Fullmetal Alchemist has been a mainstay of popular manga and anime for 13 years. The internationally popular franchise began as a manga by Hiromu Arakawa and spawned two complete anime series, feature films, video games, novels, and countless other products, including the replica pocket watch that sits on my shelf. But aside from merchandise and fangirls, FMA has something else to offer: a reflection of the ideological conflict between Pure Land Buddhism and an increasingly secular Japan.
In American, at least, Japan is most readily associated with Zen Buddhism, but the largest sect of Buddhism in Japan, and across Asia, is Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhists seek enlightenment, but followers of Pure Land Buddhism — sects of which can be found throughout Japan, China, and India — believe they are incapable of achieving enlightenment alone. Instead, they put their faith and trust in Amitaba Buddha, who will lead devoted followers to the Pure Land, from which they can achieve enlightenment. Historically, Pure Land Buddhism spread faster during periods of social strife, when people believed humanity had become too corrupt to ever achieve enlightenment. Amitaba prepares the Pure Land for those who call his name, so forgiveness is available but must be asked for.
Pure Land Buddhism spread to Japan around 1200 AD and was extremely influential, but a movement to eradicate Buddhism in Japan began during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. At the same time, Japan was finally opening to the West. Between subsequent Westernization, urbanization, and an intentional attempt to restore Shintoism as the state religion, all forms of Buddhism were pushed to the sideline. Pure Land Buddhism remains a common religion in Japan, but the country is caught in an uncertain place between the religion and secularization. And that is where Fullmetal Alchemist comes in.
The name “Fullmetal Alchemist” contains two distinct and very nearly unrelated canons. One is the canon of the manga, which ran from 2001 to 2010. The other is the canon of the original anime, which ran from 2003 to 2004. The manga and anime bore the same name, Fullmetal Alchemist, but faced a fundamental problem: the anime would finish seven years before the manga but still had to tell a complete story. What resulted was a storyline that copied the manga perfectly for the first episodes, and then shot off into uncharted territory. A second anime, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, ran from 2009 until the conclusion of the manga in 2010 fan faithfully followed the plot of the manga. In the name of sanity, for the rest of this article, we are going to forget Brotherhood exists. When I refer to the anime, I exclusively mean the original anime.
Both the anime and manga begin the same. Edward and Alphonse Elric attempted to revive their dead mother through alchemy. Alchemy is governed by a strict rule of “equivalent exchange” which states “to create, something of equal value must be destroyed.” In exchange for trying to bring their mother back to life, Edward loses his arm and leg, and Alphonse is reduced to just a soul encased in a suit of armor. They begin to research and hunt for the Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that transcends the usual rules of alchemy and will allow them to regain their bodies.
At the end of the anime, Al regains his body, but he and Ed find themselves alive and trapped in our world in pre-WWII Germany, never to see their homeworld again. They started as two boys who lost their mother and conclude as two young men who have lost everything but each other. It is explicitly stated that their suffering is all because of their decision to try and revive their mother, a choice portrayed as arrogant. Ed compares himself to Icarus, trying to rise above what humans should be capable of, and so he fell. The anime takes place in a world where the proud are punished, where people will answer for their actions, and where all that can be done is to start again from the bottom. It is a legalistic, pitiless world where if you have the audacity to create, something will be destroyed.
Flip to the manga. Al trades his soul for Ed’s arm, then Ed gives up his ability to do alchemy to bring back Al’s body and soul. Ed’s alchemy was the very thing that had once made him so arrogant. He casts aside his pride and gets his brother back. . Ed marries his childhood sweetheart while Al travels to see more of the world and study alchemy. Everyone is granted the freedom to live a good life. The world of the manga is a world where forgiveness and redemption are available, if one is willing to accept them. Pride and hate and greed must be cast aside (indeed, literal representations of the Seven Deadly Sins must be defeated), but once they are, life can continue free of past sin. It is a world where once your old ways are destroyed, new life may be created.
The manga is in line with Pure Land Buddhism: you must accept that you cannot save yourself and ask for forgiveness. However, in the Fullmetal Alchemist anime, there is an implicit denial of Pure Land Buddhism. When the Elric brothers are transported to Germany, they discover that Nazi supporters are seeking what they refer to as “Shamballa,” another name for the Buddhist Pure Land. But when the Nazis break through the gateway, all they find on the other side is the Elric brothers’ homeland, a world as flawed as our own. According to the anime, there is no Shamballa, there is no Pure Land, there is no place of forgiveness.
Whether by accident or design (the former seems far more likely), the dissonance between the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and manga seems to reflect the shift in Japan from Pure Land Buddhism to secularism. But more importantly, the difference between the two canons is evidence that you should spend the next couple weeks catching up on both.