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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
I think it’s a shame too

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
wait – that’s not grown up Ed?

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
money can be exchanged for goods and services?

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
and we still never learn

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
convenient screencap isn’t it?

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
you may think it looks like the first pic but it’s completely different

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.

Fullmetal Alchemist Van Hohenheim
stunning pic by Harara 

60 thoughts

  1. Having just finished rewatching this masterful series myself, I can’t deny that a single subtle tear rolled down my face while reading this. Thank you for sharing new perspectives on old faces, as always, and for enlightening us once more on the human spirit. I wish I could have this post framed on my wall as a constant reminder of what to strive for, both as a writer and a humble human. Well done, Irina!

    1. Now you’re being ridiculous. You have always been a personal source if inspiration and occasional jealousy as a writer and I refuse to hear otherwise.

  2. “He’s also the dim naïve glow of the nobility of the human spirit.”

    These are the sorts of thoughts that trouble me (especially in the middle of the night). Is naïveté really necessary to aspire to the more noble aspects of our nature? Even glancing at the news suggests it’s foolish to think otherwise, but perspective is such a fickle thing…

    “Selflessness and generosity comes naturally to him…”

    In some Western theological circles, there’s an idea that a virtue is its most powerful when it becomes a habit. I’d not considered it before I read your post, but I think that Van Hoenheim’s acts of kindness were so much a part of him that they’d become habit. He was reflexively virtuous.

    “…but in a subdued almost depressive way.”

    I wonder if that’s the equivalent exchange for a virtue becoming a habit? That the generous action is no longer tied to the emotions and is simply an act of will? That would, on the surface at least, seem to be subdued; yet such an action is far more powerful and less susceptible to attacks on motivation.

    You’ve gone and made me want to watch FMA:Brotherhood again!

    1. Then I’ve done my job!
      I personally do not think that naïveté is inheritly noble or should be aspired to in any way but I do beleive Hoenheim’s character always had a bit of a lack of foresight and a tendency to take things at face value. Considering his background and education this live for the moment attitude is not surprising but takes a completely different meaning when the “moment” is eternal. I always appreciated this simplicity in him, it’s a wonderful contrast to everyone else in the story.

  3. I remember seeing FMA years ago with my son on Adult Swim along with Gundam Wing, Samurai Champloo, and Rurouni Kenshin. Good memories!

  4. Holy crap, you just opened up a whole new perspective of Hohenheim for me. This is an awesome piece, thanks so much for writing!

  5. This post is brilliant and sheds light on so many things that I’ve always felt about Hohenheim, but never knew how to articulate. Just brilliant.

  6. Yeah, Hohenheim is the most realistic portrayal of what a once mortal person WOULD feel like as an immortal. They would have incredibly skewed priorities, and lots of trauma from years and YEARS of having their friends die before them.

      1. Which makes me wonder why SO MANY VILLAINS want it. There was this great JLU episode where Superman is sent to the future and meets a somber Vandall Savage. Vandall Savage is immortal, and somehow, he ended up beating the Justice League. Unfortunately, he realized how wrong he was, and he had to live with the consequences of these actions for the past thousand years, as he lives alone in a post apocalyptic wasteland.

  7. FMA: Brotherhood has always been one of my favorites! The first time I watched it, it was easy for me to place a lot of blame on Van Hohenheim for leaving his family, but looking at it from an adult’s perspective, it was more of a sacrifice than abandonment. I love his story. Excellent post!

  8. I’ve never seen Fullmetal Alchemist, neither the original nor Brotherhood. It’s also really low on my list of priorities, since both Silver Spoon and Arslan Senki annoyed me enough to keep from enjoying the show, and hunch is that it’s Arakawa (author of the source). I’m very likely to prefer the original anime, since that went original fairly early on. Maybe it’s the one anime based on an Arakawa manga I like. I haven’t given up completely, but there’s so much I’d rather watch… Of course, if I ever do end up watching, I’m not going to think Van Hohenheim might be an antagonist. That’s the nature of choosing to face spoilers (I don’t mind spoilers, as plot is almost never what draws me to a story.)

