(the title says “hagane no jousei”, pronounced ha-ga-nay no joe-say; means “women of steel/fullmetal”)
One of the things I completely adore about the show – and to be absolutely clear, I’m referring to the second anime series, called in English Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, rather than the first one – is the wide range of women characters playing important parts in the story. The first show was made while the manga* was still coming out, so its plot fairly quickly diverges from that of the second series, which is pretty much completely faithful to the manga.
The other big, big difference is that the second show (and the manga) has a wondrous range of different roles for the many women it depicts, from the emotionally frail but personally devoted wife of Great Leader** King Bradley (whose name is never given except as “Mrs. Bradley”), to the amazing and tough bodyguard Lan Fan, to the kind and thoughtful mechanic Winry. Not every depiction is what I would call perfectly feminist, but the wide range and type of people who happen to be women is definitely feminist-friendly.
I will try to mark anything plot-important before mentioning it, but be aware there are definitely spoilers ahead. Characters in (roughly) order of appearance.
Riza Hawkeye: 1st Lt Riza Hawkeye is the faithful adjutant of the supporting character Col. Roy Mustang; she’s tough, quick-thinking, highly skilled, a lethal shot with any firearm, and unafraid to stand up to Col. Mustang and call him a fool when he’s being one. Having served as a sniper in a major insurrection/civil war some years before, she’s seen hard combat, has killed a significant number of people, and has the mental scars to prove it. Very popular, I understand, with those who “ship” the pairing of her and Mustang, though being a shounen story, there’s no actual sexytimes in the show. Being a pretty good shot myself from my days in the military, I like and identify with her some, but she’s not my favourite woman in the show.
Gracia and Elicia Hughes: The wife and three-year-old daughter of Lt. Col Maes Hughes, a close friend and academy classmate of Col. Mustang. Hughes is comically devoted to his wife and child, hauling out pictures of them at any slight excuse, to brag to everyone about how wonderful they are and how lucky he is to have them. Gracia is as gracious as her name implies, a good mother and generous host to visitors, while Elicia is just TOO. CUTE. FOR. WORDS.
Rose: a minor character in the second show, she was part of what annoyed me about the first, in the way her character was used. In the second, she’s a woman who fell for a priest’s puffery and faking, believing his false promise that he’d bring back her boyfriend who’d died. When the priest is removed from his place as leader of the religion he started, she is initially left bereft of purpose, but finds a role as a community support and organizer when the people of her city decide to rebuild after the damage done to it in the riots after the revelations about the priest.
Trisha Elric: One of the ways in which the story does rely on a standard trope is that of the Woman in the Fridge: the two protagonists are brothers whose mother died in an epidemic, and who encounter disaster when they try to bring her back to life with alchemy. Trisha is never given a whole lot of development in the manga or second anime; her only real function in the story is as mother to the boys, and loyal-past-his-abandoning-her to their father. Like I said, not everything about the show is strictly feminist.
Lust: One of the few failings of the story is that there is only one woman who’s a proper villain; Lust is one of the seven sins, of course, and is also one of the seven homunculi who serve the main antagonist. She’s the only character in the show to ever have the infamous breast-jiggling that anime has in some parts become associated with (and for good reason, for a number of shows), and it only happens once, and is lampshaded when it does: Mustang is facing off with her along with one of his subordinates (2nd Lt. Jean Havoc), and after the jiggle is shown, Mustang comments that he can understand how Havoc was attracted to her, knowing Havoc’s love of large breasts. Lust is a capable villain, easily able to kill as ruthlessly as needed, and enjoys her ability to do so.
