Some of you may know that (as of this writing) I’ve recently finished watching FMA; Brotherhood for the first time (the semicolon is a typo but it stays as proof that Steins;Gate is trying to take over my brain). Let’s face it, Fullmetal Alchemist is rife with great candidates for my tragic character studies series. I could just as easily have gone for a certain fan favorite deceptively carefree soldier and deeply devoted family man, a dog loving little girl or any of the ill fated homunculi.
The reason I singled out Van Hohenheim today, is not only because the plot put him through the ringer (let’s face it, it’s a pretty brutal narrative that claims a lot of victims), but because the audience seems to have let his sacrifices go largely unnoticed.
It’s easy to get overshadowed in a cast like Fullmetal Alchemist’s. Character development is definitely one of the series biggest strengths. But in the countless articles, threads and essays I’ve read on this enormously influential work, Van Hohenheim only gets mentioned in passing, if at all.
This is very unusual for a character that is so pivotal to the plot and plays such an important role in the resolution of the series. Everything in Fullmetal Alchemist starts and ends with Hohenheim and although he may not have that much screen time compared to some other characters his presence is nevertheless felt and evoked regularly throughout the entire series.
He goes from mysterious potential antagonist, to suspicious but powerful ally, to fragile and flawed hero as his own story gets revealed in anachronistic skits coming together to form an unexpectedly relatable character. In one episode of the final arc, as Ed and Van Hohenheim are finally reunited and get a chance to really talk for the first time in ages. Ed let’s go of his anger without tearing into his dad. When asked why, Ed simply replies “he’s not who I thought he would be”. This deceptively simple lines bellies the brilliance of this character. Despite everything I knew about him, all the time I’d spent delving into Hohenheim’s past, in the end he was never who I thought he would be. A truly surprising character.
And yet there’s no reason he should be. In many ways Van Hoenheim is a very normal person.
Unlike his sons he is neither particularly driven or even exceptionally smart. He’s not been shown to be a skilled fighter or convincing speaker. Really, he’s just your run of the mill average guy who’s only mistake was to be overly friendly with people regardless of whether they are human or not. One really bad day at the office and he got immortality thrust upon him.
And it’s exactly because he is so normal that his character seems so abnormal. Infinitely powerful and immortal characters usually have a few things in common. They thirst for power having sacrificed and fought for whatever gifts were bestowed upon them. They are ideologues who sought out supernatural means for a specific goal. They are mystics and intellectuals, whose quest for knowledge led them to exceptional discoveries. In sum, they are extraordinary to begin with, and have the personalities and frames of mind that go with it. They’re not just some random schmoe off the street who never asked for any of it and has no idea what to do with it.
Van Hohenheim is just like you, or more likely, he’s just like me. Simply trying to get by and live a quiet happy life. No grand aspirations, no vision for a better world. The only ambition he has is to find a few quiet moments to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and maybe someone to share them with. It doesn’t sound that impressive when I spell it out like that but it’s a good dream. But this dream became suddenly beyond his reach when his mortality was taken from him.
And because he’s just some average dude, he didn’t curse the heavens for his unjust faith or explode into unstoppable rage. He actually didn’t even fully realize exactly what all the implications were until they chipped away at him over the centuries.
Several lifetimes worth of having to burry friends and loved ones dimmed his sociable nature. He became withdrawn and reserved. When you see all the possible downfalls, you get naturally cautious. Optimism becomes impossible in the face of endlessly repeating tragedy. You watch people make the same mistakes over and over again and hope dwindles. That’s normal, any ordinary person would feel that way. But you’re human, so you still try. You find that person to share the joys with. You play the part, best you can. And since you’re human, you make mistakes. The same mistakes over and over again.
There’s a little side story in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman about a man who becomes immortal and is visited by dream every 100 years or so. On one of those visits, he’s had a particularly difficult 50 years and he tells Dream “Do you know what happens when you can’t eat, but you can’t die? – You get really hungry”. There are things that humans were never designed to deal with.
When we meet him, Van Hohenheim is a man starving beyond any human’s understanding of the word. He is deeply lost but he’s still human. And in Fullmetal Alchemist, that means something. His ability to retain his humanity even as he loses himself, is the one special thing about Van Hohenheim .
As I mentioned, this isn’t a very common archetype. The plot therefore uses his unique nature to serve all its needs. He’s a cautionary tale, representing the suffering and despair that forsaking one’s nature (even unwillingly) can bring on. He’s a possibility for redemption, giving his sons the chance to understand and maybe even forgive him, thereby earning some closure for themselves. He’s also the dim naïve glow of the nobility of the human spirit.
FMA is not a kind show. There is a lot of bloodshed and morality comes in varying shades of dark grey. Pretty much every single character is motivated by some self-serving purpose, except for Hohenheim. Having lost the last of his basic drives and desires with the death of his wife, you wouldn’t blame him for just shutting himself away from the world. Even if you believe he is trying to solve everything for his sons (that hate him) that still doesn’t explain why, whenever he has the chance, he helps anyone who needs it.
We see him doing his best to alleviate Izumi’s suffering, without being asked, as she attacks him. When he wanders into the destroyed town of Liore he immediately takes up physical labor to help in reconstruction efforts. If he suspects Father to be up to no good, he’ll do everything he can to stop him, without involving anyone else. Selflessness and generosity comes naturally to him, but in a subdued almost depressive way. These touches of kindness are an important contrast to everything else that’s happening. They serve to remind us that no matter how *different* one becomes, there is something about the basic nature of humans that is magnificently resilient. A good man at heart is always going to be a good man. He may make mistakes along the way, huge ones. He may become unrecognizable, but deep down there is something that will always be unmistakably him. This hope for people’s better nature and insistence on identity are an important part of what I got form Fullmetal Alchemist, and they were personified by Van Hohenheim.
At first, I expected him to be the villain. Casting suspicion on the true nature of our heroes since they were his kin, but he turned out to be nice. Then, I expected him to be an invaluable resource, having collected knowledge of generations but he was never very good at teaching. I see, I thought to myself, he’s going to be our unbeatable savior, the one who will give us a fighting chance. He did his best, but he just wasn’t that strong. Oh, I got it, he’s going to earn his forgiveness by sacrificing himself for his sons and it will be sad, but they’ll realize what a great dad they had…and never mind, Ed’s the one doing the grand gesture.
As the final episode rolled in I figured, this might be interesting. Van Hohenheim would get the chance to reconnect with his sons and get to know them. Finally getting a shot at that family he’s always dreamed of. With Father gone, he may even start aging. Have grandkids to spoil….
We didn’t see him visiting his sons at all after the battle with Father. He never really did figure out how to be a dad. As I watched Van Hohenheim close his eyes one last time, for some well overdue rest, at Trisha’s graveside, peaceful and alone, I finally realized that Van Hohenheim was never who I thought he would be. He was better.