Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Spritual Bridges in Anime - Fullmetal Alchemist

In my (Scot's) original post on this blog, I gave a list of three topics I planned on posting about. So far, I haven't posted about a single one of those topics. What's more, in the two most recent postings I have given, there has been a relatively negative tone. I stand by what I said, but I don't want to be negative all of the time.

So, I am going to start a new series of posts--a series which will run indefinately, called "Spiritual Bridges", where I will take a critical (but hopeful) look at anime and manga, Japan's biggest cultural export, and attempt to build some bridges between the ideas presented in the anime/manga and the Christian worldview. It is my hope that these postings will allow Japanese Christians and Missionaries alike start to speak the language of this country's youth, telling them about the incredible gospel of Christ in a way that they can understand.

Before we begin, let me get a few things taken care of. First, let me explain the different mediums we will be working with.

Anime is a an abbreviation of "animation," and in Japanese refers to cartoons in genearl. In English, it specifically connotates Japanese cartoons, drawn in a specific style. Anime exists in two basic forms: movies and television shows. Movies are standalone works, and television shows are continuous stories spanning a certain number of episodes (usually 12-13, 24-26, or 50-52, corresponding to the average number of weeks in a season) that must be watched in order.

Manga is the Japanese word for "comic book" which in Japan covers all forms of graphic novels. In English, this word specifically refers to Japanese graphic novels. Like anime, manga tell a continuous story, and each chapter must be read in order. A good number of anime were originally manga (like Dragonball Z and Naruto). Manga is released by chapter either weekly or monthly, and after a set period of time, multiple chapters are collected into a bound volume. There is no standard length for manga. Some stories cover six volumes, whereas others (like One Piece) are in the 40's.

Also, a disclaimer. There is very little manga and virtually no anime from a Christian perspective. None of the pieces I mention here were made by Christian authors. As a result, I urge readers to think critically. There will be parts of every story that we cannot affirm, but that doesn't mean that these stories are morally or spiritually void. Now, without further ado, the first post of this series.


Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師)
Original Author: Arakawa Hiromu (荒川弘)
Animation Company: BONES
English Licensor: FUNimation

This story exists in two forms. The original is a monthly manga by Arakawa Hiromu, which currently has 79 chapters and is still running. The second is a 51-episode anime + movie (The Conqueror of Shamballa) by Studio BONES. These two forms have the same characters, but are essentially different stories. When the manga finishes, I will post about that. For now, I am posting about the anime version.

The story begins with two young alchemist brothers named Edward and Alphonse who are on a quest to retrieve the legendary Philosopher's Stone. This stone allows the user to bypass the laws of Equivalent Exchange--the first rule of alchemy. Basically, alchemy is a skill which allows the user to break an object down into its base elements and rearrange it however they see fit. Thus, Equivalent Exchange means that the atoms on one side of the equation must equal the atoms on the other side of the equation. A few years before the story begins, the brothers tried to use alchemy to recreate their dead mother. However, they didn't factor in the price of a soul in their experiment, and were punished severely for trying to "step on God's territory." Edward, the older brother, lost his left leg; Alphonse, the younger brother, lost his entire body. In order to save Alphonse, Edward sacrifices his right arm in order to bond his brother's soul to a suit of armor standing in the corner. Maimed, scared, and remorseful, the two set out on a quest to procure the Philosopher's Stone and restore each others' bodies. Edward uses his life savings to buy a prosthetic arm and leg, which their childhood friend (Winry) manufactures.

One of the main spiritual bridges in this anime is the concept of selflessness stemming from love. Neither Ed nor Al are out to restore their own bodies. Each of them feels equally responsible for their mistake, and is working for the benefit of the other. This selfless unity, which places no blame, allows them to work together to overcome overwhelming difficulties along the way.

Another bridge is the value of human life. Never have I seen an anime cover this so thoroughly. Many questions are asked. Since Al is only a soul, without a body, is he still human? Some characters say no, but ultimately, the show illustrates that human worth is not dependent upon human status. It's easy to go from this to talk about how humans have worth not because of our beauty or ability, but because we are made in the image of God. This is explored further too. Many times in the series, the end is in sight. Ed and Al have countless opportunities to accomplish their goal, but not without compromising their moral ground. They hold fast to what is right, even though it is much more dangerous and difficult. In contrast, one character, Scar, compromises constantly, living for himself and being unafraid to kill those who stand in his way. After observing Ed and Al, however, we see a scene that shows Scar's utter emptiness. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. The spiritual connections in this should be obvious.

The end of the series is where the most poignant bridge comes in. The story is a coming of age story for the two brothers, and we see them developing through the whole series. In the beginning, Ed is arrogant, boasting that there is no God, and that the science of alchemy makes him the closest thing to a God that most people will ever see. In the end, both brothers are forced to take a grim look at the world and realize its many imperfections. In the process they are forced to look at their own imperfections. The ending itself is imperfect, as the brothers never truly accomplish their objective. They do, however, learn to see beauty in the imperfection, and love the world despite its many flaws. The arrogance is replaced with selflessness, and in the ending monologue, God is acknowledged as being much more powerful and sovereign than the alchemists. More than any Christian production, this show illustrated to me what it means to love despite imperfections. It is a powerful message, and though it may be used as a spiritual bridge, you may want to absorb it for your own benefit first.

If you are looking to use Japanese pop culture to communicate the message of the gospel, this is a perfect place to start. As this is a very popular series, it should be possible to rent one disc at a time, even in America. FUNimation is also releasing box sets of 13 episodes apiece for $30-40, which is a VERY good deal for anime. It's dark at times, and the characters make some very bad mistakes, but we see them grow, and we identify with them. Selflessness, forgiveness, human worth, and love... all illustrated clearly, and all available as a bridge to start talking about what Jesus said on these issues.

Spiritual Bridges part 1


Paul Nethercott said...

Great idea Scot! I really like your concept and the way you write about anime. This is important material -- thanks!!

Anonymous said...

THis is a really interesting piece! shame I discovered it only now - time to resurrect this project methinks! good work - more articles like this will resonate well with young people