Given the familiar adage that God can be found in all things, it is not such a stretch for me to say that God can be found in good anime if we are reflective enough. For the uninitiated, anime is a characteristic style of television animation of Japanese origin; not to be confused or lumped together with children’s cartoons! If done well, anime has the powerful ability to communicate mature themes and provoke deep philosophical thought. I will make my case through the anime television series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMA), which was released in 2009 and spanned 64 episodes. With a plethora of richly-textured characters, beautiful animation and a captivating story which draws you in, it is my favourite anime to-date. I even know of priests who are fans of the series as well!
[SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT]
FMA is set in the fictional human country of Amestris, of which certain gifted citizens called ‘alchemists’ practice ‘alchemy’, which is the ability to use the earth’s energy to manipulate and alter matter (this process is called ‘transmutation’). For example, an alchemist may be able to transmute a formless lump of clay into a clay bird, or to alter the shape of random rocks and wood to form a proper dwelling house.
In this world, the greatest taboo is that of human transmutation, which is the transmutation of matter to create or resurrect a human person. Alchemists are expressly forbidden from dabbling in this, not only because it is impossible, but because of the ethical and divine implications of doing so.
This brings us to the two young protagonists in FMA, the teenage brothers Edward Elric (‘Ed’) and Alphonse Elric (‘Al’), who are extremely talented alchemists working for the government of Amestris. Having been abandoned by their distant father and then losing their loving mother to illness at a young age, they are driven by desperation to attempt human transmutation to bring their beloved mother back to life. This of course, goes horribly wrong, causing Ed to lose his left leg and right arm (which is replaced by a full-metal prosthetic one; therefore earning him the nickname ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ from which the series derives its name) and younger brother Al to lose his body (he continues to exist as a soul which animates a suit of armour). The entire series begins with the Elric brothers going on a quest to find a way to regain their lost limbs and body.
The fundamental basis of alchemy is the principle of ‘equivalent exchange’ – that in order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed. Put simply, this means that there is always a price to pay and one cannot get something from nothing. For example, to transmute a stone statue weighing 1 kg, one will need to make use of exactly 1 kg (no more, no less) of rough stones (and not any other material). Human transmutation is impossible precisely because of the principle of equivalent exchange – while one may have sufficient material for it (the Elric brothers do manage to obtain the base material components of an average human body), one will still be missing a human soul (this cannot be merely purchased from the neighbourhood grocery store, for obvious reasons).
Stop for a moment to consider the implications of this philosophical truth. As Catholics, we believe that man is an undivided unity of body and soul. While the body is material and can be perceived by our five senses, the soul is spiritual i.e. non-material and therefore cannot be grasped by our sense perceptions. This is aptly portrayed through how Al is animated – peering into his suit of armour reveals that it is empty; but we can recognise the presence of Al’s soul by its effects – that particular suit of armour can move and speak!
Anthropologically, the soul is the life principle of the body – it brings integration and unity to it. Death and disintegration occurs when the soul is separated from the body. Conversely, human life can only subsist with the presence of a spiritual soul since a material body cannot give life to itself. FMA exemplifies this by portraying the impossibility of human transmutation – Ed and Al’s failed attempt to bring their mother back to life produces a gruesome zombie-like creature which ultimately disintegrates into a pile of bones.
Catholics also believe that each person’s individual soul is created and given by God at conception (thus, life begins at conception). It is utterly beyond man’s powers to ever create a soul – finite creatures cannot create something out of nothing, much less something spiritual and immortal. FMA bears this out perfectly through the heartbreaking experience of failed human transmutation by the Elric brothers – driving home the frailty and limitations of even the most powerful alchemists. Ultimately, they are still human. Creation and giving life belongs strictly to the realm of the divine.
One of the more lighthearted FMA episodes involves Ed and Al assisting in the natural delivery of a baby (don’t even ask me why they ended up in that situation in the first place). In the wake of the successful birth of a baby boy, Ed cannot help but exclaim: “Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!” Upon being playfully chided for his overly-ecstatic exuberance, Ed retorts plainly: “but this is the birth of a new life”, before going on to muse that alchemists have been working for centuries to achieve this but to no avail. In doing so, Ed implicitly admits that alchemic technology can only go so far. It is a poignant scene because Ed does not become bitter at his human limitations; in fact, it only serves as a catalyst for his complete marvel at what he cannot do and who he is not. If only we had such awe and wonder at the gift of life which comes directly from the hands of a loving God! It is no coincidence that it is Ed, in his youth, who is able to intuit this.
How good and beautiful it is for an anime like FMA to canvass these fundamental truths about God and man without being heavy handed! This is especially welcome in the relativistic and technocratic culture we find ourselves in. One of the greatest scourges to an authentic Christian way of life is the ideology of scientism – the self-refuting belief that all knowledge can be reduced to scientific knowledge backed by empirical data. Scientism denies/dismisses the existence of both God and the human soul since both cannot be captured by the five senses; effectively unraveling the entire foundation of Christian belief and and turning to worship man as the centre of the cosmos. Nonetheless, the world of FMA reminds us of a transcendent and spiritual reality which is intuited by us in varying degrees.
Man, having a spiritual and immortal soul, is created in the image and likeness of God and is destined for eternal life with Him – that is what we profess through our hope in the resurrection of the body. We spend so much time taking care of our bodies (resting, exercising, dieting) and fretting about external beauty; but how many of us pay attention to the state of our souls? Is our soul adorned with beautiful virtues and a sacred temple of the Holy Spirit, or is it sullied by sin and cut off from God who is life and love? We will do well to ponder long and hard on this – after all, it is one that has eternal consequences.