Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood: The Symbolic and Ironic Deaths of the Homunculi
Probably the most well-known antagonists of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood are the seven Homunculi. Simply put, a Homunculus (singular of Homunculi) is an artificially created human being, brought to life by the power of alchemy. The Homunculi are unique antagonists in that each of them is the living personification of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Thus, one Homunculus is the personification of pride, another lust, another greed, another sloth, another wrath, another gluttony, and another envy. They are each named for the sin that embodies them.
Not only is each Homunculus the embodiment of a particular sin, but they are also virtually immortal, their bodies being powered by the energy of the mystical Philosopher’s Stone. Thus, they never age, and they can withstand the most devastating of physical injuries.
But they can be killed.
The creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa, has the heroes of the story defeat the Homunculi in ways that are epic, clever, and sometimes very violent. It’s easy to get lost in the excitement and violence as you watch Alexander Louis Armstrong hammer away at Sloth, or watch Colonel Mustang completely annihilate Lust or Envy. However, if we take a step back and contemplate the manner in which we see the seven Homunculi die, we are able to realize the mastery with which Hiromu Arakawa tells a story, and the symbolism and irony she places therein.
Let’s look at the death of each Homunculus in turn.
Although the first Homunculus to die is technically the “old” Greed, I think it’s reasonable to say that Lust is actually the first (…because she doesn’t come back!).
The sin of lust is defined as “An inordinate or disordered desire for sexual pleasure”. Whether or not Arakawa based Lust’s character off of that definition, I don’t know. However, it’s clear that Lust’s character is a reflection of that definition, whether intended or not. Depicted as a beautiful woman with long, wavy black hair, too much cleavage showing, and a deep, tempting voice, she embodies the guilty desires that a man might have. The sin of lust, by nature, tempts, and often succeeds in forcing men to bow to their desires, making them slaves to their own sensual wants. Lust is something deceptive that plays on the naturally good desires of a man, and turns them into something selfish.
The Homunculus Lust uses her attractive nature to woo the heart of Jean Havoc, a lieutenant working under Colonel Mustang. Havoc is always looking for a girlfriend, and Lust takes advantage of him in order to gain intelligence concerning Mustang’s plans.
Eventually, Lust and the other Homunculi move in to assassinate Mustang. In a chamber beneath an alchemical laboratory in Central City, a fiery battle ensues. Mustang is the Flame Alchemist, capable of setting the air itself on fire, and so he repeatedly encompasses Lust in a torrent of flames.
Again and again, Lust tries to rise and counterattack, endeavoring to pierce Mustang with her “Ultimate Spear”—basically, her finger nails, which are extremely strong and able to extend and retract back into her fingers at will. At last, Mustang defeats her by eventually wearing out the energy of her Philosopher’s Stone.
What’s so fascinating about Lust’s death? She dies on her knees.
It should also be known that (although more so in the manga), Colonel Mustang is something of a womanizer. And yet here we see Lust, the personification of the sin that makes men kneel to her, dying on her knees before a man. The symbolism is undeniable. It took an unsettling amount of fire, but Mustang, a man, defeats Lust by incinerating her, eradicating her from existence. Is this not what every man should do to eliminate the sin of lust from his life?
(Although I won’t go into it here, it’s interesting to note that there may be a relation between the death of Lust and the problem of pornography in Japan [the home-country of Arakawa]. Is there some sort of message in this scene that Arakawa is trying to send to the men of her country and the men of the world?)
Gluttony is defined as “excessive indulgence in food or drink”. Although certainly not the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, St. Paul condemns it when he condemns those people “whose god is their belly” (Philippians, 3:19). In the case of Gluttony from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, such a condemnation is certainly the case. Gluttony is depicted as an extremely large, ever-ravenous man, with a notably innocent attitude. One of his signature lines is asking humbly, “Can I eat him?”
Oh, and that’s another thing: he’s a cannibal.
What’s noteworthy about Gluttony’s death is that, first of all, a hero doesn’t defeat him. Rather, the Homunculus Pride is the one that kills Gluttony for good. And how, you might ask?
By eating him.
There is no heroic symbolism here, as far as I can tell. However, it’s evident that Arakawa thought it would be nice to throw some irony into her story when she decided to have Pride—who was hungry for power—eat Gluttony. How fitting, to have the one who eats everything and everyone get eaten!
