Human and Its Other in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Summoned into the world through alchemy, Homunculus — the dwarf in the flask — is asked by the Xerxes king to reveal the secret of immortality. It teaches the king to create the legendary philosopher’s stone, a feat requiring the sacrifice of thousands of human souls, but ultimately betrays the king to claim the stone for itself, coming to wield immense alchemic power and possessing an immortal body. The slave Van Hohenheim wakes in the ruined city of Xerxes, littered with the bodies of his dead friends, coworkers, and fellow city dwellers. In the midst of his confused terror, he hears a voice call his name and turns, coming face to face with a reflection of himself — Homunculus dwelling in a reconstructed body that bears Hohenheim’s exact likeness.
This central narrative crisis of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMA:B) ripples out to affect all its characters, threatening the category of “human” by forcing them to grapple with its definition. Jacques Lacan’s formation of “I” and its “Other” in the mirror stage is realized through Van Hohenheim and Homunculus, characters who share a physical appearance and origin story, positioned as protagonistic and antagonistic reflections of the “human” category.
However, Jacques Lacan’s imago-Gestalt quickly becomes Eduardo Cadava’s monster of Frankenstein through the mirroring of Hohenheim and Homunculus, as FMA:B presents a monstrous image of the human subject, rupturing its “I” category by demonstrating a dialectical relationship between the human and the monstrous.
A PHYSICAL LIKENESS IN THE MIRROR STAGE
Wonderfully convoluted, the origin story that characterizes the relationship between Van Hohenheim and Homunculus is understood here through Lacan’s mirror stage. We can imagine their relationship conceptualized as “an identification…the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (Lacan 1164). The subject assumes subjecthood the moment it recognizes itself through an external image of the body, and subsequently continues to realize subjecthood through images. Hohenheim’s self-definition as a character begins in the narrative past when he first sees the creature Homunculus in human form at the Xerxes ruins.
His first response is “It’s me!” (fig. 1), jarred by the physical resemblance of Homunculus’ body to his own. Homunculus in return asks him, “How do you like your new body?” (fig. 2), redirecting Hohenheim’s attention to his own transformation into an immortal being. This face-to-face meeting is a moment where “I” “is objectified in dialectic of identification with the other” (Lacan 1164). Host to a philosopher’s stone so large that his body is essentially immortal, Hohenheim’s body is no longer human in his understanding; instead bearing more similarity to Homunculus than any other creature in the narrative. That recognition becomes a permanent identification with totalizing impact on Hohenheim’s subject formation.
The un-aging, immortal, and inhumanely powerful body of Hohenheim becomes his “I” at the exact moment Homunculus assumes his reflective image.
The physical reflection of Homunculus is set up as the narrative “Gestalt” to Hohenheim’s “I”, an exterior and constituent “total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power” (Lacan 1165). Hohenheim’s entire life as a human subject is formed in relation and reaction to Homunculus. When the two characters first meet, Homunculus is an orb-like entity trapped in a flask, and Van Hohenheim is simply slave 23. In conversation, Homunculus probes Hohenheim, “Don’t you want freedom and rights? Do you plan on ending your life as a slave without gaining basic human rights? That’s the same as being in this stuffy flask. I’m going to share my knowledge with you” (Yasuhiro Ep 40). By giving slave 23 the name “Van Hohenheim” and teaching him the ways of alchemy, Homunculus enables him to earn freedom from slavery and become a free human in Xerxes. Hohenheim is indebted and grateful to Homunculus, who has given him the capacity to imagine more for himself and his life — to imagine himself as fully human, in other words.
Homunculus as imago-Gestalt, however, is represented as clearly nonhuman. Aside from its blob-like physical appearance and intimidating single eye, an early conversation they have when Homunculus is still trapped in its flask highlights the distinction between them. When Hohenheim thanks Homunculus for giving him knowledge and shares his hope to start a family, Homunculus is unable to understand this desire for human connection. Hohenheim responds, “Don’t talk like that. It may seem stupid in your eyes, but having friends and family may bring one happiness, for us humans, that is” (fig. 3). In return, when asked what it wants, Homunculus responds, “I don’t want to be too greedy. But being able to leave this flask would be nice” (Yasuhiro Ep 40).