Winry Rockbell: Winry is the neighbour and close friend of the Elric brothers, and indeed is Edward’s “automail” (highly functional prostheses) mechanic, along with her grandmother Pinako (see below). Her parents are dead, killed in the same insurrection noted above under Riza Hawkeye, despite being doctors willing to treat people from either side; this provides inspiration for her to use her mechanic talents to help people who’ve lost limbs, as well as other actions that I won’t spoil. Winry is extremely talented as a mechanic (something highlighted better in the first anime, actually), and explicitly considers her position in the boys’ lives as “someone who is always waiting”, and whether that’s a role she wants to accept. When used as a hostage against the boys, she brightly comes up with a way to get her away from the hostage situation that doesn’t implicate them. She’s ingenious, curious, a complete “gearhead”, while still being what I like to call “tomboy femme”. Winry and Edward have a complex relationship, but I don’t want to say much more to not spoil anything major.
Pinako Rockbell: Winry’s grandmother Pinako, a tiny woman with a heavily-lined face and an always-smoking pipe, is also a capable surgeon and automail mechanic. She’s caustic, pragmatic, and funny, quite happy to be the Snarky Crone in the family, and explicit about her distaste for the military after they drafted her daughter and son-in-law to the medical corps (which led to their deaths). Pinako was also a heavy drinker in her youth and a chum of the boys’ father, kind of a party girl, which is fun to juxtapose with her generally granny-like role. I adore Pinako, if you can’t tell.
Sheska: Sheska’s a minor character, but one many women fans identify with, as she is a lifelong reader who is obsessive to the point of being nearly unemployable because of it. She also has an amazing talent, related to her obsession, which makes her quite useful to the boys and to Maes Hughes. Sheska is kind of awesome, as well as devoted and loyal, and shows an ability to work very hard (at a suitable job!) when needed.
Mrs. Bradley: A woman who loves the Great Leader, and who is so overshadowed by his immense presence that she never even gets a first name. She’s an older woman (as indeed her husband is 60), very much the devoted wife character, and honestly a bit of a cipher, outside of one fantastically brave moment mentioned in passing.
Maria Ross: 2nd Lt. Maria Ross is a soldier assigned to the Elrics as a bodyguard (along with the male Sgt Brosh). She’s compassionate and pragmatic, and also willing to fight when needed, and a pretty good shot with her service pistol. She recognizes the difficulties the boys have in trusting adults, since their father abandoned the family when they were very young, and their mother died when they were 11 and 10, and sets out to help them regain that ability to trust. MAJOR SPOILER AFTER THIS BIT: She ends up accused and falsely convicted of a murder, but escapes to another country with the aid of Col. Mustang, who knows she’s not guilty of it, then returns to save the day late in the story. SPOILERS END.
Nina Tucker: Nina is a young girl, about five, the daughter of a not-very-gifted but ethically bereft alchemist the boys encounter. Both boys are charmed by her, and spend time playing with her, before something very spoilery happens which I won’t spoil. Let’s just say it’s the only time the words “Let’s play” (“asobu”, in Japanese) have ever taken on a chilling feel for me.
Paninya: Paninya is an orphaned teenager living in Rush Valley, a town famous for its automail. Her parents were killed in a train accident that cost her both legs when she was an infant, which were replaced by a dour mechanic, including one leg having an extensible blade, and the other a 1.5″ cannon in it. She survives by pickpocketing tourists before Winry is able to talk her into taking a different turn in her life, using her agility and lack of fear in high places to a positive end.
Izumi Curtis: Definitely my favourite female character, Izumi is the boys’ martial arts and alchemy sensei. She describes herself as “just a frail housewife”, but this conceals an incredible level of ability in both fighting and alchemy. She’s married to Sig Curtis, a butcher built like a rhino who is nonetheless fairly gentle and not particularly interested in fighting (well, unless someone manages to harm Izumi – not easy – at which point he will reluctantly but effectively step up to help). Izumi is a fierce teacher, expecting only the very best from her two students, and developing their philosophy of dedication and commitment even as she develops their skills. When they first start with her, she teaches them the principles of alchemy (that all life exists through the destruction and creation of other life) by abandoning the two of them on an island for a month, with a knife and a rule about using no alchemy. The boys are partly terrified and partly just awed by her abilities; a hilarious scene shows them training at 12 and 11 years old, trying to attack her as she reads from a cookbook, offhandedly blocking their attempts without even looking. Izumi is MADE OF AWESOME, and is my very favourite character in the whole manga/anime/franchise. Her catchphrase, “SHUFU DA!” (I’M A HOUSEWIFE!), makes me laugh every time she uses it.
