Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode Ten: Eye of Heaven, Gateway of Earth – ***
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The World Shall Taste My Eggs
Well. That was an adventure.
All right, there’s a lot to unpack here. First things first, the big purple fella what ate one of our protagonists is locked into battle with a small girl and her pet panda. He turns his hand into a gun with eyes, because magic wasn’t to his liking (???), but wait! It’s time for an eclipse! His most frustrating child tries to squish him with the exact same energy as a toddler running at full speed toward a fondue fountain at a cocktail party, only to be intercepted because the full extent of his plan does not move past “child running at a fondue fountain” levels of forethought. Purple Fella ruins his chess table, wiping out an entire nation by way of wobbly hands in the process. There’s a lot of pink, and Purple Fella’s friends get belly eyes like him. The new railway is operational! A door opens up over the world, with a giant, hungry version of Purple Fella inside, who screams at the moon, which also has a door (???), and an eye (????), and which reaches out to embrace Giant Purple Fella with arm tentacles. Purple Fella eats God. Explosion.
Yeah, this is a bit of a weird series, huh?
Part Two: Cracks, Blasts, Lightning, and Quakes
Don’t get me wrong, I like weird. I mean, have you seen some of the things I review?
There are plenty of things to enjoy about this episode. The animation is an obvious one — plenty of action and creative visuals means the flow of events is extremely smooth, even compared to the best this series has to offer. Alchemy is being flung around everywhere, but it’s easy to follow the action because a great deal of care has been put into ensuring each element is given its full due. A stone crossbow bolt flung by Izumi is particularly impressive, the camera turning to follow it — something very difficult to achieve in traditional 2-D animation.
As far as the look of this episode is concerned, though, I have to say I’m most impressed with the scope and scale of events. The angles at which we see things are far more varied than the show usually presents, showing us alchemy zoomed out to a global scale. We’re seeing all of the individual locations of previous episodes coalescing into the single nation-wide transmutation circle, and it’s easily befitting what one would expect of an epic fantasy finale. Subtle details like camera shake and hazy filters placed over familiar locations add to the effect. This episode feels unlike anything else the show has ever offered.
So… I hesitate to complain about the stranger choices made in delivering this culmination, because I think to a lot of people, those choices might not matter so much. However, I need to be honest with myself and present this series as I see it, and as much as I’ve come to appreciate this episode, I can’t deny that parts of it really don’t work for me.
A lot of it’s down to character design, specifically for Father, and the rest is disconnect between what the series has established up to this point and what it’s trying to present.
As far as Father’s design is concerned, I think it’s far too goofy to fit the tone the series is going for. It’s an attempt to create a Pride-like humanoid mass, with a similar look to the faceless figure beyond the Doorway, but Father never manages to look menacing as I believe is intended. Like I’ve said before, he’s just sort of a fat guy in a purple morph suit. Which would be fine, if that were the intent, to make a character who looks mostly ordinary and perhaps a bit unintimidating. I think the show perhaps could have taken an unintimidating character design and turned it menacing by playing into Father’s corrupted mindset or eerier capabilities — the man can turn himself into goo, after all. But the show wants him to monologue and gloat and prance around his stage, and since this is a last-few-episodes change to the character design, we don’t have much time to get used to it. As a result, the big menacing final villain for the series is about as suited to the role as Yoki is.
The other knock against the episode I have is the giant doorways for the earth and the moon, and Father eating what he claims is God. But to get into that, I think we’ll have to take a detour and talk about religion in this series.
Part Three: The Moon is God
Oh boy, another thing I am NOT qualified to talk about. Here we go. Fullmetal Alchemist has always had religious themes, but it’s important to put those themes into the right context.
Full disclosure, I’m an atheist. I try not to be that sort of atheist as much as I can; I think that religion can be very beneficial to people, providing them comfort and purpose in an otherwise chaotic world, and my general policy is that as long as they’re not trying to hurt or convert anyone, I’m happy that people find meaning in their beliefs. As someone who doesn’t have beliefs per say, I feel like my ability to comment on religious themes in stories usually has to be tied to specific characters. However, in Fullmetal Alchemist, religion is not merely a part of characters’ belief systems but a living aspect of their world, and rather crucial to understanding both the plot and the themes of the story, especially at this juncture. I’ll do my best to offer my interpretation of it, in the hope that it might be interesting for some people to hear.
I’m also American, so I’m surrounded by western concepts of God on a daily basis, despite not actively seeking them out. Aspects of the Abrahamic God, specifically the Christian interpretation, are prevalent in American society. Reference to God is literally on our money. It’s so pervasive, in fact, that I find a lot of Americans, especially non-practicing Christians, tend to make the assumption that all religions sort of coalesce in a similar way to Christianity — that they have a singular amorphous creator god, that one’s memories and personality are represented in a soul that transcends the body, and that humanity is positioned as central to existence, a favorite of this creator god in some way.
Globally, this is untrue. While it may apply in ways to various other major religions, like how soul concepts are present in Budhism and Hinduism, or how polytheistic religions often have one main creator or major god, assuming all religions resemble Christianity in the broad strokes is a fallacy, and borne of the history that religion has had in Europe and the U.S. We tend to take a very literal viewpoint of religion here, so things like moral ethics, or cultural solidarity, or political positioning, or metaphorical narrative tend to be separated from religious traditions in the U.S., at least in people’s minds, in a way I don’t think they are in some other places. For us, it’s often far more important that someone believe in Jesus and recite the Bible than it is for them to embrace the teachings of either. Perhaps that’s a bit callous of me to say, and I don’t mean to imply that it’s an inherently bad thing to do — like I said, structure can be beneficial to people. But I have often found that it creates a very rigid sort of thought when it comes to religion amongst the people I’ve grown up with.
