Mistranslate FMA and Me: Reckoning With Anime as Japanese and American
The affectations of white anime enthusiasts made me feel fake, confusing my yearning for the language and familiarity I craved.
This is Mistranslate , a column by Nina Li Coomes about language, self-expression, and what it means to exist between cultures.
I was clearing some childhood things out of my parents’ basement last year when I came across a calculator I had as a middle schooler, navy blue and rectangular, a little bigger than the palm of my hand. Across the top of the back, in big block letters, I’d written: FMA ROX MY SOX. Underneath it, I had drawn an Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its tail.
My Tumblr-speak declaration and obsessively neat Ouroboros were artifacts of my first encounter with Fullmetal Alchemist , a 2006 and 2009 anime series by Hiromu Arakawa. (The series was made twice—once with an original ending, as the manga hadn’t caught up with the televised story, and once again after the comic books had concluded, with the title Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood .) Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who attempt human transmutation—a taboo form of alchemy—to bring their beloved mother back from the dead. The transmutation goes wrong, and as a result Edward loses an arm and a leg and Alphonse loses his physical body, becoming a soul attached to a suit of armor. The series follows the Elric brothers on their search for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which they believe will restore them to their original states.
At nearly thirty years old, fifteen years after first scrawling it on my calculator, FMA still rocks my socks. I’ve just finished my fourth rewatch of the series. My childish enthusiasm remains vibrant, but alongside it now runs the adult-critic part of my brain that reviews movies and writes essays about books. That adult self wants to tell you that FMA isn’t just a great story with flashy characters and high stakes, but a work of careful, meaningful art. It begins with a well-worn premise, the hero in search of a mythic object, then wends itself into a sharp critique of the apathy of those in power; the inherent and inescapable cruelty of the state; the importance of insisting on the dignity and rights of others, even if it feels impossible. The characters are flawed and show change over time. The villains are compelling and never one-dimensional. The animation is simple at times but always effective.
But my enthusiasm for FMA is an exception, not the rule. I have always had a fraught relationship with anime.
When I was young and living in Japan, my consumption of anime felt natural, an expected part of being a child, much like Western cartoons are expected objects of American childhood. I watched Doraemon at 7 p.m. on Fridays with hair wet from the bath. I discussed that week’s Pokémon episode with my kindergarten friends and pretended to be Eevee on the playground. One summer break, my mother rented a slew of videos from Tsutaya (the chain video rental in my grandparent’s neighborhood) and shared with us the anime of her girlhood— Candy Candy , Glass Mask , and The Rose of Versailles. I lapped those up, delighted to share in an indulgence of childhood with my mother. Anime was not something I sought out. Instead, it was presented to me, so much so that for a long time I thought anything animated was meant for kids, while live-action media was meant for adults.
My enthusiasm for ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ is an exception. I have always had a fraught relationship with anime.
This framework shifted, as so many other things did, when I moved to the United States. There were the familiar Disney princesses I first got to know on imported videos in Japan. I learned to love PBS and its extended cast of animated friends: Sagwa, Arthur, the crew from Cyberchase . But my grip on anime, Japanese animation, changed. While Sailor Moon and Pokémon , with their English voice-overs and global appeal, were watched by the white kids in my rural elementary-school class, these shows seemed to slide sideways—they were not simply cartoons, but “foreign” cartoons. Pokémon was a Japanese show, not just the show that everyone watched together. The neutrality I saw in anime as simply another object in an array of things to choose to watch, was gone. There was a new, slippery quality to the media I used to consume without a thought, as if there needed to be an explanation for or a disclaimer about its origin. Like a filter dropped in front of the screen, I sensed a resistance, a hesitancy, a force field buzzing over the images that I couldn’t quite understand.
The blurring became more pronounced as I got older and live-action television and movies became the norm for me and my peers. Now, my classmates watched Disney Channel comedies on weekends instead of animated television shows, preferring Legally Blonde to The Swan Princess . I didn’t mind. I, too, was growing older, loosening my previously held prejudice against live-action media as something meant for grown-ups. But some of my peers veered sharply in the opposite direction, diversifying their tastes for Japanese anime from the widely televised Cartoon Network offerings to more late-night “niche” ones, like Yu Yu Hakusho , Rurouni Kenshin , and Inuyasha . I felt conflicted: On one hand, I wanted the smooth numbness of assimilation. I wanted to laugh at the unfunny jokes in The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and shriek at Fear Factor with a mouth full of after-school snacks. But listening to Japanese, even in the affected voice acting of anime, sent sad shivers pinging down a corridor in my gut. I knew it made me uncool, a nerd, an otaku, to still want to watch those shows as a young girl, but I couldn’t stay away.
