A Critical Appreciation of a Prize Poster

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On Sunday, I attended my first KAC meeting since 2014. KAC (Kolkata Anime Club) is a large Facebook group of anime lovers, mostly from Kolkata (and most of them either students or employed ). There were two rounds of the quiz, the second of which had prizes: anime-themed posters, very desirable for fans. They were given to people who answered right, but at random. I was the last one to win. There was one prize left, and even though I didn’t know what it was (the Umaru one was taken, sadly), I wanted it as much as the next fan, of course. There was a screenshot of an anime, and the room fell silent for a few seconds; hands were raised, I think, and I was picked; I answered correctly. It was Yusuke Urameshi playing with the boy in the first episode. I got my prize, and held it up for everyone to see (not without much modesty, may the reader be assured). I didn’t even get the direction right the first time.

When I got home, I still hadn’t decided where to put it, and it rested on my table till I finally moved my bed aside, got a ladder, and taped it to the ceiling so I could see it upright when I lay down. It’s a splendid poster, and I mean to discuss it.

It’s very interesting to wonder what it depicts. Sometimes the most obvious things, when questioned, yield delightful answers. At first sight, most people will tell (<‘tellan’) that it’s Edward Elric’s right arm reaching upwards, but with the thumb broken off; just out of reach is the Philosopher’s Stone, in the centre of a transmutation circle.

It’s interesting, then (I’ll keep using this phrase) that one club member thought it was Alphonse’s hand. Of course, as many know, it’s a running gag in the series that Alphonse is mistaken for Edward. This ties in nicely with the central theme of brotherhood and metaphysical unity. Curious, how a simple picture of a metallic arm could evoke so much.

Next, we must ask ourselves what the picture depicts, in terms of situation and action. It is tempting to dismiss the image as a jumble of elements of Fullmetal Alchemist, but I couldn’t help feeling there was more to it. Why give us these things, then, and in their relative positions: Edward’s broken arm, an active transmutation circle, the Philosopher’s Stone? What if there’s a little story being told here? As I see it, it’s something like this: Edward, in reaching for – or chasing – first an impossible dream, then the Philosopher’s Stone, has lost everything: his body, his childhood, his home, and more. In the end, as poignantly as in FMA, the Stone is still out of reach. If that arm moved even further up, it still couldn’t grip the object of its desire.

Or is it a different story being told? Edward lost his right arm to bring back Alphonse in the first place, and in the climax of the 2003 anime, he and Alphonse sacrifice themselves for each other. What if the picture is the story of Edward using the Philosopher’s Stone for his brother? We see that the circle is active – he has possibly just set it to work. The effort has come after others, and Edward’s automail has been damaged; or perhaps he is losing his arm again, as the price of alchemy.

Some of the meaning is lost on me. I can’t read the glyphs or letters in the circle. The background is a mixture of dull, earthy colours that remind me of a map; I fail to find anything significant in it. At the most, this could mean that Edward has travelled the length and breadth of Amestris to find the Stone that he’s using right now (or, interestingly, still unable to touch).

A close look at the poster reveals streaks of ‘lightning’ (forgive my liberal choice of words) around the automail arm, and what looked like sketches on a faded map to be dim, brownish transmutation circles scattered over the page. The latter is clearly a thematic element; the former corroborates my idea that Ed is probably losing his arm. Or is he?

As I looked, I wondered if this was a dramatic reversal of the story. Wires hang loose from the arm, and the thumb lies apart: in the corner, another piece of metal, not obviously, but possibly, part of the arm, can be seen. The arm itself seems to be split along its length, and the hand has come loose. But is it being lost? Perhaps the Philosopher’s Stone is being used to make an arm? This is not a very valid reading, but if we followed this line of thought, where would we find ourselves? Who is making the arm? Is it symbolic of Edward’s quest – he becomes who he is through his quest, and thus the Philosopher’s Stone, in a sense, created him? Or is it more symbolic still? Is the product of science or metaphysics, through the study and research that brings it about, creating a race of people that lack an essential humanity – hollow men filled with straw, or with souls bonded to suits of armour in country house basements? Or is it trying to say that modern science is built on blood – on Ishval, or the victims of illegal drug tests?

Blood is another theme that comes to mind on a closer look. Specks of blood are visible on Edward’s arm. The Kenja no Ishi (Philosopher’s Stone) is itself made from blood, in a way. Fathers and brothers are joined by blood – be they strictly human, or homunculi. Edward brings his brother back by drawing a seal with  his own blood – he is quite literally joined with him through blood. Mustang drew a bloody circle on his hand to fight Lust. Edward, Prince Ling, and Envy wade through blood inside Gluttony’s stomach. Bloodshed in Xerxes set the story in motion centuries before the plot begins. Then why is Edward the only one with blood on his hand/s? I wonder if this means that the protagonist is somehow responsible for the events that take place. Again, if we took that notion seriously, then is inherited guilt important to FMA? Is Edward – along with his brother – somehow responsible for Hohenheim’s errors? Is blood important when Ed and Al follow in their father’s hubris-tinged footsteps? Blood on his hands – perhaps it is this, as much as his wish to restore his brother, that drives Edward. The indelible sin that compels Edward to burn down house and home, that blanches his face when his father confronts him (in FMA:B), and which he must remember inside Gluttony in the sea of blood (where he is so steeped in blood that ‘Returning were as tedious as go o’er’): this guilt is part of the trauma that is part of Edward’s childhood. As said above, Edward has lost much on his way, including his childhood innocence. An interesting parallel comes to mind. In the 2003 anime, Scar often repeated to himself the Ishvalan proverb, “Those who receive pain can still sleep. Those who give pain cannot sleep.” In Act III of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth says “‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy/ Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.”

The last thing I’d like to focus on is dichotomies. By choosing to clearly depict two things, the viewer is invited to investigate other dualitites. The Stone above is on a different plane from the human arm stretching towards it. There is man, and more than man. There’s blood, and there’s iron. There is life, there is death. I dunno if there’s the Force, though. And, I suppose, brotherhood itself is a duality of sorts.

Now let’s not bother ourselves with what the picture would mean if someone hadn’t told me to hold it up in portrait mode. All in all, it’s a very nice poster, and I’m glad I won it.