Fullmetal Alchemist is not doing that, but it took someone pointing out that Christianity is a minority religion in Japan for me to realize it.
Alchemy is historically tied to religion, Christianity especially in the European tradition, so within the context of a story about alchemy, the religious angle provides a rich environment in which to explore a created mythology. The series is inspired by European history similar to how The Lord of the Rings is, so it has its own parallels to Christianity, but told in a way similar to how a westerner might try to tell a story about, say, the Ancient Egyptian religion. It’s going to resemble the original inspiration in the broad strokes, but import underlying concepts from the culture adapting the stories.
In essence, Fullmetal Alchemist is telling a story about a western God from people who probably don’t believe in one. As someone who also doesn’t believe in a western God, my initial response to this series’ approach to having a literal all-seeing God and souls the humility of man and so on was mild annoyance that I had to sit through yet another series with this underlying assumption that a pervasive all-powerful God was necessary for depth in moral narrative. I’m surrounded by them, thank you very much, and they get tedious after a while.
Rewatching the series with a bit more of a generous perspective, it’s still not really my thing for entertainment purposes, but I think I have a bit of a better grasp of what the series is going for, and it has artistic value, certainly.
The god in Fullmetal Alchemist does not really work the way the Christian God does. In Christianity, many of the major tenants revolve around faith, belief, and trust in a higher power. Humans in Christianity are favored creations of God, given free will to either sin or worship their creator out of respect for Him giving them all that they have. Service and loyalty are important parts of the Christian faith, making their way into the foundational structure of modern European social systems. God is meant to be perceived like a parent: all-knowing, powerful, and respectable, regardless of His actions. The concept of “playing God” is more of a recent phenomenon, in line with advances of the Scientific Age where a more thorough understanding of the universe no longer requires an unknowable, all-powerful force guiding existence. In western stories that use “playing God” as a theme, often the purpose of the theme is to extinguish hubris and show the overly-adventurous scientists to respect the natural order of things. It doesn’t have to be explicitly tied to religion or Christianity in particular, but it often is in at least small ways. The idea that boundaries exist for reasons beyond just human safety, and are laid out according to a divine sanctity that defies clear purpose, that idea is very much rooted in the Christian tradition of unquestioning service to one’s god.
Fullmetal Alchemist likes to play with this theme, but it puts a unique spin on it. Worship is a part of the series for some characters, but even the Ishvalans, who are overtly religious, rarely express this beyond their speech patterns. Connection to God in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist is frequently a literal thing, and a very personal one. Each person has a doorway that connects them to each other and the rest of the universe, and God is perceived as an aspect of this connection. That’s a very non-western concept, but it’s something a lot of westerners can recognize. Christians don’t generally think of God as literally being all of the objects around them, but there is a holy ghost aspect to the Holy Trinity that defines a pervasive presence not unlike that of the Fullmetal Alchemist series. I find a lot of people who are raised Christian but deign to follow the scripture of the religion are more likely to adopt this concept of a god than most others is they choose to be ambiguously religious. Event Stephen Hawking alludes to this sort of interpretation of a god in A Brief History of Time.
But aside from a less-specified and more animistic god, religion in Fullmetal Alchemist also differs in one other major way. For the purpose of the story, universal limitations are there to bolster ethical ones. The main characters lose their bodies committing a social taboo, human transmutation, which reflects on their inability to accept and cope with their mother’s death. The taboo exists not only to keep people from raising the dead or hurting themselves physically, but to reinforce a lesson that is impossible to avoid in real life. Philosopher’s Stones are possible to create, but require murder, and what is gained from them is easily lost. Equivalent exchange is a matter of the universe having a limited amount of matter, energy, and everything else, the idea being that there is a give and take to every action, and that things can only be redistributed, not created nor destroyed. The concept is recognizable to anyone who’s ever sat through a chemistry or physics lecture, and it can readily apply to many religions as well.
But not so much Christianity. Indeed, one of the big splits between religious principles and scientific ones — for science started as an exploration of the world with the intent on understanding God’s creation more, at least for Europeans — came when our understanding of scientific principles started to rub up against the Christian tenant of God being all-powerful. In Christianity, God can create whatever the hell He wants. Humans can’t, and some sects very much believe that humans shouldn’t, but any and all limitations for humans and nature do not apply to God. God cannot be defeated, nor destroyed, nor altered, nor consumed. To even suggest as much is sacrilege.
So Fullmetal Alchemist ultimately takes a more neutral approach to the matter, using the religious concepts associated with western Alchemy for its own narrative purposes, rather than play true to the historical inspiration for the series. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this. One the one hand, it is a far more interesting move to me than playing the Christian god concept straight. There’s a scene at the end of the series where the figure beyond the door explains that it is everything and everyone, God and nature, and and the person it is talking to, and I quite like that concept. However, I really don’t feel that the climax of the series revolving around consuming a literal manifestation of God, nor the main villain being preoccupied with besting God, are especially interesting plot points. I get tired of this sort of thing when it runs too close to established Christian-related themes, and even though I realize that’s very much intentional here, I’m not sure the series does enough to warrant the homage. It’s interesting to see it told from a different perspective, but the end goal isn’t exactly original from where I’m standing. Ah well.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5