  9. He is indeed one great character that didn’t need to have a lot said about him I think that just shows how relatable he really was to many different people.
    I’m also going to start my rewatch of this show this week! Getting a friend to join me on the dark side hopefully ;).

  10. Fantastic post! I have to say, I always liked Van Hohenheim. He always felt so pivotal to everything wtihout really intruding into the other character’s stories when it wasn’t needed. I thin kyoure right that he’s pretty normal compared to everyone else too, in a way that amkes him grounding for the story.

  11. Really great post!! Just love reading it and yes a lot of people didn’t notice what Hohenhiem had gone through.
    I always had the feeling he knew since the very beginning what was Father goal, but never really had reason to find a way to stop him until he met Triesha and have kids. He sacrifice being a good father figure to keep them safe

    1. Ooohh that’s an interesting way to look at it. I thought he just didn’t know really how to be a dad since he never had one and was doing his best but you may be right

  12. What a beautiful post… Hohenheim has always been this vaguely cool mystery fellow to me, and it’s sad that I hardly remember what he did after finishing the show years ago. I wonder if that’s indicative of a need to rewatch!

    1. Maybe…Now this is Brotherhood Hoenheim, he may be cooler in the original but he had a lovable dork aspect in Brotherhood

      1. Haha, I watched Brotherhood, not the original. I related to Ed’s daddy issues for much of the show, so Hoenheim always felt more mysterious/powerful than he really is to me.

        1. I guess that may be it. I sort of get what it feels like to feel like a fraud while people think you have it figured out. At one point we all go from one to the other

      1. I know, but he still makes me cry my eyes out. actually quite a few times through out the story. Like when he starts crying out of nowhere after Ed tells him his wife’s last words. My mom thought someone had died in the story because I was crying so hard at that moment.

  13. I absolutely adore FMA and all of its characters—it’s a series that has always been incredibly important and inspiring to me, and I think Van Hohenhiem’s is one of the best and most interesting parts of the series. After watching it, I had a lot of thoughts, but couldn’t quite figure out exactly what I had learned or how it made me feel. Kudos to you for being brace enough to tackle such a complex character! I loved this post, and I think you did an excellent job of getting to the heart of what he had to teach us. I agree completely: at their core, both Hohenheim and FMA as a whole are all about the pain and beauty of being human.

  14. You’ve really been getting a feel of writing these wonderful analysis of tragic characters recently, haven’t you? Keep up the good work!

  15. Ahh, I liked Hohenheim! I initially thought he was a villain, too! And I’m so glad that he wasn’t. I liked that he was not the strict father I thought he was, too. And I liked the efforts he did to help everyone he could. Even his knowing every soul that’s in him as a philosopher’s stone touched me. (I looooved that scene when his sons supported him during the battle against Father!)

    I believe the best ending we could have of characters given immortality is death. I was sad that he wasn’t able to see a healthier Al as well as his grandkids, but I liked how he died by Trisha’s grave. I think it speaks a lot about his love for her.

    This post also reminds me of Zeno (I was just thinking about AkaYona some few hours ago) and how I’m torn between wanting to see him with the group and seeing him meet his end/death by the end. TwT

      1. Looking forward to your post about that, then! 😀
        Ah, I wasn’t able to say before — great job writing this! Now I want to re-watch FMA:B. >w<

  16. I think I cried, partly out of sadness/pity and partly out of relief that at last he found resolution, when Van Hohenheim’s arc was wrapped up like that by his wife’s grave, where so much of the entire story began. I love it when such huge stories still somehow manage to come so perfectly full circle like that, and when such complex characters and character arcs are paid off in full on an emotional level as well.

    1. We sometimes mistake grand for important.
      I also like hen stories manage to be deeply meaningful without feeling the need to be loud.

