A while back I talked about Dragon Ball Z and how it handles death and raising the dead in a previous Magical Mondays post. To recap, I found the way Dragon Ball Z went about this to be lacking. DBZ didn’t offer nearly enough consequences or limitations on its magic, and as a result, the narrative suffered. Raising the dead—or rather, attempting to—is a big part of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and unlike DBZ, the story sets hard limits on its magic that are never broken. This means that the characters are never able to pull a deus ex machina and instead they have to operate within the story’s rules in order to learn about themselves and develop as characters.
Trigger warning for body mutilation up ahead.
Our main characters, the Elric brothers, begin their journey shortly after their mother, Trisha, passes away. Together the two learn alchemy so they can bring her back from the dead. After they gather all the necessary ingredients to make a person, they go about transmuting them into their mother, but things go horribly wrong. Human transmutation is a taboo for all alchemists, and for good reason. Anyone who attempts it gets transported to the Gate of Alchemy and imbued with knowledge. Unfortunately, the law of equivalent exchange demands that they also give something up for this knowledge. From Edward, the Gate takes his left leg, and from Alphonse, it takes his whole body.
Edward then sacrifices his right arm in order to attach Alphonse’s soul to a suit of armor, saving his life, but the aftereffects from the Gate have left their mark. The knowledge allows the brothers to perform alchemy without transmutation circles, but it also gives us two main characters who are physically disabled. As for their mother, they don’t even get her back for all their troubles. What they created was human-esque, but it was grotesque, mutilated, and died shortly after being made. Convinced that they had accidentally killed their mother and allowed her to die a second time, the brothers spend the first part of the series wracked with guilt over what they had done, and they are not the only ones. Their alchemy teacher, Izumi, also attempted human transmutation in order to revive her miscarried baby. In exchange for some of her internal organs, she also received knowledge and a mutilated mess that she assumed was her child.
It’s not until later on in the series that we find out that reviving the dead isn’t even possible and that all the characters went through those horrible and traumatic experiences for nothing. It’s impossible to raise the dead, because it’s impossible to create human souls. Without their mother’s soul, the Elric brothers cannot complete the transmutation, and the same goes for Izumi and her child. Instead, what is possible is the creation of artificial humans, called Homunculi. A Homunculus can be made through a human transmutation circle—like one the brothers used—but they can only be made using philosopher’s stones, which are in turn made by murdering a bunch of people and stealing their souls.
Though Trisha Elric’s death was little more than a fridging, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood really goes out of its way to make an audience think about the moral ramifications of human transmutation and philosopher’s stones. Using a philosopher’s stone, the brothers could restore their bodies, but it would come at the cost of writing souls out of existence. They decide after learning the truth about philosopher’s stones that they cannot go down that path and hurt people for their own gain. At one point, Alphonse gets ahold of a stone, and although reluctant at first to use it, he eventually decides to—not for himself, but to aid him in a fight against the Homunculus Pride. The reason given for this is because Pride is one of the people responsible for transforming those souls into a stone, and Alphonse is giving them a chance to fight back.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has a great message about death and sacrifice. At first, the Elric brothers don’t accept their mom’s death, because they believe they have a way to go around it and get her back. It’s not until after their failed experiment that they end up in a state of depression. Not only did they lose more than they thought they would have, they now have to come to terms with the fact that their mother isn’t going to come back. Numerous characters die throughout the course of the series, and the remaining characters not only have to come to terms with that, but they also have to learn to move on. In this way, in the earlier episodes at least, attempting human transmutation could easily be an allegory for denial and grief. The Elric brothers may have tried to revive their mother, but after paying such a steep cost, they never again attempt to bring her back to life and are instead forced to acknowledge her death and begin the process of healing.
By having steep consequences for human transmutation, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is able to engage in a moral conversation about what is right and what is wrong, while also discussing the sad but important truth that, even in a universe where magic exists and human souls play such a large role in the narrative, death is final and that we all have to deal with it someday. It’s not really a happy message, but it is an important one, and it gives the story more depth and meaning than a story that didn’t stick to its limits would have.