So I finally got around to watching Full Metal Alchemist, often called the best anime of all time. Full Metal Alchemist is set in an alternate universe where the world and its power distribution is decided not by machinery, but by alchemy, the transmutation of base elements into pure ones, such as gold, and then into the elixir of life. It follows two adolescent brothers who attempt human transmutation, fail, and pay with their bodies, spending the rest of the series attempting to regain their entire human forms.
It’s an engagingly constructed anime, and definitely lived up to the hype. However, what made the anime rise above and really make an impact, at least on my mind, was because of the deep, yet basic, question they brought up, forcing us viewers to think about it.
Every episode began with these lines:
Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of equivalent exchange.
In the end however, they question this. Does everything necessarily have a price? And, each time we pay a price, do we necessarily gain anything in return? Infants that die young pay with their lives. What have they gained in return? Most people studying for competitive examinations put an equal amount of effort into their preparations, but different levels of talent are born everywhere. This cannot be made to co-exist with the Law of Conservation, or Equivalent Exchange. Clearly, the price you pay means nothing in and of itself. So where does that leave us?
My first reaction was to bristle and say we at least gain experience, which must count for something, but then FMA replied, saying that the Law of Conservation is merely meant to keep those who pay happy, content in the knowledge that they must have gained something, whatever it may be. Something in that ignited this ever-present vein of pessimism in me, always lurking just beneath the surface. Why put in any effort at all if, at worst, the results are predetermined and, at best, things beyond our control play the greatest part in our endeavors? And the answer came to me just as fast.
Can you imagine not doing anything about it, just waiting around for the results of….what? We would never be satisfied letting things turn out the way they will. We, as human beings, have an innate sense of self-preservation, the need to make sure as far as possible, at least from our own side, that we have the best chance of succeeding in anything we may attempt. That’s who we are.
The Law of Conservation lets us believe, as we so badly want to, that life is fair; that anyone can achieve anything provided they put in the effort or pay the price required; it means nothing is impossible. It is the foundation of civilization today, the law of karma, the basis of trade and pay and money. You sow what you reap. Every action, as Newton said, has an equal and opposite reaction. If that fundamental law were to be disproven, how would courts of law exist, how would society’s standards be upheld in the absence of the belief that there is a objective price to be paid for every action?
So now I believe that not everyone is created equal, that we are not all capable of the same things. There probably isn’t any objective price for any given gain. But maybe, by paying the right price, we can do anything we want to to the best of our abilities.