Their differences demarcate “human” and “monstrous” categories, becoming horrifyingly distinct when Hohenheim realizes that Homunculus has sacrificed every citizen in the city to create the philosopher’s stone. Hohenheim’s shock at his own remade body preempts the audience’s empathy, and his further outrage and grief over Homunculus’ actions re-establish his “human” position. Hohenheim’s desire to “become human again” is presented as an inversion of Homunculus’s desire to “become the perfect being”. Their narrative paths diverge as Hohenheim searches for a way to undo his immortality in order to age and die with his family, while Homunculus constructs the city of Amestris and begins a number of civil wars to gather more humans for an even more powerful philosopher’s stone. Their paths to cross again, however, when Hohenheim realizes Homunculus’ plans and sets out to deter it.
FMA:B narratively juxtaposes “human” against “monstrous”, and yet, also consistently introduces ruptures that destabilize the boundaries between these categories. Homunculus forms seven nonhuman creatures it ironically calls children who, in return, call it Father. This is a strange variation of the dream of family Hohenheim shared with him in the past. Furthermore, because Homunculus was summoned into the world through a ritual that required human blood, taken from Hohenheim when he was still a slave, Homunculus translates this connection as a familial tie — calling Hohenheim a relative (fig. 4) .In contrast, Hohenheim becomes isolated from other humans and communities because of his monstrous, immortal body.
Both Homunculus and Hohenheim are birthed in direct relation to each other: Homunculus into the world through slave 23’s blood, and slave 23 into Van Hohenheim through Homunculus’ naming and knowledge. They share a blood relationship and an intimacy despite one being human and the other nonhuman.
TWO KINDS OF PERFORMATIVE HUMANITIES
The narrative arc of Hohenheim and Homunculus exemplifies the whole drama of the mirror stage, where the “I” — “Other” relationship develops from identification toward an alienating destination (Lacan 1165). Homunculus assumes Hohenheim’s body as a container after its liberation from the flask, but morphs form in different narrative stages, exercising a fluid reflection that visually demarcates it from Hohenheim. As the drama closes, Homunculus is finally defeated and appeals to onlookers — character spectators and reader-spectators alike — “Why? I wanted to live freely in this vast world without being bound by anyone! What else should I have done?” (Yasuhiro Ep 63). This appeal prompts Hohenheim to remember a conversation from 400 years ago in Xerxes, and he recognizes this impulse for freedom as his own.
Homunculus, who sought to be free from its flask to become a perfect being, mirrors for Hohenheim the latent desire of slave 23 for personhood and freedom. Homunculus as a manifestation of “a relation between the organism and its reality” (Lacan 1166), embodies the hunger for freedom taken to extreme existential proportions that leads “lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity” (Lacan 1166). This means it experiences a full reversion to a monstrous nonhuman form, summoned back to the otherworldly gate of its origin — a place we do not understand.
It is, howver, also in this desire to become “more than”, that the humanness of Homunculus becomes identifiable. Its initial connection to slave 23 is derived from similarities between the state of slavery and “living in this stuffy flask” (fig. 5). Although Homunculus’ monstrosity is constituted by its untraceable, “Othered” origin and enforced in its ruthless quest to become a perfect being, its monstrous actions are always performed in the human appearances borrowed from Hohenheim. It also co-opts familial structures in the seven monstrous “children”, and borrows social systems of city infrastructure (Amestris). Just as “[Frederick] Douglass represents himself as a monster by using a language that, strictly speaking, does not belong to him, and surrenders himself to someone else’s language” (Cadava 1560), Homunculus as Gestalt represents its desire through borrowed social and linguistic structures of human and social relationships, and rights to freedom.
When it begins to lose social family structures, the assurance of victory, and an assumption of omnipotence, it begins to gain a recognizable humanity. The more defeated Homunculus becomes, the more pitiable and human-like it is, despite reverting to a monstrous appearance. Through these losses of borrowed language and structures, we witness the fallout caused by Homunculus’ character flaws:
- a relatable human dissatisfaction,
- greed that fuels careless and thoughtless actions
- ambition to surpass the restraints of the categories with which it is labelled
An ironic reflection of humanness is reinforced with each loss. In this way, the monstrous Homunculus adopts humanness in its “Othering,” mirroring the “I” in its grotesque yet identifiable form.
Through its impassioned appeal, we are asked to recognize its human desire for freedom, knowledge and relationship.
In similar irony, the category of the human becomes attainable again for Hohenheim when he appropriates the monstrous abilities gifted him by Homunculus. Hohenheim’s human “I” is enabled and performed through his relationship to his monstrous existence and the philosopher’s stone inside him. Cadava suggests that “if the fact that Douglass’s language is never simply his own partly constitutes his monstrosity, this monstrosity is the point of departure for his efforts to revise and revolutionize language” (Cadava 1563).
In other words, the monster who appropriates has the capacity to revolutionize.
