Note: This is referring to the Fullmetal Alchemist manga and its direct adaptation, which is called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in the States and Hagane no Renkinjutsushi: Fullmetal Alchemist in Japan. I am not referring to the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime adaptation, which I don’t consider feminist-friendly due mostly to less central female characters, more problematic handling of other subjects and most prominently its bad treatment of Rose and to a lesser extent, Winry. It’s okay if you consider it feminist/feminist-friendly, but this is my review. I detail my problems with the anime on feminist and other grounds in the top posts here: http://adventuresofcomicbookgirl.tumblr.com/tagged/fma-2003-anime-liveblog-action. Beware spoilers for both series.
I will forever find it pretty fantastic that it’s a woman who wrote what I consider to be the best shonen manga ever. Hiromu Arakawa’s masterpiece should be an example to other artists of how it’s done. It’s tightly plotted, well drawn, has a huge cast of complex characters and it never lags, but comes together to be a beautiful and inspirational tale. Forget one of the best stories in manga, the Fullmetal Alchemist series is one of the best stories out there, period. Not only did Hiromu Arakawa continue the legacy (started by artists such as Rumiko Takahashi) of proving women can dominate in action-oriented manga, she also showed that you can do a story in a genre typically targeted to young boys with male main characters and still have a diverse, prominent and fantastic cast of lady characters. You can also explore serious themes like war, genocide, prejudice, faith, hubris and the nature of humanity and how to move on after committing great sins.
Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric (usually called Ed and Al) who live in Western-fantasy world where alchemy is a highly touted science based on the principles of equivalent exchange. The two of them tried to bring their mother back to life using alchemy when Ed was eleven, but Ed ended up losing an arm and leg, and his brother would have disappeared entirely if it weren’t for Ed binding his soul to a suit of armor. Now, with Ed aided by a mechanical arm and leg made by his childhood friend Winry, Ed and Al are on a journey to restore what they’ve lost, but find out about a deep conspiracy within their country and secrets about their own family on the way.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a story that’s really about people, and Ed and Al’s journey is really about the people they gather around them on the way, and the state of humanity in general. Though it has a very intense and well paced plot, it’s a really character-driven series. And a lot of those characters are important and well-developed women, who have a variety of different strengths and roles and all have their own goals and character arcs. Boys’ manga in particular can fall into the trap of not developing female characters as well, only including one decently prominent female character and calling it a day, shunting girls to the sideline or, even if they have more than one female character, adhereing to the idea that women can only be important if they imitate the male characters and act hyperviolent. Female characters can be there just to be put in hostage situations, or have their lives only revolve around the male main character.
Fullmetal Alchemist subverts all of that spectacularly. The best mechanics in the series are women, and while Winry Rockbell is the main character’s love interest and a non-combatant, Ed depends on her to support him at all times because he wouldn’t be able to walk or do alchemy without the limbs she made him and her constant repairs and he points this out. She loves the Elric brothers dearly, but her life and goals are not dependent on them. She is dedicated to helping people as the best healer and mechanic she can be, and tons of customers depend on her and adore her. She’s also an incredibly driven and courageous person in her own right without busting villain heads. She has her own rich character arc where she struggles with abandonment issues, her anger over the death of her parents and tries to figure out her purpose in life and philosophy.
Some of the most skilled alchemists in the series are women as well. The mentor that taught the main characters everything they know about martial arts and a lot of what they know about alchemy, who they often use as a parameter for skill when battling opponents or for themselves (“these guys aren’t nearly as tough as our teacher”), who they fear and respect, is Izumi Curtis, who proudly answers her opponent’s fearful inquiries about who is thrashing them with “a housewife!” She has her own past mistakes she must work through as well. May Chang, pre-teen princess from Xing, is a pint-sized cutie with a kitten-sized pet panda (and she’s determined to save her clan but struggles with getting caught up trying to save other countries as well) and can kick everyone’s ass up and down with her martial arts and skilled use of a different kind of alchemy that the Elric brothers are desperate to learn from her.
