Fans of Fullmetal Alchemist will enjoy this interview with the creator Arakawa.
Hiromu Arakawa puts heart and soul into Fullmetal Alchemist and creates a manga that touches the world
Equivalent Exchange by Amos Wong
When you flip open the first volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, before you get to the alchemy or the transmutations or the homunculi, you’re greeted by a self-portrait of artist and creator Hiromu Arakawa. It’s a bespectacled cow stretching her briefs, accompanied by the phrase “Fighting Panties!” Yeah, we were a little confused too. But it just so happens that she has cows on the brain for good reason. “I was in the dairy business for seven years after high school,” Arakawa tells us. Her former profession shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. She hails from Hokkaido in northern Japan, an area famous for its dairy production. Arakawa took oil painting classes once a month in between working at the dairy, honing her childhood love for drawing even further. Now residing in Tokyo, she first broke into the world of manga in 1999 with the award-winning one-shot Stray Dog, published in Square Enix’s manga magazine Shonen GanGan. Two years later, Fullmetal Alchemist debuted in the same publication (Volume 5 hits shelves in the US this month from VIZ Media). The rest is history: A top-rated TV series, a feature film and a slew of video games followed, not to mention a mountain of licensed goods. But when she started, there was no grand plan for world domination via manga. “I just drew and drew and kept drawing, and before I knew it I was a manga author. It just happened, somehow,” she says of the whirlwind experience. Completely self-taught in manga art skills, Arakawa crafts dynamic layouts that exude an immaculate attention to details. She cites several artists she has admired since childhood as major influences: pre-Osamu Tezuka luminary Suiho Tagawa, Shigeru Mizuki (famed for the yokai story Gegege no Kitaro) and Rumiko Takahashi. Among American artists, she’s particularly enamored of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s work. Yet despite her illustration finesse, like all good artists she believes there’s room for improvement. “I still have trouble drawing things exactly the way I want them to look.”
Sum of Many Parts
Fullmetal Alchemist originated in a roundabout way. Before starting the series, Arakawa considered using the concept of the Philosopher’s Stone in an independent manga, and the art of alchemy happened to crop up during her research. “The more I read up on alchemy, the more interesting I found it,” she recalls. “I was more attracted to the philosophical aspects of it than the practical ones.” When approached to create a serialized manga that would become Fullmetal Alchemist, her fascination with the mystic art led to the establishment of equivalent exchange as a theme and the genesis of the State Alchemists.
Another theme Arakawa wanted to explore was family. “The series starts off with the Elric brothers attempting to revive their dead mother, and they do that because they long for the warmth of family,” she explains. Although their efforts result in tragedy, the brothers find some solace from the elderly Auto-Mail smithy Pinako Rockbell and her granddaughter Winry, who welcome the boys into their household and become their surrogate family. Arakawa notes that for growing children, domestic relationships represent a microcosm of the society they enter later on in life. “If we want a world where people will be more supportive of each other, then perhaps all we need to do is just gradually widen the scope of that mini-society. I wrote the story with that wish in mind.” Indeed, Ed and Al’s travel’s bring them into contact with all sorts of characters with their own trials and tribulations, and support is never far away. “I think the story’s eventual destination might be an understanding of family, in a larger sense of the world.”
When it came to the setting, Arakawa’s lingering impressions of a tour across Europe proved influential in realizing the world’s architecture and culture. “I was particularly impressed by how remarkably different the thinking and customs were, even between neighboring countries.” An avid antique fair-goer (one of her hobbies alongside taking long drives), Arakawa used information gleaned from storeowners to help her create the mystic symbology and various items. She credits her love of B-flicks for Fullmetal Alchemist’s shenanigans and somewhat outrageous take on alchemy. Turn lead into gold? What a snore. In Arakawa’s world, the ability can transmute a cane into a massive Gatling gun. Should the going get tough, a savvy alchemist can beat a hasty retreat by reconfiguring a solid wall into a door–complete with industrial-chic embellishments. “I watch all kinds of movies, not just B-flicks,” she says. “I especially like the heart-pounding fun and simpleminded energy of Hong Kong and Hollywood films.”
