(Note: In this post, I’m only talking about FMA: Brotherhood and not the older Full Metal Alchemist. Nevertheless, I abbreviate the show as FMA herein. Also: major spoiler warning for FMA!)
Among people I know, the ones who say their favorite anime is FMA: Brotherhood are theists, and usually conservative-moderates. A lot of the younger generation of religious people are drawn to FMA because of the theistic themes. It’s difficult to appreciate a series when not just plot events but also underlying themes and messages communicate values I disagree with. However, there are many other equally significant themes in the show, and I agree with most of those. That’s one reason I still enjoy FMA. There are other reasons and arguments I’ll give, as well, but let’s back up a bit first. Maybe you’ve never thought FMA gives any messages related to god(s). Then, I’ll start by explaining what I mean.
1) FMA May be Theistic, but Not Religious
Humans shouldn’t experiment if there is a moral grey area. They shouldn’t create or manipulate human life in any way except by bearing children. They must not try to bring back the dead or create artificial humans. If those rules are broken, God will punish the arrogant offender. Humans should always be humble and accept limitations, because something greater than humans is watching.
I put that it italics because I don’t agree with it and it’s not what I believe, but you can argue that it is indeed the main message in FMA: Brotherhood. It’s not the only interpretion, of course, and we may get into some others later. Anyway, what is this particular opinion based on? Young Edward was punished, losing an arm, a leg, and his dear little brother’s body, just because he “broke taboo” and dared to try bringing his mother back to life. Every time anyone tries human transmutation, they are faced with the being at the gate known as the Truth, who exacts a cruel toll on them. Izumi Curtis had her uterus taken away and her insides ravaged because she tried bringing her baby back to life. Roy Mustang had to give up his eyesight even though he was only being forced to perform human transmutation.
Maybe you think that even in a fantasy world where anything goes, it would still be “wrong” to experiment with things like bringing back deceased humans or creating artificial humans. That’s fine, though I disagree. In the real world, I support science and believe that progress should go on, and while we need to apply ethics to science, we can’t hold ourselves back because of outdated beliefs or unfounded fears. In the anime world, I think even if it encroaches on real-world ethics, magic (or alchemy) shouldn’t have rules. There might be rules invoked by organizations, but there shouldn’t be ones enforced by punishing gods. Just my opinion.
Regardless of ethics in reality, and/ or my preference for magic systems in anime, it’s pretty difficult to argue that FMA’s central messages don’t involve humility and accepting the demands of a god who “punishes the haughty.” There is an element of fighting against those limitations, of course; Ed and Al keep trying to recover their bodies even though it was god’s right to take them away. In the end, Ed still had to “negogiate” with the Truth and give up alchemy forever in exchange for his limbs and Al’s body. The Truth had the power to take everything from Ed, and the only apparent reason it agreed with his wish was because, well, it was entertaining.
Please note in addition that a media production can still have theistic themes– a god-character who corrects and judges the willful humans– and not feature a god who is “good” or benevolent. By many fans’ definition, the Truth counts as a villain. After all, rather than punishing the creator of a philosopher’s stone, the victims and not the performer of the ceremony are the ones who must pay the toll to Truth– they must die. (This is assuming the rules surrounding alchemy are all governed by the the same being.) Once they have a philosopher’s stone, an alchemist can create homunculus without paying a toll. But the homunculi are “haunted” by the spirits of those who died to make the stone. The homuncolus Father was only punished after he tried a third time to wipe out a city full of people.
See where I’m going? Why didn’t the Truth trap Father at the gate long before, when he destroyed the great city of Xerxes? Or why weren’t he and Bradley punished for secretly organizing the annihilation of the Ishvalans? Why was Father only punished after trying to “become God”? Why does the Truth exact a cruel toll from a child who lost his mother, but doesn’t chasten an alchemist who kills hundreds to make a philosopher’s stone? Or an alchemist who creates homunculi? Why did the Truth not also punish Shou Tucker? The god at the gate is awfully inconsistent at best, and downright evil at worst.
Although there is clearly a god-character in FMA, and other characters can clearly have spiritual experiences, the show is not any way supportive of organized religion. That theme shows up very clearly in episode 3, and throughout the series as well, though subtly. In FMA, organized religion is absurd because the prophets, patriarchs, or other leaders of the faith are arrogant in thinking they have a special connection to “God.” Really, the Truth in FMA isn’t a personal deity, but one that exists to uphold rules. It doesn’t convene with humans under normal circumstances. (In that sense, it is more of a Deist god.)
In short, since they think they know “God”, religious leaders are portrayed in the show as arrogant and ridiculous. Even if Cornello hadn’t been a power-hungry fraud, he still would have been protrayed negatively as long as he lied about having a special connection to “God.” In addition, you can interpret Truth as a deist or pantheist god. Deism and pantheism are not organized religions. Deists believe there was once a god who set rules in place and then withdrew from the world. A deistic god cannot be a personal deity and cannot belong to any one religion. Pantheists believe the universe is the definition of god, and thus everything in the universe, physical and abstract, is part of god. Thus they also have no personal diety or religion.