The next Homunculus to die in the series is Envy. The sin of envy is defined as being angry with the happiness of others, or wishing to destroy the goods that someone has, simply because you don’t have them. Envy is capable of finding its way into a person’s life, and it is often a very deceptive sin. We can find ourselves wishing for the downfall of others, and thinking ourselves justified, without even realizing that envy is the root of our feelings. Once again, it’s a very sneaky, deceptive sin.
Thus, it’s fitting that Arakawa depicts Envy as a shape-shifter, capable of looking like anyone.
Envy is the Homunculus that almost always spies on the good guys, gaining intelligence for the other antagonists or working as an assassin. He is defeated by Mustang, who is finally given his chance to avenge his friend Maes Hughes, a victim of Envy. In the fiery battle that follows, Mustang, in his rage, defeats Envy, no matter what face Envy chooses to wear in order to trick Mustang.
Envy’s death is probably the most prominently symbolic. Why? Because Envy commits suicide, after discovering that he has been envious of humans. Throughout the series, Envy was always criticizing humans, looking down on them for being “weaker” creatures. And yet, it is Edward Elric, the main protagonist of the series, that points out to Envy (after he’s been defeated by Mustang) that the whole time, Envy has really been jealous of humans. Jealous for the relationships and companionship that humans have. Jealous, just because he wants to be like them.
And so, having realized this, Envy caves in on himself. His whole identity has been turned inside out, and he hates himself for being envious of humans. In the end, Envy himself pulls out his own Philosopher’s Stone, ending his life.
Thus, the death of Envy.
Sloth is casually defined as laziness, but there is a deeper meaning too. Sloth is being upset that doing the right thing is hard; it’s a certain type of depression or laziness that we allow to fill ourselves, making us unable to act in the way that we should.
Therefore, it’s quite fitting that Arakawa depicts Sloth as a meat-headed, dumb giant. Sloth’s number one line is, “What a pain!” Sloth hates doing anything that requires effort…and the sin of sloth makes a person feel the exact same way too. The character Sloth is also depicted with chains, an apt representation of how the sin of sloth can make us slaves to our own laziness and depression.
So, how does Sloth die?
Sloth is sent to kill Oliviae Armstrong, the sister of Alexander Louis Armstrong, the “STRONG ARMED ALCHEMIST!” Louis fights with his sister, and is eventually joined by Mr. Siggs, another man of impeccable muscular stature. In the silly but epic fight scene that follows, Armstrong and Mr. Siggs hammer away at Sloth, wearing the giant’s Philosopher’s Stone out.
What is unique about Sloth’s death? It seems like Sloth has the ability to rise and keep fighting, but eventually, Sloth decides that living is “too much of a pain”. The giant gives up on living because it takes too much effort. In other words, Sloth dies because of his own sloth.
How fitting, and yet another lesson learned at the hand of Arakawa’s story-telling. Sloth, in its most intense form, causes a person to destroy himself by making him unwilling to continue in life. It’s also worth noting that Sloth declares himself as “the fastest Homunculus”, even though he prefers to do everything slowly, because it requires less effort, Sloth delivers the fastest attack. Is this more symbolism, perhaps, indicating that the sin of sloth is able to be committed easily and quickly?
Wrath is defined as intense anger; most especially, anger for the wrong reasons. There are good things to get angry at, such as an injustice a person might be witnessing. And then there is selfish anger, anger that is impatient, anger that exists only for the pure satisfaction of being angry and taking it out on someone: this type of anger is wrath.
Wrath in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the only Homunculus that is capable of aging, since he needs to be more human than the others. For the sake of spoilers, I will not explain why. Wrath is depicted as an elderly man with a left eye that is capable of seeing every single movement around him in detail; thus, Wrath is nearly invincible, so long as he is able to see whoever is attacking him. Other than being just plain, old cool, there isn’t any notable symbolism present in the idea of Wrath’s “Ultimate Eye”, as far as I can tell. Perhaps, it is a reference to how we look at others and judge them, fueling our inner wrath?
The death of Wrath, however, is interestingly ironic, much like the death of Lust.
It takes many heroes to finally defeat Wrath, but the one who finishes the job is Scar. Scar is a serial killer, whose thirst for revenge led him to find and kill all State Alchemists. Scar’s nation was destroyed by State Alchemists, and so he was determined to rid the world of them. But Scar joins the side of the heroes and gives up his desire for vengeance when he realizes that there is a threat to the world much bigger than the State Alchemists, a threat, in fact, that has been behind the violent acts of the State Alchemists.
