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Monday, April 6, 2020

The Magic of Fullmetal Alchemist

Not too long ago, I broke down and watched an anime. I don’t really enjoy anime, so I rarely watch it, even when (or especially when) people rant about how great a particular series or movie is.

So, I’d heard people talking about Fullmetal Alchemist for a long while, but hadn’t watched it. But I gave one of the series (Brotherhood) a shot and did enjoy it. Sure, it had a lot of the tropes and stylistic flourishes that makes me not like anime, but the series is good in spite of all that, and I like the basic story. Also watched the 2017 film on Netflix. It’s OK, but man, the things they cut out to get right into the action triggered some changes that I think don’t really work.


One of the things I partly like is the approach to magic – excuse me, “the science of alchemy”. They play fast and loose with the rules they lay down, but there are some rules there: the alchemist constructs a circle of transmutation for the desired effect, contacts the target material, and transmutes it into a new form (limited by the Law of Equivalent Exchange.) In terms ofmagic power sources, alchemy is primarily words of power with a little psychic power on the side: they use drawing symbols instead of speaking ritual phrases, and the “meditation” is brief, but it more or less follows that pattern.

State alchemists specialize in a single specific transmutation and wear gloves with the appropriate circle of transmutation already woven into the fabric, so they can perform their one trick over and over on command. They, like alchemists who don’t work for the military, have to do things the slow way if they aren’t doing their one schtick. There are a handful of characters who don’t fit this pattern, the most obvious being Edward and Alphonse, but they basically went through hell to get that ability… and let’s face it, they break the rules because it makes for faster paced, more exciting, over-the-top anime battles. We can basically ignore them.

I’d ask if anyone has made a translation of the Fullmetal Alchemy system into D&D rules, but (1) someone probably has, and (2) it’s probably an overly complicated mess. I might have more thoughts on this at a later date.


  1. I just want to vent about the title. Japanese animators have a tendency to take English words and names and use them completely wrongly. My daughter, for example, likes to watch an anime with "Joan of Arc" as a main character - who, of course is nothing at all like the historical figure. Fullmetal is, as I expect people know, simply referring to a type of bullet, with a complete metal covering as opposed to a hollowpoint or a lead tip. It's hasn't got thing one to do with alchemy and makes no sense at all.

    1. "Fullmetal" doesn't refer to alchemy, but is the codename or nickname of the main character. All the state alchemists have titles like this which usually refers to what their specialty is -- what they do with their alchemy. Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, creates blasts of fire. Shou Tucker, the Sewing-Life Alchemist, is a specialist in bio-alchemy and creating chimera. The Crimson Alchemist turns things into bombs. The Crystal Alchemist specialized in research on the Philosopher's Stone.

      Edward is given the name "Fullmetal" partly because he's the only alchemist with automail (metal replacement limbs) and partly because he likes to turn his metal arm into a blade when he gets into fights. It may also be a joke about his personality. Plus, he's bound his dead brother's soul to a suit of armor, and one of the ongoing jokes is that people assume his brother Alphonse is the Fullmetal Alchemist because he has the complete metal covering.

    2. I decided not to address the part about anime misusing English directly, for a couple reasons:

      - As someone who really doesn't like anime, I'm the wrong person to analyze anime practices.
      - I don't know Japanese, and certainly haven't read the manga, so I can't say how appropriate the translation is.
      - Who makes the decision to translate Japanese titles to English titles and why would require a whole lot of knowledge about the production and intent of the creators, and that's just not something I want to get into.

    3. Fullmetal refers to bullets in our current world, but it could have referred to objects that were covered in metal if bullets were not yet invented. The greatest alchemist to ever live was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim aka Paracelsus. The character Hohenheim is based on him.

    4. I believe that Hermes Trismegistus was considered a better alchemist than Paracelsus. Perhaps Nicolas Flamel as well, or at least he was rumored to have succeeded where Paracelsus didn't.

      As for where the name "Fullmetal" came from: remember, they do have guns in this world, so yeah, they maybe have bullets with fullmetal jackets. Edward's colleagues may have been referring to that when they gave him his nickname.

  2. They did something 5E-wise.