Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Seven: Eternal Leave – **
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Bits and Pieces
I’d like to offer a clip of dialogue from the dub to start. For context, Olivier and Alex Armstrong, along with the Kurtises and some Briggs soldiers have confronted one of the heads of military and a few of the men following him:
Izumi: “Is that so? You sacrifice our country just so you officials can gain immortality, and enslave the world as your own?”
Alex Armstrong: “And I take it that Fuhrer Bradley is also aware of these plans?”
Conspirator: “He was created to lead this country for that purpose. Why shouldn’t we do it? We’re creating a world without war!”
Izumi: “And you’d just have to murder the world first?”
Conspirator: “You wouldn’t die, you would be reborn; what you alchemists refer to as ‘reconstruction.’ We wouldn’t be murdering the population like you said — they would be given eternal life while dwelling inside us! Don’t you see? We would bring the world together as one! All is one, and one is all! As the few chosen ones of Amestris, we would bring unity to the entire country!”
*Izumi smacks him*
Izumi (to the Central soldiers): “So there you have it. You still on their side? The only thing these guys care about is themselves. Will you help them?”
Conspirator: “Now wait, listen men: you need to follow orders. That’s the only way I can put in a good word for you…”
*Izumi smacks him with a shoe*
Solider 1: “I’ve spent my entire life as a soldier and it just feels wrong to disobey my superiors. But I don’t even know what to believe after hearing all of this.”
Olivier Armstrong: “You can’t make up your own mind after hearing their plans? How can you follow a superior you have no faith in? That is not loyalty; that is mindless self-deception.”
Izumi: “Believe in yourselves, and choose life over death. Otherwise, you’ve led a shameful existence.”
Soldier 1 (staring wistfully out the window): “I have a family right here in Central.”
Soldier 2: “So do I.”
Soldier 3: “Yeah, we all do.”
*They tear off their military decorations*
It… it’s not the most nuanced script, is it?
I don’t believe this to be a translation issue, because the problem is less what’s being said than the fact that it’s being said at all. What I find frustrating about this scene is that it takes what could be a complex ethical situation — military personnel abandoning their post because they are morally opposed to the doctrine they serve — and turns it into an after-school PSA. These words are not things any human would ever say. The scene is disingenuous. It ties the morality of the situation to the fantasy of the story. The military in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is full of Evil Bad Guys who are only out for themselves and know they’re doing wrong but are too selfish to want to stop.
That’s not what happens in real life.
One of the hardest lessons a person can learn is that they’re the bad guy. Those who do especially horrible things will try to rationalize it or ignore the harms they do, isolating themselves from the people they feed on. However, when the ills are smaller, less beneficial to the perpetrator, the sort of thing people do thinking there aren’t any consequences or the consequences are minimal — most people still have difficulty accepting that they’ve done wrong. This is a way your brain protects you, as self-loathing and fear of hurting others can create a feedback loop that stops you doing anything, good or bad. But recognizing when you’re causing someone else distress and learning how to be better despite it, to learn from your mistakes and do right the next time, that’s an essential human skill. And you can spend a lifetime struggling to develop it.
Military work comes with inherent baggage. Without going to far into it, in many places (especially the U.S. where I’m from), popular opinion of military service is generally favorable to the general public, with the unspoken acknowledgement that it comes with death, invasion, and colonialism. Most choose to forget those last parts, but people directly involved in military service, especially those on the ground, are well aware of it. The job often involves a great deal of tedium and loneliness alternating with intense situations that can leave people scarred. There are benefits as well, pay and prestige among them, but for many people entering the service, especially in times of peace, a large drive of enlisting is a sense of duty and moral obligation. Military propaganda through the ages has instilled in the populace a notion that to serve the state is heroic. To realize the truth is more complicated can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is opting for a reveal wherein honest people discover that the regime they serve is a brutal totalitarian state that aims to slaughter millions. Its means of showing this falls flat because it doesn’t put any work into presenting the moral quandary. The military’s evil operations have been kept secret from these men, so they’re told, “Your boss is an evil goo monster that wants to eat the world,” are given a confession by a Bad Man who’s in on the plot, and that’s plenty of reason for them all to quit. I mean, fucking obviously. Who in that situation would stay? The show doesn’t present a choice so much as a Don’t Do Drugs advertisement from the 80s.
