters. Even when the brothers unintentionally create a homunculus that immediately dies after it rejects a soul, they later bury the corpse because even if it wasn’t human in the traditional sense, in their opinion, it still lived. The brothers’ stance on humanity changes throughout the series as they face different cases, be it the tragic tale of Nina, a little girl turned into a chimera by her father, or less straightforward case of the criminals Barry the Chopper and the Slicer brothers who were turned into experiments by the military while they were on death row. While the brothers are forced to broaden their definition of human, they never detract from it during the series. Lauren Mitchell points out the brother’s uncompromising ideals in her article, “Stones and Souls: The Function of Alchemy in Modern Young Adult Fantasy”. She notes in particular about the brother’s stance on the Philosopher’s Stone, which Edward is offered on multiple occasions. He refuses to use it all but one time and even that time it isn’t to obtain his own desires, but rather to save those around him. As Mitchell says, “[when] the brothers learn how the Stone is created […] they’re loath to use it for their own goals.”[3] Unlike most of the other Alchemists in the series, this shows that Edward and Alphonse have both grown from their past mistakes and hubris. Even one of the creators of a stone, Dr. Marcoh, still uses the stone despite knowing the lives that went into it to create it. He now uses it to help him heal injured people in the countryside, but it could be argued that his doing so is out of a desire to rid himself of the evils of it rather than atoning for his original crime of creating the stone. While alchemy as a whole still remains a tool for the brothers to use to achieve their goals, they have learned where to draw the line when it comes to using those abilities, especially in regards to human life. This comes in stark contrast with the homunculi, their creators, and those who work with them.

There are eight homunculi shown within the series excluding the failed one that the brothers created while trying to bring their mother back to life and the soulless ones created by the military later in the series. The homunculi in Fullmetal Alchemist are artificial humans born out of the concentrated, discarded sin of the first homunculus, Father. At the heart of each homunculus exists a Philosopher’s Stone, further highlighting their inherently sinful nature since they have to live off of the sacrificed lives of others. Mitchell notes that the due to the way that the homunculi are created, they act as “an extension of the so-called Father’s soul.”[4] Despite his casting them off in order to obtain perfection, they are intrinsically connected to him through their faux family unit and can be reabsorbed at any time into his being as seen with the first incarnation of Greed. Each of the homunculi are modeled after the sin that they are named for and generally mirror them in behavior and to a degree, appearance. They act without much remorse throughout the duration of the series, setting up revolts and civil wars in order to “carve out crests of blood” which will later be used to trigger a country-sized alchemical transmutation circle.[5] They are without a doubt the main antagonists of the series, locked within their own natures and unable to escape them. They murder without emotional consequence, look down upon other living beings, and only show loyalty to their Father and his ultimate goal of godhood. Of the homunculi, only one of them isn’t defeated by their own namesake: Greed.

Greed doesn’t fit neatly into the strict dichotomy of “human” or “monster” that most of the other characters seems to eventually neatly fall in to. From the start, the reader is set up to think that Greed is just as bad as the other homunculi. He kidnaps Alphonse while Edward is away and demands to know the secrets of his body in order to become truly immortal—something that many of the antagonists in the series are obsessed with. When he is introduced, Arakawa draws him looking directly out of the panel at the reader with a crazed expression as he states that he is, as his name implies, greedy. He explains to almost everyone when he meets them exactly what he wants: “money, women, status, fame, and everything else in the world!” This includes eternal life.[6] He is very protective over the things he owns currently, including his henchmen, which is seemingly why he takes offense to anyone who harms them. These companions consist of a group of humanoid chimeras that were experimented on by the government (and by extension, the other homunculi). Before Greed is properly introduced, his gang tells Alphonse their story of how they were in the civil war and agreed to be experimented on after being grievously injured. They are incredibly loyal to Greed because he took them in and accepted them—people who would otherwise be rejected as monsters. By the end of their story, Alphonse even appears to be won over by them due to their dispositions. Even after being threatened with dissection by Greed, Alphonse later decides to try to protect one of the chimeras on Greed’s orders when “King Bradley” invades Greed’s hideout in a purge attempt. Greed’s interaction with Bradley, who is revealed to be another homunculus named Wrath, is the catalyst for his transformation away from him simply bring “Greed.” Greed becomes almost irrationally angry at Wrath for someone simply “protecting their possessions” as he claims. He could have run away and let them take the fall for him, but instead, he remains behind and fights Wrath, which ultimately leads to his downfall. The deaths of the chimeras and Greed’s reabsorption into father isn’t seen as a good thing by the Elric brothers, even though they had been at odds only a few chapters earlier.

