Monday, October 25, 2010

Character Death: A Follow Up to Full Metal Alchemist

The following is a follow up to my Weekly Manga Recap thoughts on Full Metal Alchemist—particular the ending and my thoughts that not enough happened during the initial invasion. I post this to clear confusion, and to admit to some mistakes. Also to make my stance on character death hopefully a lot clearer. Be warned that the following will contain spoilers for Full Metal Alchemist, along with small spoilers for One Piece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.

Character death is an important part of story telling across all mediums. It’s a sure fire way to grab the reader’s attention, for better or worse, and is a great tool to use during the conclusion of a story. A death has impact and adds weight to a situation. To use some common manga examples, would Marineford had meant anything if Whitebeard hadn’t died and symbolically set an end to the last generation? In contrast what are we to take from the Fake Kakura Town arc in Bleach when at the end of the story only the evil characters suffered any losses? Doesn’t that just prove that in the end the greatest threat not only against the Soul Society but even reality ever faced was completely ineffectual? A character death is a very important factor to me for a lot of reasons. The emotions they can draw can truly define a story, again for better or worse. I apologize for the spoilers below (and possibly above), but to make my point I need to reference some actual examples of death in character.

A death is not as simple as “Character A dies”. The length, emotion, circumstances, and cause are all keys in determining if a death was justified or not. I read a lot of manga, and I’ve seen death abused for the right and wrong reasons, so let me identify some of the more severe examples I’ve seen. I don’t like it when characters are simply killed for no purpose. A series like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure both abuses and subverts this in liberal fashion. A character death like Kakyion who died after having his final technique destroyed by Dio served two purposes: the first was to show Dio was a threat—one that couldn’t be stopped and one that was a legitimate threat to the entire cast. The second was to show his commitment to his friends and that even as death was taking him, his last act on this earth was to help his friends figure out the power behind Dio’s stand.

Then let’s look just one fight earlier against Vanilla Ice (just roll with it) the Stand, Cream, killed Abdul and Iggy. Their deaths served little point other than to draw some character development out of Polnareff, but did both of them have to die to show that Cream was dangerous? I don’t think so, and personally I wish the two had survived the fight as their deaths, while noble (or at least in Iggy’s case) felt largely unnecessary. Now let’s compare this to Part 4 of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure where death was decisively avoided. In total only a couple of characters died through the course of the story, and I enjoyed that. It meant that when death did happen, it mattered, and in some cases drew a lot of emotion out of me when I believed a character had finally met their maker.

Let’s return to Full Metal Alchemist as it’s the crux of this situation. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the manga-ka treated the gravity of the situation through 90% of the story. Nina was murdered and I felt legitimate sadness. Hughes died and while I didn’t really feel like we knew him, it still was sad (though I still feel like we should have had more time to really know him). Gluttony is another example. His death drew regret out of me. I couldn’t help but feel that Gluttony was an innocent victim in the story. Sure he was a serial killer, but unlike Barry the Chopper, he didn’t choose his life. He was created to eat and he did just that. It’s like making a dog with a bladder control problem, then shooting it when it takes a piss on the rug. You really can’t help but feel that wasn’t totally his fault. Even though he was a villain I felt bad that Gluttony died—to contrast I wanted to fucking toast Kimblee dying as that piece of shit didn’t deserve the slightly redeeming death he got. He was a horrid monster.
Of course death isn’t the only emotion that you can draw from this story. I felt deep sorrow when Havoc found himself paralyzed. There we have a soldier stricken down in the line of fire, but he has to endure living believing he is useless to his comrades who must carry on the war without him. He believes he’s failed them, and this development was quite strong. In another example Lan Fan sliced her arm off to fool Wrath and keep them off their trail. That noble sacrifice endeared her character to me and I began to enjoy her character for that reason. These are all sacrifices meant to show that this is a conflict that requires them. Yes, the point of many stories today is to create a world without sacrifices, but a story that plays itself straight is one that is hopelessly idealistic. FMA was not that. It proved time and time again that sacrifices (sins) are made and that redemption comes not from forgiveness but rather from tolerance and progress. That’s a good message, and eventually the point comes around that they won’t be able to stop the entire central army without a fight (rather they won’t be able to kill the Homunculi without a fight). Once that starts the story again becomes fantastic. Mustang faces a sacrifice he didn’t deserve, Scar and Wrath have a bloody fight between two unnamed warriors, and the entire county faces extinction at the hands of a mad homunculi. This is all very tense and interesting. This is what I enjoy from a story. A story without tension or suspense becomes banal and predictable. Until Wrath showed up in Central, this is what the final arc was boiling down to. Once he did, the story got better, but until he did I found myself bored to tears and really wondering what happened to the serious nature of the story. That feeling, like the feeling of a character’s death, stayed with me. I felt like the manga lost what made me enjoy it, and when it came back I enjoyed the series again, but I won’t forget how I felt for those few chapters.

I’ll admit that the way I felt skewered my enjoyment of the ending, and I’ll admit I didn’t give the ending the thought and reasoning it deserved. I was overly ignorant to the message the ending tried to convey, and for someone trying to finish up and gather my thoughts on a very long manga to prepare to discuss it that weekend, I failed to give it the appropriate attention. I’ll admit that and confess that was probably rather unprofessional of me. I will ensure that doesn’t happen again. Still, I want to defend that I’m not unjustified in the way I saw the ending. I still maintain the story took a lot of missteps towards the end of the series. I still maintain the story included too many characters and made many of the human villains out to be irredeemable fuck wits only serviceable to be a feast for the otherwise ineffectual puppet army.

I don’t want to say anyone commenting on my video was wrong—quite the opposite; I was the one who was wrong. However I want people to know my stance on character death and understand that I enjoy rich characterization and conclusion rather than “die die die”. Maybe this was an extremely long winded and ineffectual way to do it, but gagoosh—it’s there. I hope to improve my analysis of series as time goes on and maybe in time I’ll reread the ending and do a follow up with a clearer head. Until then, I apologize for the confusion and for being overly hasty in my judgment. Also, why does Bleach have to come back? I was kinda getting used to not reading it.

Until next time, Namaste!