It’s resolution is not, “Be cautious of trusting those in power,” but, “Don’t side with the evil goo monster.” Because if the show asked its characters and audience to be more wary of military leaders, it would have to put in far more legwork than it does to show why Mustang and hist crew are better than Bradley. Olivier Armstrong is one of the people giving them the message for pete’s sake. She’s not telling them to disobey the military, just to disobey the few bad people in it who happen to be easily distinguished from the good military personnel.
Just because you have altruistic ideas doesn’t mean you’re impervious to a system that incentivizes corruption. Remember that.
Part Two: And Then the Elrics Both Died Along With Their Teacher. So Sad. The End.
Now that we’ve got the preamble out if the way, what’s happened in this episode?
Well, Fu and Buccaneer are dead. That’s worth noting down. There’s some fighting, some glowy-eyed clone fellows. That cross-eyed doctor with the creepy glasses and the gold tooth is back for some reason. Um… oh, the main characters have disintegrated. Again.
The bulk of the episode is pulled between two fronts, one within the Central Command labyrinth and the other at the front gate. The latter is the less important but the one I find infinitely more interesting, despite its flaws.
Greed and Wrath continue their battle, with fast animation that plays well to their respective styles. It’s not my favorite fight of the series, but I quite like that Fu’s involvement creates chaos because Greed doesn’t know how to fight cooperatively. Ling and Greed alternate frequently, which is reflected in their fighting styles, Ling being more skilled and cautious, but less familiar with Greed’s armor ability, while the latter tends to just barrel into anything in an effort to do as much damage as possible.
The scene culminates with Wrath getting the upper hand and Fu recognizing that the only way for them to win is for him to sacrifice himself. The attempt fails, as Wrath is able to destroy Fu’s explosives before they can go off. However, Buccaneer uses the moment where Bradley is distracted to remove the sword in his belly and stab Bradley through Fu. Is it ridiculous? Oh yes, absolutely. But is it also awesome?
However, what weakens this scene is its execution. As usual, the animation is excellent, but the dialogue is redundant. Actually, no, it’s not so much redundant as misplaced. Before Fu rushes in for a kamikaze attack, he commands Greed to stop Ling from interfering. Ling recognizes what Fu’s doing and yells at him to stop, and Fu gives him a monologue about how a ruler must be emotionally capable of losing people. He says something to the effect of, “If you’re going to lead, you have to learn how to delegate, and sometimes that means letting someone else die so you can make their sacrifice meaningful.”
I’m not personally fond of this sentiment, as it’s of a similar ilk to philosophies that place the lives of pre-designated important people over others and glorifies martyrdom, but I understand the sentiment behind it. It’s also not really important that the audience agree with Fu here, but merely that they understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He sees himself as a support for Ling on his way to ascending the throne, and as an old man, it’s far better that he die if necessary than the person he’s supposed to protect.
It’s Fu explaining his philosophy here that I don’t buy. The structure of this scene follows those of other fantasy series. The mentor’s sacrifice is a well-worn trope. What usually happens in this sort of scene is that the mentor blocks the student from interfering and references an earlier conversation to impress the importance of that lesson onto their student, before going out into the breach.
When was the last time Ling and Fu spoke to each other outside of a combat scenario? Certainly not since he merged with Greed. I vaguely recall some sort of conversation about Ling’s goals and how Fu and Lan Fan see their roles with respect to him, but that was all was back at the beginning of the second season. A lot has happened since then. I’m noticing more and more clearly a missing scene in the story, because the verbose monologue from Fu is trying to make up for its absence.
Ling’s dilemma at this point is who he owes allegiance to. He’s a cocky prince who seems to have never wanted for anything, so one might imagine that his actions are at least somewhat selfishly motivated. He has what he came to Amestris for, so the logical thing would be to go back to Xing. Greed likely wouldn’t let him do that, but it’s not really what Ling wants anymore either. Ling’s seen the destruction Father intends to bring, and between his more altruistic tendencies and his friendship with Ed, he would want to stay and fight. He would also probably want to keep Fu and Lan Fan safe by sending them back home and making them wait for him, seeing as he’s nearly immortal himself now.
Fu would probably disagree. As Ling’s body guard, he is beholden to Ling’s wishes, but he can see Ling making many mistakes out of ignorance and inexperience. What Fu wants is to get Greed out of Ling, abandon the search for the Stone entirely, and head back home while they’re all still alive. Ling has a good chance of winning the heir lottery anyway, and maybe his experience here will give him a better perspective, show him that merely being emperor isn’t enough, that a ruler has a responsibility they owe to their post.
