Have you ever watched Fullmetal Alchemist? I haven’t! Luckily, I had Jordan Lee — the mind behind the beautiful chamber-folk band Mutual Benefit — to tell me all about the series, and his experience watching it with his little brother. (It’s sort of like Disney’s Life-Size, with Lindsay Lohan and Tyra Banks? Except anime, and about two brothers who are missing either parts or all of their body, and something about imperialism. Also alchemy.) (You’ll see.) Let’s go!
KELLY: Why did you want to talk about Fullmetal Alchemist?
JORDAN: I haven’t had a lot of recent television shows feel like an experience worth talking about in an interview, but years ago when my little brother and I watched Fullmetal Alchemist it almost felt like a thing that happened, like a trip or something. I’m kind of afraid to talk about anime on Stereogum because then the secret is out that I’m a huge nerd.
KELLY: Hahah, oh don’t worry, I’m pretty sure everyone who writes for and reads Stereogum is a huge nerd. So did your little brother introduce you to it?
JORDAN: Yeah he was learning Japanese and looking for anything he could use to immerse himself in the language. It’s funny, because the main characters are brothers and one is tall and sanguine like him and one is short and hyper like me. It is an alternate universe where alchemists use the principle of “equivalent exchange” to change matter from one thing to another as long as nothing is lost or gained. The plot basically is that they try to use alchemy to bring back their dead mother, but instead it goes wrong because they couldn’t calculate what makes up a soul. So instead the one brother loses his whole body and is just a soul in empty armor, and the other loses an arm and a leg.
KELLY: Oh wow. Sort of like Disney’s Life-Size except instead of accidentally bringing Tyra Banks to life instead of Lindsay Lohan’s mom, they lost body parts.
JORDAN: Haha, I’m unfamiliar but anything with Tyra is worth checking out I bet.
KELLY: Oh IT IS. Is Fullmetal Alchemist very bleak? It sounds very bleak.
JORDAN: That’s the thing, it still feels like a kid’s show and is from a teen’s perspective, so mostly it stays pretty upbeat They are on this grand quest to get their bodies back and they have this blind optimism about it. I think the cool thing about the show is this idea of equivalent exchange always being the overarching theme. So they keep looking for shortcuts to deal with loss or to conquer something that naturally happens but there is never an appropriate exchange. Part of their journey is just growing up and accepting how life works. And fighting bad guys.
KELLY: Hahah, of course. Did that theme add to why it felt more like a thing that happened than just watching a TV show when you watched it with your brother?
JORDAN: Yeah, definitely. It was a weird time in our lives and it is funny the random things that can cause bonding experiences. I would have never guessed it would have been a silly little cartoon that we binge-watched over a weekend. It’s only been recently that I’ve thought about why when trying to explain the plot to my girlfriend.
KELLY: Are you trying to get her to binge-watch it again with you? “It’s about a ghost body in a suit who tried to bring his mom back to life, ahhhh I guess let’s just watch it.”
JORDAN: Haha, yeah I’ve been debating whether it would be good as an adult. Tough sell.
KELLY: Yeah. It’s always difficult knowing whether to revisit something you loved in your past, with the possibility of ruining it.
JORDAN: As far as anime itself goes, I’m always on the prowl for good series because I feel like some of them aren’t afraid to ask really tough questions or delve into politics or religion in an interesting way, yet there’s usually something a little…off. Like blatant misogyny. Or extreme violence.
KELLY: Knowing nearly nothing about anime, those are certainly two things I associate with it.
JORDAN: Yeah, I think this is one of the few series to (mostly) bypass that stuff by acknowledging the heavy life stuff, but through the eyes of kids.
KELLY: Do you have a favorite Fullmetal Alchemist moment that you remember?
JORDAN: Hmmm, I don’t think I can do it succinctly. The brother decides to join the state military early on so they have access to research and transportation, but they slowly realize that the country they live in is imperialistic and taking advantage of the ones around them. Bearing in mind that I was 15 or 16 and in the ‘burbs when I watched this, it was actually a pretty mind blowing concept. So I remember a moment where my sympathies for the “good guys” and “bad guys” reversed, and I was reading Naomi Klein not too shortly after.
KELLY: So basically Fullmetal Alchemist was your Dead Kennedys.
JORDAN: Did anime make me a punk!?!