Here's less of a review of FMAB, but more of a character analysis on 3 of the show's most interesting protagonists. I would say, if you haven't watched this show, and want to go in entirely blind, there are some very mild general spoilers (Nothing specific). You have been forewarned.
Wyn Talks Anime:
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and Unorthodox Character Motivations
When we discuss our favorite franchises or well beloved stories, we often point to things like good worldbuilding, streamlined plot, or powerful themes. But one thing that we consistently point to and continue to discuss even years after a story concludes are the characters. It would come as no surprise to anyone somewhat versed in fan discourse that two of the greatest contributors to these discussions are a character’s motivations and their character arcs. Within genre fiction, we often have archetypes for these sorts of things such as the ‘chosen one’ archetype common in early and middle era fantasy fiction. Now within manga, and to an extent anime, there is a genre called the Shonen manga, (literally meaning “Boy’s comic”) which often features a young male protagonist on a journey to ‘be the best/most powerful.’ Popular examples of typical modern shonen protagonists include Naruto, from the manga/anime of the same name; Deku, from My Hero Academia; and Goku, from Dragonball Z. However, within this world of shonen protagonists, a few stand out for their unorthodox motivations, Notably Edward Elric, Ling Yao, and Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.
Edward Elric conforms to the Shonen Protagonist standards in many ways. He’s a young adolescent male with a unique affinity for his world’s magic system (alchemy), and a very single-minded goal. It is this goal and motivation that makes him so unique though- Edward Elric is attempting to atone. Edward Elric comes from somewhat standard anime origins, he has an absentee father (though at least, unlike some, he actually factors into the story), and has a somewhat idyllic childhood until the death of his mother. Ed, like any young child (age 11 at this point) is utterly distraught by this turn of events, and it leads him and his brother Alphonse on a dark path, where they break alchemy’s greatest rule. They attempt to resurrect their dead mother. This of course goes horribly wrong, and leads to Ed losing an arm and a leg, and his brother’s soul trapped inside an empty suit of armor. The events of this story begin several years after this point, with Ed and Al on a journey to discover the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary alchemic concoction that might allow them to return to their original forms.
Atonement is not a motivation one sees very often for a main protagonist, particularly in anime. But part of what makes Ed so fascinating, is more than just his motivation, but the arc his character undergoes. How do you balance your desire to atone, with your own moral sensibilities? Which one outweighs the other? How often do you see a protagonist, particularly in a shonen, have their goals and what they want to attain actually challenged, and for good reason? How often is a protagonist shown that they’re going about this the wrong way? Edward Elric gets his beliefs challenged at every turn, whether it be his distrust of religion, or his faith in science, even his faith in alchemy. Of course this ends up entangling the protagonists in a plot that they must fight their way through, as is standard in shonen. The growth Ed goes through both due to his own internal struggle, and his quest to unravel the mystery of the Homunculi are huge contributors to what makes his arc so excellent.
However, Edward Elric is not the only character with complex motivations in FMAB. He stands alongside perhaps one of my favorite characters in all anime- Roy Mustang. Roy Mustang is one of Fullmetal Alchemist’s primary side characters, and functions early in the show as a mentor for the Elrics as they navigate the intricacies of the “State Alchemists.” However he fairly quickly becomes a character in his own right, with one of the coolest alchemic abilities in the whole show (The ability to change air to fire). His motivations are a unique twist upon the shonen trope of ‘rising to the top’, by portraying Mustang as a jaded idealist, who has the desire to politically advance in order to once again, atone for past actions of both himself, and the whole military of Amestris. However, while a noble goal, Mustang is regularly shown to be willing to do more questionable things to achieve his aims than Edward. A point of reference for this would be the questionable morality/legality of his actions near the show’s conclusion. And it is a powerful heart wrenching moment once the protagonists and the viewers realize what achieving this goal will cost Mustang personally. Never before have I felt such sudden shifts in emotion regarding a character in a fictional work, as the audience can go from rooting for Mustang, to simply watching in horror in the space of a single episode. (Those of you who have seen the show will have some points of reference to what I’m referring to.) Yet despite all of this, Mustang remains a likeable character, with a noble goal.
Ling Yao, on the other hand, takes morally grey to an insane level. Ling is a foreigner, from the superpower country of Xing, which is noted to lie just east of Amestris. He is one of the Emperor’s many children, who have been dispatched with a single goal- to find a source of immortality for the Emperor- With a promise of heirship for whomever should succeed. Ling’s character is defined by this ambition, and this desire. From the start, Ling is portrayed as a character who will go to whichever side will help him achieve his goals, and he certainly does not disappoint in that regard. He fills the role of a character much like Hondo Ohnaka in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Ling Yao is never really on anyone’s side, except his own. In this way he defies many of the expectations of a ‘rival/sidekick’ character. To compare him to perhaps the most applicable modern example of this archetype, Katsuki Bakugou from My Hero Academia. Bakugou spends much of the early show as a rival/antagonist for the main protagonist, Deku, yet he never feels as morally unpredictable as Ling Yao. Ling flits between sides in a way that the viewer understands, yet is continually surprising. And yet, despite the greyness of his character, he never stops feeling like a protagonist.
Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is full of characters with complex, unorthodox motivations compared to the standard for shonen manga, and for animated shows as a whole, whether they’re a 14 year old alchemist, a determined mechanic, an ambitious soldier, or two young heirs competing for the throne of a foreign land. There is a reason why Hiromu Arakawa’s manga and it’s 2nd adaptation are so well loved, and much of that can be attributed to characters who go above and beyond what the genre dictates, like Edward Elric, Ling Yao, and Roy Mustang