Heads up on this one, I’m going to be taking a break on the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood review series during August. This is a long series and I think it would be good to take a break between seasons*, lest they consume my brain and my site. I’ll resume them in September.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Twelve: Reunion – ****
Part One: Lion Stone
Technically the end of Season* Two, though as with the first season, this episode feels less like a finale than a penultimate. We still haven’t really met Father, and we don’t know what becomes of Ed, Ling, and Envy when they make their last effort to escape from Gluttony’s stomach. We do get a major development in Ed and Al’s quest, however, when Ed uses Envy’s Philosopher’s Stone to open up the Doorway of Truth. He comes across his brother’s body in the netherspace of the doorways, grown and atrophied, but still alive and apparently conscious. I’m not quite clear on how this all is supposed to work, but Al’s body says that only Alphonse can bring him back. The episode ends with Ed promising to return for the Al-body, and getting pulled away through a different doorway.
Let me back up a bit. This episode, as with many others, is split between several character viewpoints. The characters inside Gluttony have the most of an arc to them, the episode starting with a fight between Envy and the two humans, culminating in Envy swallowing Ed and Ed having an epiphany about some stone tablets he saw among the debris. He negotiates a truce with the homunculus and jargons his way through a dramatic exit, which is how he encounters the body of Alphonse.
Meanwhile, the rest of Alphonse is following Gluttony to the Homunculus’ Father. May and Scar follow them through the sewers of the city, and May claims to feel an evil presence under the city. Both of these subplots get cut off before the end of the episode.
And then finally, Bradley narrates his backstory to Mustang, revealing that he was born human, inserted into a dystopian training program, and custom-made to be a totalitarian leader.
This episode has a part two, but unfortunately, it’s going to take a while to get there.
Part Two: You See, Monsters Only Exist in Fantasy
I want to take a step back for a moment and look at the deeper subtext in this series. I like to do that, if you hadn’t noticed.
This series draws direct parallels between its imagined landscape and the real world, largely through cultural appropriation and coding. Now when I say that, I want to be clear that I’m using those terms in a neutral way — cultural appropriation is merely the use of one culture’s aesthetic by another, and coding is the use of some sort of shorthand (usually visual) specific to characterization. These trends can be bad, benign, or even arguably good depending on the particular way in which they’re used in media, and who’s using them. Fullmetal Alchemist borrowing elements from Western, Middle Eastern, and Chinese culture is probably not the worst thing in the world; it’s not using them to make fun of these cultures. Further, Japan, while an industrial power with considerable economic influence, is not really a colonizing culture, at least not in the same way European nations have been to a lot of the rest of the world.
My point in all of this is that, ethically, it’s fine for this anime to use a silly little pseudoscience as inspiration for its story and magic system. But I am a bit concerned about what the series says, perhaps unintentionally, by using the elements it does. Given that it’s a magic system, and no one really cares about alchemy anymore (I hope), that’s not really bothersome. The use of the word “Fuhrer,” on the other hand…
See, here’s the thing: that title has clear associations with Hitler. While I think it was used in Germany for a time before, it’s a loaded term. It’s a good way to indicate right away that the power system of the country is bad news, no matter how harmless it looks, and it hints at the genocides the country is founded on. Once the series establishes that connection, it’s hard to break.
It’s even more disconcerting when it tries.
Bradley’s story implies that he is just a cog in a machine — a willing and violent cog, but a cog nonetheless. The characters point to Father as being evil, and he and his lackeys are responsible for the deaths of millions. As we find out in this episode, they orchestrated the destruction of the country of Xerxes.
But they did it all for Philosopher’s Stones and magical powers. Real monsters don’t have reasons, and they don’t come about simply because bad people be greedy.
This is where the philosophizing in this show gets to me. It spends a long time talking about God and souls and evil (especially in this episode), but that’s just set dressing no deeper than the choice to use an alchemy symbol on Ed’s coat. Yes, it has some significance, but to what end? What’s the point of Bradley’s story outside of establishing what happens when someone gets injected with a Philosopher’s Stone?
There kind of isn’t any. The flashbacks are framed to make you uncomfortable and empathize with Wrath, but aside from a general aesthetic that remains thematically cohesive, there’s no point to it. “This place is fucked up,” says the flashback, but it fails to assign consequence, intent, or culpability beyond, “It’s fucked up because BAD GUYS BE GREEDY, AMIRIGHT?”
Not everything needs to have a point, of course. Sometimes bad guys can just be bad guys, no explanation needed. But you should damn well have a point and know what it is if you call an antagonist “Fuhrer” then have one of the protagonists seeking that same role. Assholes exist, but removing any one of them generally doesn’t stop more from popping up. Especially not when you go around declaring absolute evil while simultaneously trying to give your absolutely evil characters tragic backstories.
Part Three: Here’s a Cameo from Our Buddy Cerberus!
So yeah, you may have noticed this episode rubbed me the wrong way just a bit. I don’t think much of it was meant to be taken seriously, at least not beyond the first few levels. This is the sort of show that explains its symbolism to you, as evidenced by Ling noting out of nowhere how Ed’s posture when performing alchemy makes him look like he’s praying. (Granted, I have little experience in the matter, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person, real or fictional, pray like that. I might have gone for “yoga pose” if I needed to compare it to something, so maybe that’s why the writers felt it needed explanation. Anyway.)
To be completely honest, this is one of the more visually-striking episodes. The animation is top-notch, and it incorporates a surprising amount of horror through the moaning faces on Envy’s body. While I’m not a fan of its narrative role, Bradley’s backstory also has some jarring imagery in showing how he lost his eye.
I do think this show frequently goes too far in trying to depict graphic violence. I could have easily done without Scar and May fighting the chimeras, for instance, as it’s supposed to be a small joke (Ed and Gluttony pass through fine, but the two following them are attacked by the guard dogs). We get an extended sequence of the two of them fighting strange creatures, and at times, it’s pretty graphic. I get that this show is like that a lot of the time — it has been from the start — but it’s a bit much for such a nothing little scene.
In the end, that’s a lot of what this series comes down to: intricate scenes and great care done for questionable reasons.
* See my note in the Season One, Episode Fourteen review on why I’m calling them seasons.