There are also women in high military positions who are fearsome fighters without alchemy, like the tough and ambitious General Olivier Mira Armstrong who commands the icy Fort Briggs with an iron fist. Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye is a near-flawless marksman who acts as a bodyguard to her colonel Roy Mustang, determined to protect him so he can rise in the military and they can change the country for the better, motivated by the burden placed on her by her family and the mistakes they both made in the war in Ishval. Lan Fan is a lady who also acts as a bodyguard to her implied love interest (it’s a shonen, so don’t expect much romance to be confirmed). She knows no fear when it comes to saving her clan, but perhaps she has a bit to learn about saving other clans as well.
This covers some of the most prominent female characters, there are a ton more (Winry’s mechanic grandmother Pinako, the villain Lust, Maria Ross, that’s just the beginning) and I think all of them are strongly written and interesting in their own ways, which goes to show just how great this series is with women. They have a variety of different roles, their own stories, and they have just as many “holy wow, that’s badass/wonderful/impressive” moments as the boys. And the point is made that they can be feminine while doing it. May is a cute princess in pink prone to romantic delusions, Winry will give a girly squeal over power tools or automail, and she likes baking and Izumi is A HOUSEWIFE!!! But all of them are impressive.
The series isn’t terribly heavy on fanservice though there are a few scenes, they’re pretty well done (and probably a equal amount of fanservice comes from the guys. Arakawa seems to like muscles). Women tend to dress practically for combat (the exception is Lust, who wears a long lowcut gown) and have their own sense of styles. And while Arakawa likes her women to be as she puts it, “va-va-voom!”, they tend to have really solid bodies that can support those chests. They look like they could actually pack a punch.
Another fun thing is Arakawa seems to have fun being deliberately subversive. She’ll often put her women in a situation where it looks like they might have to become a damsel in distress or be fridged for male angst, only to turn around and have the ladies save themselves or even rescue the guy in the situation. You can just hear her laughing “haha you made assumptions didn’t you!” It’s also nice to see older women being included as well as young girls, some of them not conventionally attractive at all (like Madame Christmas and Pinako) but still very awesome.
It should be noted that there are several narratives specifically dealing with the woman in question reclaiming her agency from men trying to take it away and defeating those who underestimated and tried to entrap her.There’s also a narrative dealing with a woman healing and moving on with her life (and even gaining surrogate children) after losing a child and being rendered infertile. That’s all pretty great. We also have female characters directly confront sexism and stereotypes on a couple occasion, and several occasions where a man’s sexist assumptions are consciously exploited by a women he’s trying to manipulate and she just turns around and beats him at his own game. That’s ALSO pretty great. For further (and spoilery!) elaboration, see my more in-depth feminist analysis of specific female characters in this series.
Another thing that’s great about Fullmetal Alchemist is that it really makes an effort to explore racism, prejudice and othering. Some elements have been debated and can potentially be seen as stumbles/problematic (I really have no authority on the matter) but there is a real exploration. Arakawa has stated she is partly descended from the Ainu, a minority in Japan, and has said her exploration of this issue is heavily based on the prejudice the Ainu deal with. She doesn’t look at the issue as simple and admits there are no easy answers.
So, Fullmetal Alchemist, unlike most European fantasy setting stories, does not represent those othered by racism in a fantastic magical way or as white people. The Ishvalans are darker-skinned and they are persecuted. The people from Xing are clearly supposed to represent China, and so they have the cultural and physical markers typically associated with Chinese people. The Ishvalans in the story are all survivors of a genocide carried out by the government (and the story presents the violence inherent in that on screen, so warning for that), and the first Ishvalan we see is basically killing State Alchemists to avenge his people. Yet the Ishvalans don’t end up being represented as simple villains and/or victims.