Martel: A former soldier turned into a chimera by blending her with a snake, Martel is one of a cadre of followers of a rogue homunculus (one of the seven antagonists), loyal and strong. She has a much bigger role in the first anime, but in general continues the willingness of the Amestrisian military to employ women who want to in combat alongside the other soldiers. By far the women are outnumbered by men in the military, but they do exist in all the roles people fill in armed service: administration, doctors, bodyguards, officers, NCOs, infantry, communications, whatever.
Lan Fan: A martial arts specialist from the neighbouring (China-analogue) Xing, Lan Fan is the dedicated bodyguard (with her grandfather Fu) of Yao Lin, a prince with ambitions to become Emperor of Xing. Lan Fan is BAD. ASS. When it’s called for (small spoiler), she amputates her own arm to save the life of the prince, then rushes far too quickly through rehab with her new automail arm to get back to her duties (end spoiler). She’s an amazing fighter, teaming with Fu to make an impressive team watching the prince’s back. Another of my favourites, and it’s nice to see that the loyalty she feels to her liege lord Lin is returned; he risks his life to save her at one point.
Mei Chang and Mei Xiao: Another Xingese character, Mei Chang is a thirteen-year-old princess of the Mei clan (as Yao Lin is a prince of the Yao clan), with her dwarf bearcat Xiao, a panda-like companion she travels with. Despite her youth, Mei Chang is a very skilled alkahestrist (a Xingese variant of alchemy used mostly for medical needs) and highly acrobatic martial artist. She’s very much a 13-year-old bundle of emotions and crushes, but is as dedicated to achieving the empire’s rule for her clan as Yao Lin and Lan Fan are for theirs.
Madame Christmas: Madame Christmas is just as advertised, a madam for a – not really a brothel, but a companion-bar, if you know the Japanese concept I mean (whose name I forget), where the (sex?) workers work as “hostesses” entertaining men who visit to drink and talk to/look at pretty women. Since the show is shounen***, it’s hard to say whether they’re meant to be sex workers or not. Madame Christmas turns out to be related to one of the major characters, and part of the reason I like her is that she’s visibly old and fat; her face is square, with a fairly heavy jaw, and she’s notably heavy in build, constantly smoking cigarettes with a holder and speaking in a gravelly rumbly husk of a voice.
Olivier Mila Armstrong: Major-General Armstrong is the sister of a major character, and shows up in the second season of the show. She’s known for being something of a martinet, imposing strict discipline and obedience on the men and women who serve under her, but showing them also an immense loyalty and confidence in their abilities and training. She’s utterly ruthless with her officer’s sword, willing to use violence as necessary to achieve her aims, and eschews anything remotely associated with femininity, throwing flowers onto a fire, for instance. She’s also highly ambitious. Given the snowbound nature of the fort she commands, she’s known as the Ice Queen, and it suits her.
So there you go. The women of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a diverse and interesting collection of characters, who fulfill a wide range of roles in the story. One of the major things I like about the show is the importance given to roles occupied by women characters, as well as the incredible variety of people that they are.
* Manga: Japanese word for “comics”, in the superhero-type sense. Has come to be used specifically to refer to Japanese comics, rather than US comics imported to Japan. Relatedly, the artist responsible for the manga is known as a mangaka.
** Since the show is set in a fictional Industrial Revolution-era Europe, and a not-very-veiled version of Germany between the wars, “Great Leader” is often rendered in English as “Fuehrer”. Despite this, the language of the Amestrisians (the country where the story is set) is English; documents, newspapers, and messages between characters and such are clearly produced in English, like “(this character) is a Homunculus” passed as code within a scene.
*** Shounen means “male youth”, more or less, and is a genre of manga aimed at young teen boys primarily; the genre tends to be pretty much sexless in any explicit sense.