Thus, the battle is between an ex-murderer, and the personification of the sin of wrath.
Wrath is defeated when light is reflected from his own sword into his eyes, and Scar uses alchemy to blast off his arms. Wrath, indirectly betrayed by the weapon he uses to assert his feelings of anger, is killed by a serial killer: a serial killer who has overcome his own wrath.
The story of Hiromu Arakawa simply hums with irony and symbolism. Her genius continues to shine as the series progresses!
Pride is the only Homunculus that doesn’t die. However, he is defeated, and it seems that his sense of pride vanishes thereafter. Perhaps then, it is still right to say that Pride dies.
Pride is “the excessive love of one’s own excellence”. The sin of pride causes us to look inwards, focusing only on our own personal ego, and also to look down at others, and how they have failed, and also to look above others, thinking them unimportant. Pride is “the father of all sins” because, as the story goes, the Devil thought himself better than God, and thus sin and evil were brought into the world.
Thus, it is fitting that Arakawa makes Pride one of the most powerful Homunculi, if not the most powerful. Ominously, Pride is depicted as an innocent little boy, who acts like a normal child in one moment, but then in the next, has the voice of an evil spirit, and the stare of one who is possessed. It all makes sense: pride, being the father of all sins, is so easily overlooked, like an innocent, little boy. And yet, like an evil spirit, it is able to possess us.
Pride is defeated by the main protagonist, Edward Elric (Ed). Pride’s body is nothing more than a “flask” that contains his Philosopher’s Stone. Unfortunately for Pride, his body has begun falling apart, due to the length of his life and the intensity of the battles he has been in. He plans on taking Ed’s body, since his is deforming. However, Ed is able to turn himself into a Philosopher’s Stone, going inside of Pride in order to diffuse the Philosopher’s Stone that empowers the Homunculus. Edward is only able to do this, however, when Pride is distracted.
Philosopher’s Stones are comprised of souls that have been sacrificed through alchemy. A certain soul in Pride’s Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemist named Kimblee who had been working for Pride before Pride consumed him, speaks up as Ed and Pride fight. Kimblee accuses Pride of stooping from his dignity as a Homunculus to take the body of a human. Pride is distracted, unsettled by Kimblee’s words, giving Ed the diversion he needs to defeat Pride.
Pride’s defeat is much like Envy’s. Envy wanted to be like humans, and thus he killed himself; Pride stooped for something lower than what he actually was, and lost his edge in the battle. Ed doesn’t kill Pride, but rather reduces him to an innocent little fetus. The next time we see Pride in the epilogue of the show, it would appear that his pride has utterly vanished. It is also worth mentioning that, earlier in the series, Ed always seems to be a prideful, little brat. And now, in the finale of the show, his character has obviously grown a little more humble…and humility is the opposite of pride. It sure seems fitting then, that the newly humble Ed defeats the personification of the sin of pride.
The last Homunculus to die is Greed. Greed is an “inordinate love for riches”. In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Greed “demands the finer things in life…money and women, power and sex…”. He wants to be all powerful.
Greed’s character, in it’s relation to the sin of greed, is quite obvious, if not the most obvious out of the other Homunculi. He is blatantly the embodiment of greed. Greed, for the most part, is actually on the side of the good guys, since he shares a body with Ling Yao, a friend of Edward.
What’s interesting to note about Greed’s death is that he isn’t defeated. He sacrifices himself. Out of any of the Homunculi, it’s easy to admit that Greed’s death is the most meaningful, and even touching. How does Greed die, and why does he sacrifice himself?
Because all he ever wanted was friends.
Yes, in the end, Greed dies because he realizes that his friends are all he ever needed to be satisfied. He doesn’t need power or riches. Greed really isn’t so greedy when he dies. After weakening the body of the ultimate antagonist, his Philosopher’s Stone dies out, and he fades away into the sky. Greed’s death is so wonderfully symbolic because Greed himself solves the problem of greed. In order to defeat greed, we needn’t look far and wide. The answer to getting rid of greed is to look at what we have and be thankful, and focus on bettering the lives of others, instead of ourselves.
The last Homunculus dies as a friend to the heroes…because they are his friends too.
Hiromu Arakawa’s story is filled with symbolism and irony. Many lessons, as we learned, are able to be taken away from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The sins of lust, gluttony, envy, sloth, wrath, pride, and greed are all present in our world today. But, like in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, all of them can be defeated. We can all have “fullmetal” hearts!
What do you think? Leave a comment.