Scar, an Ishvalan survivor, is one of the main and most prominent characters in the story and has a truly complex and amazing character arc. Seriously, he goes through a ton of development that explores what was done to him, his beliefs, his family, and how he can move forward. He changes a lot, and learns a lot, and we realize his anger is legitimate and not a bad thing, he just has to explore how the channel it. It’s wonderful to watch. And then we’re introduced to a mixed Ishvalan in the military who is an upright guy and the struggles he faces being of mixed blood are explored, and the Ishvalan survivors, their culture and the legacy of Ishval end up playing a huge, important role in the plot, especially the finale.
The Xingese characters are also very prominent and nuanced, and it says something that foreigners end up being really important parts of the team in helping this European-like country. And Amestris (the country the Elric brothers reside in and that Ishval was formerly part of) isn’t shown to be only white people, but multi-ethnic like Europe actually is. Crowd scenes and side characters show lots of variation. There are some prominent black characters (especially later on, one joins in on the day-saving quest), and Izumi, Roy and others seem to be Asian and others like Rebecca Catalina are implied to be Hispanic and so on.
And of course, disability is a big part of the narrative. Hiromu Arakawa actually talked to and worked with disabled people and it shows. Both the main characters are disabled as are a variety of others, and though most of them are aided by advanced technology not available in reality, it still causes some struggles and questions that are explored. You have to go through a really painful surgery and rehabilitation to use automail, so a lot of people prefer just to have regular prosthetics. Even after that, Ed breaks his limbs a lot and sometimes has to go around with only use of one arm, has to maintain it and deal with reattachment and stares, has phantom limb aches, and is prevented from doing stuff like being in extreme heat.
Al has a great little bit where he says he doesn’t need anyone’s pity and lots of people deal with really inconvenient bodies and still live a full life. He’s found people who love him no matter what happens to his body, and that’s what matters. The narrative also makes it clear the only reason Ed even includes getting his arm and leg back as a goal is because he know Al feels guilty about “causing” him to lose them. There’s also characters who suffer from illness and other deformities, and once character has their spine injured and so can’t be aided by automail, but still manages to work through it and contribute while wheelchair-bound. Again, there has been debate with how these issues are dealt with and so it’s up to you to decide. But overall, Fullmetal Alchemist has the same attitude on disability as it does on everything else- people can overcome any difficulty, and people are just as whole and amazing no matter what disadvantages they have.
One of the best things about FMA is Arakawa repeatedly shows us is that life is hard,there are no easy answers and some things can’t be atoned for, but people have to move forward. People can be terrible, but all people have to potential to be strong and amazing and help each other. I believe the shows through in how Arakawa deals with gender, race, disability and her story as a whole, and that’s why this story is so great and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone. It’s one of my favorite narratives ever.
Women and Gender: (well developed, strongly written and important variety of female characters)
Race and Culture: (several complex and prominent dark skinned and Chinese-coded characters, race issues explored)
Disability: (several types of disabled characters, both the struggles and triumphs of disabled people explored)
LGBTQ: (One minor character is explicitly gay and dresses effeminately sometimes too. However, he is single and two out of the three times he hits on guys they react with fear. These scenes are left out of Brotherhood.His sexuality is mostly the basis of gags (especially in omakes), so he’s very problematic. In complete fairness, he is a very skilled mechanic who is Winry’s mentor (she even calls him her idol in the guidebook) and he’s got a good relationship with Winry and very generous and kind to her, giving her time off and respecting and praising her hard work and skill, and being the first one to realize Ed is in danger when going into freezing temperatures with his automail. He’s also friends with Paninya and Ling likes him and doesn’t mind him hitting on him because he gave him food but that doesn’t really redeem what a flat, comedic character he is.
Size and Weight: (two to four fairly prominent characters are overweight/chubby, both men and women, and they’re badass and great in their own rights) The villain Gluttony is also rotund but not realistically so.