While brimming with action and comedy (plus the hilarious four-panel gag manga that close each volume), Fullmetal Alchemist is notably infused with personal tragedy across virtually the entire main cast. Throw in some complex moral issues–reviving a loved one from the dead being just one of them–and you have a weighty, thoroughly engaging story.
“Most of the problems the characters face, from life-or-death decisions to painful regrets, were things that either came from my own personal experience, or everyday conversations with various people from all walks of life I’ve been fortunate enough to meet,” Arakawa remarks. Those people include paraplegics, refugees, war veterans, former yakuza, foreigners living in Japan and many others. Although their tales have obviously been dramatized for narrative reasons, she emphasizes that “just being alive and interacting with people will bring you into contact with situations like these.”
Regarding her personal experiences, a conflict between the State Alchemists and Scar (in Volume 2 of the manga) is partially drawn from Arakawa’s background in Hokkaido. The aboriginal people of the region, she explains, are the Ainu. “My ancestors were farmers and homesteaders who displaced Ainu and stole their land from them. But ironically enough, some of my own relatives have Ainu blood in them. That seems complicated, but it’s just an everyday fact of life to have neighbors of differing ethnicity.” Scar is bent on exterminating that State Alchemists, ironically using the very skill he despises. But rather than being your typical “evil antagonist,” he’s a survivor of a war arising from religious differences, in which the State Alchemists decimated his bordering homeland under orders. The allegories in her work aren’t just relevant to Japan. “I think the truly serious problems in this world are when people don’t make any effort to learn about these everyday situations, when they turn away from them or view them from only a single perspective.”
Does she identify with a particular character? “People always tell me I’m like Ed, or maybe Ed’s teacher Izumi,” Arakawa observes, though that’s only on the surface. In terms of conveying inner psyche, she admits Alphonse is easier to portray. “I’m the fourth in a family of five kids, so I find it very easy to depict the personality of a person who’s resilient enough to observe the mistakes of those who came before him and learn from them!”
From Print to Screen
Naturally, meetings with the anime staff were in order when Fullmetal Alchemist was slated to become a TV series. “Basically I left the adaptation completely up to them,” Arakawa says. She did however request that the series have a different ending from what was planned in her work. “Manga and anime are different modes of expression, and different artists are involved. There’s little point in having a cross-media story if everything is exactly the same in all versions.” Her impression of the result? She found the homunculi’s stories especially compelling: “As I watched the show, I found it very interesting to speculate about what kind of final showdown each of the homunculi would have with the people who spawned them.”
Ending aside, Arakawa remarks that the biggest difference between the anime and manga crops up in Volume 11 of the manga–though the bombshell is too much of a spoiler to mention here. Suffice to say, the revelation “leads to a number of different views about life and death that should become something of a trial for the brothers.” Although the story’s denouement was set from the beginning, she remarks that developing a gripping, long-running tale is akin to the tribulations her protagonists face. “I struggle right along with them, sometimes making mistakes as I go. I can’t grow as an artist by only presenting things that I already know the answers to. Even if I were to try, I think I would just come off as pompous.” On the lighter side, she says that art-wise, some characters are particularly enjoyable to draw. Naturally, the Elric brothers are amongst the group. “Also, the Rockbell family, including [Winry's dog] Den, Major Armstrong and Lieutenant Hawkeye.”
Considering Fullmetal Alchemist’s widespread popularity the world over, correspondence from fans has been plentiful and memorable, resulting in an unexpected bit of equivalent exchange. “I’ve been very touched by letters from young boys and girls in the hospital, or even from adults who tell me that they felt better after reading Fullmetal Alchemist,” she says. “Reading manga gave me hope as a kid, and it makes me so happy to think that now I’ve been able to cheer people up with my own manga! It’s such an honor, it really is.”
Newtype USA January 2006
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