The universe of Fullmetal Alchemist is based on the principals of Alchemy, an ancient pseudoscience that could be considered the forerunner of modern chemistry. In two animated films, one live-action film, two animated series, a serialized monthly manga, and a graphic novel, Fullmetal Alchemist touches on real-world scientific principals, moral law, and human ethics in a deadly and mysterious universe full of love, loss, and constant danger.
As one of the rare manga created, written, and illustrated by a woman, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist has become one of the world’s most popular series, selling over 70 million volumes worldwide. Using all of her many skills as an artist and writer, Arakawa has managed to ask several important questions concerning how we view our world and how we would treat our fellow creatures, both human and non-human.
The lead characters, Edward and Alphonse Elric, violate the sacred laws of alchemy in an attempt to resurrect their beloved mother after her tragic death from an illness. As the sons of one of the world’s most powerful alchemists, the two brothers have unlimited potential, but their transmutation ritual results in disaster. Al loses his body, and Ed is forced to sacrifice his right arm and left leg to return his brother’s soul to their world. In order to function and move, Al’s soul is bonded to a suit of armor.
Arakawa delves into the search for eternal life in a manner that has subtle parallels to Mary Shelly’s masterpiece of literature, Frankenstein. Human beings have long searched for a way to restore the dead to life, and as we learn from Fullmetal Alchemist, such desires violate the natural order, and for those who believe, they also violate God’s will and law.
Fullmetal Alchemist examines the subject of human ethics, with a focus on family loyalty, respect for the sanctity of life, and fulfilling our ambitions without harming others. The anime and the manga ask us to consider how far we would go to achieve our heart’s desire.
Science also has an important place in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, as does modern technology. After Ed loses his limbs, his friend and love interest, Winry, uses her skill as an automail engineer to build metal replacement limbs for Ed. This could be seen in the real world context of bionics, transplant surgery, and robotics.
The science of rocketry is introduced in the final episode of the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime. In a key scene, we see Ed reading a paper by American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard. Ed then informs his father that he is planning to travel to Transylvania to study with Hermann Oberth, who, in the real world, is considered one of the fathers of rocketry and astronautics, along with Goddard, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
In this revealing episode, the audience is struck by the fact that Ed and his father have passed through the Gate of Truth into the world of 1921 Munich, Germany. The story is continued in the animated film, Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa, where rocketry, airplanes, and missiles all play an important role.
Conqueror of Shamballa also examines the concept of parallel universes and multiple dimensions. Originally proposed by Hugh Everett in 1954, Many-Worlds theory is an intriguing concept in quantum physics that is currently being investigated by contemporary physicists. The film also touches on the theory of Parallel World Counterparts, in which an almost exact copy of an individual exists in another version of reality.
Finally, we come to transmutation. In modern science, transmutation is defined as “the changing of one element into another by radioactive decay, nuclear bombardment, or similar processes.” When we consider transmutation by this definition, it reveals the connection between the alchemy of Fullmetal Alchemist and the science of our world.
There is much to love about Fullmetal Alchemist based on the story alone, but when one looks below the surface, there is another world full of intriguing ideas, scientific principals, and thought-provoking questions of ethics and morality. When an audience is inspired to ask new questions and seek more information in a quest for knowledge, a work of fiction is transmuted from a simple story to a great work of art, and that is certainly the case with Fullmetal Alchemist.