Complicating the magnetism of anime were the strange expectations that white anime lovers had of me. The hungry way they stared at me, the unnatural insertion of Japanese words into their speech, their claim to “ love Japan”—which usually amounted to an essentializing of what they saw on-screen with little awareness that anime often presented fantasy, not reality. They didn’t know or care about the mundane everydayness I missed so much—the oddly plush digital feeling of pressing buttons on an ATM, the cigarette-urine-plastic smell of a crowded subway station. So many of the affectations adopted by white anime enthusiasts made me feel fake and plastic, which confused my yearning for the language and familiarity I so craved.
It was around this time in my life that I first watched Fullmetal Alchemist . I was about twelve, and by then FMA was just one in a series of anime offerings that my white peers pored over. I’d been struggling with friendship in school, so I stuffed down my complicated feelings around anime with the hope that those who enjoyed Japanese animation would tolerate my Japanese company. If some people fetishized me, if they annoyed me, if they inexplicably added “nyan” at the end of their sentences and treated me like a mascot of their obsession, I held myself tightly. I tried to quell my cultural vertigo, telling myself to feel a sick sense of gratitude simply to be acknowledged.
That’s why I expected to have to fake my enthusiasm for Fullmetal Alchemist the same way I did for every other show my white anime-loving peers crowed over. Instead, I found myself immediately transfixed. The darkness of the initial premise, the carefully constructed bureaucracy of the story’s world, the emphasis on complex problems that left the heroes without answers, simple or otherwise—here was a story that directly spoke to my heart. I liked this show as an individual, as myself, not as an accessory of other people’s obsession. These were my own daydreams, my trailing trains of thought that wondered about Riza Hawkeye and Roy Mustang’s past or that tried to imagine alkahestry in the land of Xing. FMA occupied my mind even when I wasn’t watching the show, my notebooks full of Ouroboros sketches, not to speak of the calculator and its declaration of fandom.
I remember one day sitting in a neighborhood park, braiding strands of long grass together, thinking about the first law of alchemy, the Law of Equivalent Exchange: “ Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. ” I went home and prattled at my dad, telling him about the law, explaining how I found it infinitely logical and perfectly balanced. Why couldn’t things operate so neatly in my world, in the real world, I wondered aloud. He responded that it was probably because there was no magical unifying force called alchemy that could rearrange the atoms in matter, transforming them into something else. I knew he was right, and still I was disappointed. I wanted to be able to draw a transmutation circle, to clap my hands together and, in a flash of blue light, make something out of what appeared to be nothing. Wasn’t I already doing something like alchemy every day? Cobbling pieces of myself together, rearranging parts—some authentic, most artificial—trying to create a cohesive, likable self that somehow left me feeling false, dismayed, lonelier than before?
If I’d lived my whole life in Japan, I wouldn’t have found myself relegated to only anime when I wanted to hear the language spoken.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have watched as much anime as I did if I hadn’t grown up in the United States. If I’d lived my whole life in Japan, everything on television would have been Japanese: the news, dramas, baseball games, each noisy and colorful commercial. I wouldn’t have found myself lonely in front of the television set, relegated to only anime when I wanted to hear the language spoken. I wouldn’t have had to attach myself to anime as some sort of offering to make up for my awkwardness or confusion among white American peers. Anime would never have turned into the precarious refuge it became for my child self; it would simply have been one of many spaces where I could hear my mother tongue, reverberating from my ears down to my heart. It would have been so mundane. I could have had a choice over whether to take it or leave it.
Just now, I finished the episode where Ed and Al are locked in the final showdown of Fullmetal Alchemist . In their quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone, Ed and Al realize that the Stone isn’t at all what they imagined. It isn’t the magical panacea they’ve built up in their minds, a cure-all and reversal for all that is painful and difficult. This realization is what I think Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. Our view of the world as children, the things we tolerated, the things we believed and hoped for, our nightmares and our dreams, are not necessarily what we need to carry into the future. Once we know this, it’s up to us to decide whether to stay the same, to calcify and insist on our childish beliefs, or to face the newness and complexity of what’s to come and do our best to adapt and change along with it.
I am older now, surer in my skin. I have wonderful, loving friends who see me for all of me, not as an add-on to their media obsession. My Japanese is better, more mature. I can read novels and essays that bring fresh and wondrous language into my life. The globalization of television and streaming services also make it more possible to see Japaneseness on-screen in different ways. There is a part of me that still twinges, a vulnerable tenderness that aches, when I encounter someone who looks at me with those shining eyes, who would turn my ethnicity into a facet of their hobby. But I have left that projected hunger behind. I no longer consume anime to be liked or accepted—this is my own affection, my own enthusiasm, my own love of Fullmetal Alchemist . It is not a proxy for needing to be seen or for needing to hear my mother tongue. It is just a show I adore. I don’t need it to be anything else.