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 due mostly to less central female characters, more problematic handling of race and most prominently its bad treatment of Rose and to a lesser extent, Winry. It’s okay if you consider it feminist, 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.