2) Why Atheists can Enjoy FMA Even if it’s Theistic
2-1. Appreciate the God Concept as Another Part of Fantasy
Alchemy in FMA is fantastical in nature, and so is the god that protects the system’s rules. If people like me have no problem watching systems of magic in anime, then we also shouldn’t have a problem with gods or goddesses in anime. They are both fantasy, after all. As long as it’s in fiction, there’s no actual issue. Still though, if there’s a punishing, arbitrary self-proclaimed god-character in an anime, my lack of enjoyment might make me drop the show. I’ve seen all 64 episodes of FMA twice, and half of them a third time. So what brings my enjoyment back?
2-2. Have Fun Thinking about the Subject of Theology
It’s worth mentioning that I had a hella good time writing all the previous section of this post. Why? Because I have just a tiny bit of an intellectual inside me. Even though gods aren’t real, I find it intriguing to read, write, or discuss different theologies. I like to understand what and how other people think. The concept of god(s) is a fascinating part of psychology, and I love talking about most topics in that category.
I may be more interested in the subject of theology more tolerant of discussions because I’ve gone through a variety of belief systems and (percieved) spiritual experiences. Raised as a protestant, fundamentalist Christian, that’s what I was from early childhood to my mid teens. I became less religious in my late teens, gradually changing from Christian-based Univeralism to abstract Pantheism. After some time at the university and a lot of studying, I started identifying as an atheist. I’ve never lost my fascination with talking about gods and spirits, though, just as I’ve never outgrown fantasy, or The Chronicles of Narnia I loved as a child.
2-3. Enjoy the Other Messages in the Series
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are more themes besides those related to theism. FMA is a masterpiece anime, well-written, psychological, and full of depth and numerous story motifs. There are just too many possible themes to discuss in a little section like this. So I’ll just give one example: although human nature will always be violent, it is possible to stop the cycle of violence one individual at a time. The character who shows this best is Scar. For much of the series, he strives for revenge against alchemists, who destroyed his people, the Ishavalans. Yet, along his journey, Scar eventually overcomes his hatred of alchemists and realizes it’s wrong to keep murdering them. That’s especially true once he realizes the alchemists weren’t the ones behind the massacre. In the end, Scar helps save the city, fighting against King Bradley.
2-4. Reimagine the Deity as a Metaphor for Something Else
I think most fans will agree there is a god in the FMA world, so reimagining that being as a mere metaphor might technically be “wrong.” But regardless of whether you’re “wrong,” interpreting anime in different ways is all kinds of fun! It is for me, anyway. Suppose we take that Truth being and designate it as a symbol of all things which are; in other words, it’s a metaphor for reality.
Reality polices us with numerous practical and physical limiters on what we can do. It encourages a healthy level of humility (in some people). Reality includes human society. Human societies have this tendency to hate and fear science and new technology, especially if it’s encroaches on a moral grey area. Society and the traditions it imparts act as police to keep individuals in good order. Reality includes, too, the individual mind we each possess. More than anything else, we are limited by our individual minds. Sometimes, in a positive way, we realize something is too risky, and limit ourselves by staying safe. Other times, in a negative sense, our humility turns into inferiority and we cannot make progress. This is important to FMA because with or without a god, the show endorses the themes that humans are limited are we should be humble.
But Seriously, God or No God in FMA?
Because I love that fourth idea so much– making “god” symbolize other things– I want to leave you with an interesting point. Despite everything I’ve said, the being at the gate in FMA might not actually be any kind of god at all. On the wiki fandom page, the Truth is listed as a monotheistic deity. Fans I know in person say the same. That’s pretty funny, because that Truth guy never actually calls itself a god, let alone a monotheistic one. It says maybe it’s a god, just as maybe it’s the world, or maybe it’s the person speaking to it. At least, that’s what it said in the original audio.
The popular English Dub of Brotherhood changed the lines and erased a key part. The awful Dub has it so the being at the gate says, “I am called by many names. I am the world, I’m the universe, I’m god, I’m truth. I am all, I am one, and I am also you.” The Japanese phrase aruiwa means “or”/ “or possibly” / “or perhaps.” In the original audio, the being at the gate said, “Ore wa omaetachi ga sekai de yobu sonzai. Aruiwa uchuu, aruiwa kami, aruiwa shinri, aruiwa zen, aruiwa wa ichi. Soushite, ore wa omae da.” I’ve taken a year of Japanese and spent several years watching anime in Japanese, so it’s easy to translate the above as follows.
“I am the existence you people call the world. Or perhaps the universe, or perhaps god, or perhaps truth, or perhaps all, or perhaps one.~The Truth, FMA: Brotherhood
And I am you.”
The answer to the question in the heading is of course my favorite answer, but one that irks many others: “It depends.” Whether or not the being at the gate is a god depends on your interpretation. My religious friends interpret it as monotheistic god that punishes the haughty. I interpret it as a metaphor for reality and the limitations it imposes on us. What do you think it is?