On the surface, Fullmetal Alchemist could easily be a fun ‘little’ Shonen romp about the adventures of two brothers trying to regain an arm, a leg and their entire corporeal being through magic and fisticuffs. But there’s more to it. FMA is a multi-layered trifle of deliciousness. Once you’ve penetrated the whipped cream of frivolity, you’re met with the custard of war, the jelly of political corruption and the sponge of genocide. Mmmmm, mass death….
If this was one of those hipster trifles, I’d say FMA’s salted caramel/lavendar petals/beard shavings was Kabbalah and esotericism.
The iconography is certainly unavoidable. There are plenty of scenes taking place next to a gate bearing what appears to be a misconstrued workflow diagram. Alas, Ed never gave his audience a powerpoint presentation on promoting synergy in the workplace; this diagram is of course, the Sephirot or ‘Tree of Life.’
Within the Kabbalah, Sephirot symbolise the ten primal emanations of the divine will; the Path in which God created the world from nothingness. The ten Sephirot form the Tree of Life. This tree is divided into three columns representing: kindness, rigour and mercy (meant to balance the other two). Kindness is the male configuration, rigour is the female. Unmitigated rigour will lead to the destruction of anything not perfect, while complete kindness will allow for everything without control. These two columns are however necessary, as they allow for humanity to possess free will. Mercy, the balancing factor, allows humans to help ameliorate the problems they generate through mistakes caused by singular devotion to the other configurations.
Kether (Crown) is the realm of God, a state of inconceivable happiness and thus the highest Sephirot. Malchut (Kingdom), the lowest Sephirot, is commonly referred to as the world of speech. Being disconnected from the divine, and unable to conceive Kether, the soul can only gain understanding and a ‘connection’ to God through the limited channel of speech.
Now, in relation to FMA! In the very first chapter, Al loses his body as a result of Ed disobeying the rules of equivalent exchange. From my interpretation, in trying to recreate a perfect living being, without giving something worthy of exchange, Ed has lost sight of the ‘cycle of life.’ This theme is symbolised throughout the series in the form of the ouroboros (the tail swallowing serpent). In alchemy, the ouroboros symbolises the unending cycle of life and death. Theoretically, alchemy was to have no beginning or end, there was no ‘finished’ product per se, as what is ‘created’ is composed of the same starting materials.
The Philosophers Stone, the substance to turn base metals into gold was considered a means to break this cycle, to gain a perfect transmutation. Or in FMA’s case, a life without the need to adhere to equivalent exchange.
Ed frequently gains visions of ‘truth’/the gate bearing the tree of life because he dared to dabble with the tree of knowledge (alchemy relating to the soul). It is believed by Kabblists, and many alchemists/scientists of the seventeenth century, that to comprehend the Sephirot, man must dare to grab the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Which also explains why Ed can perform alchemy without transmutation circles, as he has ‘glimpsed’ at the tree of life.
I wrote this drivel a while ago, but if you’re interested in reading up on FMA’s ‘deeper’ themes, including the contention between science and religion, this article is rather spiffy!