By Sean Aitchison
In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Ed, Al and a few other characters are constantly referred to as “sacrifices” by the Homunculi and their leader, Father.
This has something of a double meaning—not only are they literal sacrifices for Father’s plan, but they ended up that way because they sacrificed something selflessly for the ones they care about.
In a series about fighting fascism, the symbolism of this is not lost—those not in power sacrifice everything for friends, family and love, and the results of those sacrifices are reaped by those in power who only sacrifice the actions of others for their gain.
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Ed literally gives an arm and a leg to save his family, and in turn he is commodified, thought of as a thing to be sacrificed for one person’s gain; impactful and relatable symbolism that serves as one of the many complex, well-crafted layers of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
The series spends quite a bit of time in this sea of hopelessness—in the idea that sacrifice makes you a sacrifice to the powerful—but in the end it shows us that selflessness for the ones you love will have the biggest impact, and eventually, hopefully, save them.
The idea of sacrifice
The very concept of alchemy is about sacrifice—not so much selfish or selfless sacrifice—just logical sacrifice. The Law of Equivalent Exchange dictates that you must sacrifice matter to rearrange it into new matter; you cannot make something without giving something up.
This is why human transmutation—attempts at reviving the dead using alchemy—is a taboo and dangerous road to go down. Alchemy relies on equivalent exchange, and you can’t really dictate the price of a soul enough to equally trade for it…which is why human transmutation takes much more than you put in, whether you like it or not.
This is what happened to Edward and Alphonse Elric, when they attempted to bring their mother back to life—they didn’t, and couldn’t possibly, give enough to pay for her revival, and the transmutation claimed whatever it could, taking Ed’s leg and Al’s entire body.
This is the first sacrifice the brothers made. Though it was unintentional and tragic, it does in some way represent their love for their mother. Given the choice again, they might not have gone down that path, but trying to bring her back in the first place at risk of taboo is a sacrifice in itself.
But Ed goes on to make another sacrifice: his arm. In doing so, he’s able to bring his brother’s soul back and bond it to a suit of armor. Here is where the Elric brothers’ story truly begins.
The unequal Law of Equivalent Exchange
So, what does this selfless sacrifice get the Elric brothers?
In seeing The Truth via their human transmutation attempt, they are able to transmute without a circle—a benefit, yes, but this also makes them candidates in Father’s plan to absorb The Truth and gain ultimate power, just like Izumi does for attempting to save her child. Simply put, they don’t get as much out of it as the powerful do.
The metaphor here is pretty clear: the hard work, sacrifice and even tragedy of others is nothing but fodder for those in power, a clear reflection of the authoritarian rule of Amestris and its founding.
Amestris literally conquered the land around it for the sole purpose of establishing a giant transmutation circle for Father to take the souls of every citizen as a power source for holding the power of The Truth—an extreme version of fascist hierarchy.
In it, the people are fuel for a machine that only the person at the top operates and benefits from, and it’s meant to hit hard and clearly state its meaning: that the people are expendable. They sacrifice and are sacrificed for the government and its power-grabbing schemes, something a bit relatable for many of us these days.
Hopelessness, selflessness and beyond
It’s not totally fair to say that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a pessimistic series, but hopelessness plays an important part in the story. The Elric brothers dip in and out of hopelessness while trying to track down a way to restore their bodies. They feel hopeless when they find out how Philosopher’s Stones are made.
Yet most importantly, when they find out Amestris is a giant transmutation circle meant to make Father more powerful, there’s an air of hopelessness across every character. How are the protagonists and their allies to escape such a deep-rooted plan when it feels like everyone is against them?
This isn’t meant to drown the story in darkness, though. It serves a purpose. A lack of hope can mirror and make apparent just how hard authoritarian rule can oppress its people. It nips any sense of rebellion in the bud and makes escape seem impossible.
But the reason this series goes this deep on hopelessness is to illustrate how important it is when that hope returns—a sudden release from the depths, showing us there’s always a way to make a difference.
This hope is magnified when Hohenheim gives up his own immortality to reverse Father’s transmutation circle, thus weakening Father and his ability to maintain The Truth within himself.
The final blow comes from Ed with his own real hands—thanks to the ultimate sacrifice from Al, thus ending the cycle of selfishness and hopelessness.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is ultimately a story about sacrificing for the ones we love in an effort to bring them hope. Only this caring way of life can drive out the cold, uncaring rule of people like Father.
Simply put: hope and love conquers all. Cheesy, yes, but powerful and meaningful all the same.