Friday, January 27, 2006

FULL METAL ALCHEMIST: THE CONQUEROR OF SHAMBALA - IDEOLOGICALLY AMBIGUOUS

I'm a big fan of the anime series Full Metal Alchemist, and an even bigger fan of the manga by Arakawa Hiromu that the anime is based on. Thus, it was with great excitement that I started to watch the recently made movie, which is basically a sequel to the anime. However, my expectations were not quite met.

The film begins as the two alchemist brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric have been separated from each other – Alphonse is still in their old world, with no memories about what happened after he lost his body, while Edward is in the world 'on the other side', which is very similar to our own world in the 1930's. They are both trying to find a way back to each other again; Alphonse by pursuing alchemy, and Edward, finding that he cannot use alchemy in this other world, by studying rocket science.

Not only does the film seem to be made with a rather small budget – the animation is not exactly the best I've ever seen - but the script has some problems, as well.

Amidst the racism and xenophobia of the time, Edward helps out a Gypsy girl called Noa. The film clearly sympathises with her plight, but at the same time it is plagued by strange stereotypes.

Though they are from Germany, Noa and the other Gypsies seem to be highly influenced by Spanish Gypsy culture – they sing songs that have some kind of Spanish/Latino sound, and Noa dances something resembling flamenco. This 'Spanish' connection is a rather common stereotype when depicting "Gypsies". Here are two more examples of this from the collection of images of Gypsies in the media by Ian Hancock for his book The Pariah Syndrome.

Also, when Noa expresses the wish to have a country of her own where she wouldn't be persecuted, Edward is astonished and says something like "I thought it was your *pride* to always be on the move!", echoing another common stereotype. Read about this in the section "Anti-Gypsyism" in The Pariah Syndrome.

This film doesn't limit itself to stereotypes about Gypsies. There is also a sequence where an acquaintance of Edward, a Jewish film maker, speaks about Japan, and says that it's "a nation of only one tribe". I had severe difficulties trying to figure out whether his character was intentionally made to be misinformed, or whether the script really was communicating Japanese nationalist propaganda - because what he said is a damned lie.

At the very least one could remember the Ainu, Koreans and Burakumin (though the latter are a social, caste-like minority, not an ethnical one), but there are also smaller groups of different ethnicities that have been around in Japan at least 100 years, such as Jews and Russians. (Here is a general article about minorities in Japan.)

Then again, the film delivers a message that goes something like this: once you come to a foreign place/country/world, you can't stay indifferent to it. You have to take it into your heart like your own country. Edward won't let this new world down, and the people he has gotten to know and made friends with there, just because it's not his 'own' world. That's a sympathetic thought, especially if you read it from the perspective of emigrants who come to a new country. It's their country, as well - simply because they are there.

The Conqueror of Shambala is on one hand against Nazism and racism, and for friendship between different ethnicities and worlds. But on the other hand, it is not free from racist stereotypes and nationalist propaganda. It's not the best of movies, but it might be interesting as an example of how these subjects work in Japanese mass culture.