  17. Baccano! is also about immortality thrust upon people who weren’t expecting it, and how it affects them. You should probably watch that one next, if you haven’t seen it yet. Its done in Noir style in a noir setting. A very clever and entertaining story with similar ambivalent motivations to characters who also found themselves dealing with extraordinary consequences.

    1. I have wanted to see that for YEARS and I can never find it legally. I could probably just buy it – I love the author.
      rubing salt in wounds

      1. It comes and goes from various services. I think its been on Netflix, but it isn’t there right now. Looks like buying the DVD is your best bet. Its line art. Don’t waste money on bluray. Isaac and Miria (two of the characters) won the award for ‘couple of the year’.

  18. Great post on edward and al’s father your right noone has discussed his suffering. I watched full metal alchemist last year for the first time myself, still have yet to see brother hood.

  19. Off the top off my head, I can think of three other mortal characters who are forced into immortality through no desire of their own and have to deal with it despite remaining normal on the inside: Evangeline McDowell from Negima, Sunako from Shiki, and Karin from UQ Holder.

    The funny thing is that what sets Van apart from the above examples is that he got away easy. His immortality didn’t immediately lock him into an endless death/rebirth loop or force him into a war. He had at least one mostly happy relationship since. He was eventually able to go on his own terms.

    That said, Van’s lack of outside conflict kind of means that all the more of his implied struggle is an internal one. And the half-baked immortality he got also made him indecisive about how to live his life compared to more absolute immortals, who more often make the switch and give up normalcy completely (or to a much greater degree than Van).

    1. Really well said! I love thought out comments like these. Sadly I don’t have anything of value to add, except that I personally don’t find Sunako particularly human or tragic. I haven’t seen the other two shows.

      1. Poor Sunako ;(. Well, you can reasonably see her as a straight villain depending on your take, so I’m not surprised.

        Karin just met the criteria so I brought her up, not a particularly deep character (at least from the bare-bones anime adaptation). But Evangeline is an incredible person who was running around and doing important stuff long before the protagonist was born, kind of like Van. She tries her best to be the bad guy, since apparently the world badly wants to see her that way, but just ends up being a trusted mentor and source of counsel to the other characters instead. And she introduces herself as the final boss of the manga in the opening chapters and stays true to her word at the end. Kind of xD.

        1. I have a lot of thoughts on Shiki…
          I’m not sure I would see Sunako as a clear cut villain either. She’s a child which inherently means a certain lack of empathy and selfishness but, I also think she, more than any other character in Shiki, represents the loss of humanity and the longing to return to it.
          She’s essentially playing house on a grand scale because she no longer belongs among people. Her story is sad but not that much more tragic than a lot of protagonists out there.
          I found that Hohenheim, being an adult who has had the chance to develop a certain sensitivity and establish himself in his on mind is likely to suffer the losses more and feel the full weight of responsibility.
          Don’t be fooled into thinking I have any clue hat I’m talking about. Purely subjective slightly tipsy observations here.

  20. Well, I’ve never watched FMA.. I know. *gasp* You know when you have that annoying friend who’s OBSESSED with something and won’t shut up about it to the point that you just can’t have any interest in it yourself anymore?? That was my friend with FMA. Ha ha! One day I’ll give it a shot… But, I had to make a stand.
    Van Hohenheim sounds very tragic. I couldn’t imagine constantly losing everyone in my life. Also, I love your reference to Sandman!! 💖💖

  21. I’m currently watching Last Exile, but when I finished that one, guess what’s next on the list? Yup…you guessed right. It’s a series that I have been looking forward to for a long time. I really enjoyed your post about this character whom I of course have yet to discover but which I already like from you describing him. And..I loved that last sentence of your post: ” Van Hohenheim was never who I though he would be. He was better”. Wonderful writing, as always 🙂

      1. Aww, thanks Irina, I missed you too. Glad to be back and talk to you again 😊😊
        I definitely look forward to seeing this one. Only 8 more episodes of Last Exile to go and then finally I can start on this classic 😀

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