The contrast in these two perspectives makes for good drama, and the outcome of any disagreement between Ling and Fu has an obvious outcome. Fu’s death scene contradicts that dynamic, forcing Ling to accept his mentor’s wishes and live with the consequences of his own actions. Fu agrees to Ling’s wish to stay in Amestris, but dies because of it. That’s meaningful. It would be more meaningful if we had ever seen Ling make that decision and disregard Fu’s advice. Instead, the death scene in the show is trying to both setup and payoff the conflicting relationship between these two. You need way more time for that, friend. Preferably when the characters in question aren’t fighting for their lives.
It’s still good, but again, it reinforces the idea that the Xingese characters belong as leads in their own series, not a sideshow in this one.
The other key development in this episode is that Mustang, Ed, Hawkeye, and Scar (and maybe May and the two homunculi? I’m not sure where they went) have run into another obstacle while trying to reach Father. Apparently all of those men who trained alongside Bradley are still alive and youthful, as is the gold-toothed mad scientist who created them, so now they’re fighting our protagonists for unclear reasons. Well, actually the immediate reason is pretty straightforward: Gold Tooth wants to draw a transmutation circle and needs Mustang for some reason, so while he’s scribbling away on the floor, the sword lads are here to delay the heroes from pressing on. I would group this subplot up there with the zombies in terms of last-minute obstacles that are there solely to look menacing and do little else. I assure you, the story would not change even slightly if this man and everything that follows him were cut entirely. His presence is so bizarre that I almost wonder if he was originally going to play a bigger part in the series but his role got whittled down until it only consisted of this and Bradley’s backstory. His character design is so pronounced that I swore he came from a different anime. It just goes to show, making a creepy-looking character doesn’t automatically validate their existence in a story.
There’s not much else to say about that part of the plot. Ed gets dematerialized, as do Al and Izumi, as a dramatic cliffhanger, but don’t hold your breath; they’re just getting teleported. That’s it, that’s what all of this is about. The characters are too spread out and we need to get them to the Big Bad for the finale. However will we do that?
Magic. They use magic to propel the plot forward. Again, just because it was technically referenced earlier doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Part Three: Doodidoodidoodi Di-di, Doodidoodidoodi Doo
When Fu dies in this episode, three big things are happening: we see Fu, and then Buccaneer, die in slow motion; we hear Fu’s exasperated thoughts that his sacrifice is in vain; and we hear sad string music.
I don’t hate this scene. The way it’s cut, the animation, the slow-motion, the lighting — all of that is excellent. The dialogue, as always is redundant, as the visuals easily explain what is happening, but it’s the music that bothers me. Specifically, the way the music is used.
I’ve claimed before that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood only has about six songs in its score. This is unfair of me, as the composer for the series, Akira Senju, is in fact wildly talented and the original soundtrack albums of the series are lovely to listen to. I should also explain that my own musical skills are complete garbage, so I’m largely spitballing what I think is happening with the music in this show; I’m sure the reality of how the score was composed and incorporated is far more complex than I make it out to be. Nonetheless, I would like to offer some solace for those who like me are frustrated with the moments in this series when the music becomes obtrusive to the action happening on-screen.
I believe my earlier misconception is not based in the reality of the musical landscape of the show so much as how the music is cut alongside the animation. Rather than designate specific music for use with given characters or story elements, the show instead prefers to rely on a few of the most recognizable songs to go alongside basic categories of scene: one sound for fighting, one to indicate creepy things, one whenever something sad happens, two for the military (Good Military and Bad Military), and one for everything dramatic and alchemy-related.
The songs Battle Scherzo and Clash of the Alchemists are bold, dramatic pieces, and one or both of them can be found in nearly every fight in the series. Despite the name of the latter, I’ve never noticed much difference between fights between or using Alchemy versus other combat. It might be there, but because the songs are usually cut up so they fit the animation a bit more closely, it’s often hard to tell the difference between distinct songs with similar tones and different portions of the same song. Either way, the same exact refrain happens whenever a character changes physically or pulls out a new weapon or technique, and the uniformity of sound dampens what would otherwise be impressive fights.