Hohenheim, whose immortality renders him monstrous, is also the strongest point of resistance against Homunculus. That which he gained from the monster Homunculus — a “borrowed” name, knowledge, alchemy, and immortality — enable him to interfere with Homunculus’ bloodthirsty, power-hungry plans. His resistance is a revolution which seeks to “alter the relations in which we live, to evoke another model for rights and equality” (Cadava 1563). Hohenheim does not wish to see millions more souls sacrificed to a desire for immortality and power, so he allies with the millions of souls who power his philosopher’s stone to stop Homunculus. His active revision of the terms of his monstrosity contextualizes the “monstrous” category with a revolutionary performance of what we identify as “human”.
Hohenheim’s humanity is a “reconceptualization of … the meaning of the word human and of the claim that a human being is entitled to rights” (Cadava 1559). Despite the monstrous existence of millions of other human souls inside of him as the philosopher’s stone, we consider Hohenheim to be a human character. Similarly, Hohenheim uses his “miscegenated body” (Cadava 1559) to reaffirm each soul inside him as an individual being, entitled to the dignity of being recognized as human even in their unrecognizable states. Over centuries of living, he struggles to single them out despite their intangible existence as individual entities, speak to each one, names them, andknows their stories (fig. 6). Since these souls no longer have identifiably human characteristics, he reimagines the human category using their names and stories.
This revision not only renders him “human”, it also expands the category of human within FMA:B to include what we might otherwise consider monstrous. Through Hohenheim’s actions, we are asked to look at the souls of his philosopher’s stone a different way. Hohenheim offers us one possibility of Cadava’s call to “evoke another model for rights and equality” (Cadava 1563) by reimagining what it means to be human, and who deserves the rights and freedoms afforded by that designation.
THE MONSTROUS EDGE OF THE HUMAN CATEGORY
What does it mean for humanity then, when the Lacanian imago-Gestalt of the human Hohenheim is the Cadavian monstrous, nonhuman Homunculus?
It implies that the human category emerges precisely on the rupturing boundary between what is human and nonhuman. Lacan’s “Other”, through Cadava, is a monster mirroring a recognizable humanity back to us, despite constituting a nonhuman form. The simultaneous emergence of the “I” — the naming and subsequent subject formation of Hohenheim — and “Other” — the birth of Homunculus through blood and its borrowed human form — reflect the intimate relationship wherein human and monstrous are spilling over their demarcations. In the end, the defeated Homunculus is presented at its most human and vulnerable once reverted to its original monstrous form, about to be reabsorbed into its place of origin. Its emotional appeal, “What’s wrong with desiring it (immortality and perfection)?” (fig. 7) is identifiably human. We understand Homunculus’ frustration at not being permitted to surpass what it is, because it mirrors the “why” of Hohenheim’s anguish when he finds himself the sole survivor in Xerxes — both are emotional reactions to helplessness and powerlessness. By expressing its monstrous desire for the freedom to become more than the constraints of its being,
Homunculus presents the exact moment it performs a recognizable form of humanness, while occurring only when it looks least like a human.
On the other side, having exhausted his philosopher’s stone, Hohenheim visits his wife’s grave to tell her he can now die happy. When forced into immortality, Hohenheim rejected his monstrous existence and desired to reclaim his humanity. At the moment of death, however, Hohenheim regains this indomitable human desire, sighing “…somehow I still want to live” (fig. 8). This conundrum is an unstable line between monstrous and human, for once his monstrous immortality is taken away, his human desire for immortality is restored. Hohenheim dies after uttering this wish, as his now-aged face simultaneously illuminates mortality and the desire to surpass it.
FMA:B suggests that the “human” constitutes a dialectic desire to be unconstrained by circumstance and self to an imagined freedom, and that freedom will always be an inverse reflection of that circumstance and self. The relationship between Hohenheim and Homunculus is dialectical, wherein both are formed by and against each other. By exploring the limits of the “human” category, FMA:B reveals the monstrous “Other” that shares blood, knowledge, and even appearance with the “human” in order to challenge and expand it.
What thematically constitutes the human is ironically, a constant blurring of the nonhuman with the human: a human that is monstrous, and a monster that is human.
What becomes “human” about each is the gesture of protest against the restrictive categories they are labelled with, a resistance that echoes even in the final sentences of both Hohenheim and Homunculus, mirroring each other to the very end:
*this essay was first published in The Spectatorial at the University of Toronto
Cadava, Eduardo. “The Monstrosity of Human Rights”. PMLA 121.5 (2006): 1558–1565. Web.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Dir. Yasuhiro Irie. Bones Inc. 2009-2010. Web.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1163–69. Print.