This shift in value appears to be taken away when Greed is resurrected in the body of Ling Yao, who willingly takes the homunculus into his own body in exchange for a Philosopher’s Stone. He isn’t the first human-homunculus hybrid. Wrath is the first, but unlike with Ling Yao, Wrath seems to have completely lost his original soul, although he comments that he isn’t entirely sure whether his current personality is his own or not. While Greed does start out as the dominant personality within Ling, the two eventually come to have something of a symbiotic relationship, although for the most part, Greed does remain as the outward facing personality. Despite this, he is often seen communicating with Ling, who lectures him about his behavior, especially regarding his actions towards his old subordinates. It could be argued Greed’s original “compassion” for his subordinates was simply his way of showing his dominance over his “possessions”, but when Greed murders the last one after his rebirth leaves him with amnesia, he feels a massive amount of inner turmoil and regret which he can’t explain until his Ling forces him to acknowledge that he did genuinely care about those who served under him. After this point, Ling starts to take control over his body more and more until the two get to a point where they work together in unison. In the end, Greed’s demise isn’t because of his avarice, but rather as a selfless act to save his friends.

Where does this leave the homunculi though, who are supposed to be bound by their inherited nature? Arakawa suggests that all beings should be judged not by their make up or even where they came from, but rather by the choices. To be human is to be able to change your inherent nature and to evolve. The other homunculi and Father fail because they can’t grow. Gluttony is devoured, Envy decides to end himself rather than have humans pity his true form, Sloth gives up because living is too much effort, Wrath dies at the hand of a vengeful man he created, Pride is reduced to the innocent form of a fetus, and Father is defeated not by some great show of alchemy, but literally by the hands of a human. Every character in the series, antagonist or otherwise, is given a chance to prove their humanity not based on composition, but rather by their morality. Arakawa’s art style lends to this concept of not judging a character based on appearance and she often uses her designs to play on our expectations. Her art has a rounded, soft feeling to it, despite the violent and at times gruesome content. Her line weight generally doesn’t fluctuate too much between characters and the villains don’t have harsh faces. Many of the more repulsive villains actually feature softer lines, whereas unexpected allies tend to start off with blockier, darker designs. Many of the homunculi are drawn with softer faces and bodies. Gluttony, who is downright horrifying with his eating habits, is actually kind of cute looking with his round body and baby-like face. This style isn’t due to Arakawa being limited with her art either; she often transforms characters with the placement of shadows, favoring the technique of having something akin to a tapetum lucidum (ta-peed-um lu-ci-dum) effect with the character’s eyes glowing in the shadows. She also elongates the ‘cute’ features, such as making Gluttony’s smile uncomfortably wide with an emphasis on his teeth. The characters Pride and the original form of Father use this technique as well.

This portrayal and constant fluctuation on the scale of what is “human” and what is “monster or Other” forces the reader to consider each new case as it comes. Preconceived definitions have to be reevaluated. By making the reader change their definition each time they’re confronted with a new human or Other, Arakawa shows that it isn’t necessarily a being’s appearance or origin that determines their moral compass. Even those literally born out of sin (such as in the case of Greed) can have good in them—something that the Elric brothers determine time and time again. She also acknowledges that characters have the ability to confront their inhumanity and change. By not judging others arbitrarily by their physical label and rather by their potential for good, Arakawa shows that kindness and empathy are the key factors in deciding what is a “human”.


[1]Huang, Minwen. “The Alchemical Imaginary of Homunculi in Fullmetal Alchemist.” In Transitions and Dissolving Boundaries in the Fantastic, 41-51. Vol. 2. Research in the Fantastic. Berlin: LIT Verlag Münster, 2014: 42.

[2] Arakawa, Hiromu. Fullmetal Alchemist. Vol. 1-3. San Francisco, CA: Viz Media, 2002: 21-22.

[3] Mitchell, Lauren. “Stones and Souls: The Function of Alchemy in Modern Young Adult Fantasy.” The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English, 50-65.  Vol. 19, No. 1 (2017): 60.

[4] Ibid. 61.

[5] Arakawa, Hiromu. Fullmetal Alchemist. Vol.16. San Francisco, CA: Viz Media, 2007.

[6] Arakawa, Hiromu. Fullmetal Alchemist. Vol. 7. San Francisco, CA: Viz Media, 2004.

This paper was presented at the Supernatural Studies Associations Conference and was partially inspired by my video essay, Fullmetal Alchemist and the Other.

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