A similar phenomenon is true of the opening music that often plays before the episode titles, The Laws of Alchemy. That same music is occasionally spliced into battles, as is the case for the Greed/Wrath fight in Episode 45, but it’s more often you’ll hear it as background music during investigations, serious discussions, and confrontations before a battle begins. You can hear similar notes in the songs Lurking, Pride, Fifth Laboratory, Mortal Sin, Versus Homunculi, and T.B.C., and I suspect that if I were to return to the show with a finer comb and attention toward the music, I would recognize variations in which song is being used. All of these songs are distinct entities that follow their own trajectories; the problem comes from how the show shies away from the unique elements of the songs and always plays the common musical elements they all share. They all end up sounding the same because the points where the music is framed and the audience is paying attention to it are the points that are meant to imply common ties. It would be like if every single song in a Harry Potter film was offset so that the part that coincides with the action is always the part in any given song that uses the main theme.
The main two military songs, Next Chapter and Amestris Military March, are just flat-out overused. The former almost becomes the theme for Briggs, except that it’s also used for Central, and as a general combat anticipation music for many military-associated characters. Amestris Military March is a later addition, used I think exclusively in the final season of the series for the protagonist military characters, especially Mustang’s crew. Amestris Military March has an upbeat chorus, and is the odd patriotic music I keep mentioning. It’s meant to feel liberating, but it’s used so blatantly to convince the audience that what they’re seeing is more benign or beneficial than, you know, warfare, that it frustrates me almost every time it appears.
By far and away, though, the most confusing and irritating aspect of the music in the film is what you might call its main theme, The Fullmetal Alchemist and its derivatives. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the main theme of this song and its many derivatives within the score is not my favorite, but subjective preference alone isn’t what makes or breaks a theme. It’s immediately recognizable in the way a John Williams score would be, but that seems to be its intention, as it has clear associations with Edward and alchemy more generally. The tune is meant to evoke a western orchestra with religious overtones, communicating the narrative theme of religion and god, and how Ed specifically relates to it. The show often displays him in an angelic light, likening him to gods or mystical deities in its imagery. His powers as an alchemist, especially an alchemist who has been behind the Door of Truth, make him supernatural in respect to even other alchemists. However, alchemy is a fickle subject, and Ed’s relationship to it is intertwined with his mother, so it’s no wonder that his theme creeps into Trisha’s Lullaby and Homage to Alchemy as well.
It also comes up in the theme that often accompanies Hoenheim, and also Father, except that Father’s theme, audible in Dissident’s Creed, is a stereotypically evil-sounding version of the theme. You know, because Father is evil. That’s a pretty basic way to turn the meaning of a musical theme, and it’s about as far as the show ever seems to go unfortunately.
And that’s frustratingly common in this show. The soundtrack is full of music that seems like it fits particular characters, but is rarely ever used appropriately within the show itself. For instance, the Xingese characters have a very good theme that sounds vaguely Asian-inspired in the way western music mimicking Southeast Asian string instruments often sounds, except that it’s performed in a way that intends for the Xingese theme to blend readily into the main soundtrack, so it uses horns and other western instruments and focuses more on the unique nature of the theme as its own piece of music than its Asian elements. It’s a fantasy Asian score set within a fantasy European setting, created by a Japanese composer trying to show how the Amestrians see the Xingese characters as exotic while he’s also trying to humanize and de-exoticize the Xingese characters themselves. The theme is doing a lot of things at once, and it’s just a straight-up banger in its own right. Yet the show seldom uses it, even when it would benefit from the difference in battle music. It’s mainly used as shorthand for the show to say, “Look! Ninjas!” and then dropped in favor of the typical battle music once they properly enter into the fray. It’s really disheartening, and I didn’t even realize this was what was going on until I listened to the soundtrack on its own.
Ed’s theme is used haphazardly all around, for Mustang’s scenes, Al’s scenes, any scene relating to a god or gods, any scene relating to the Philosopher’s Stone, general flashbacks, and, of course, tragic deaths.
Fu’s death uses part of Ed’s theme. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s extremely close, enough that when listening to it, you can pinpoint where the main theme tune would go. It has the exact same sad string sound, and as a result, it’s both very generic and very noticeable. It’s a curious case of the music being a disservice to the character, as the weight of the scene and the distance between it and anything to do with Ed requires a very different song, preferably one relating to the Xingese characters or Ling and Fu in particular. But no, sad strings it is.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5