“Am I a bad person for enjoying this?”
I ask myself this whenever I start watching Col. Mustang pummel Envy into a pile of ash during of FMA: Brotherhood’s most exhilarating sequences.
As you watch Roy charbroil a creature that (*spoilers!*) literally started a war, manipulated a country, and murdered one of Roy’s closest friends by impersonating his wife, you can’t help feeling satisfied. It’s a visceral, primitive, bloodwrath sensation. And if you’re anything like me, for a brief moment, the fantasy of calling fire from your fingertips dances behind your eyes: you wonder what you could do with flame alchemy. And you bitterly smirk at the reality outside the screen.
Why don’t we have this power, these abilities? Why do we live on boring Earth, with all its issues, powerless?
But, as the scene goes on, that sense of satisfaction turns to unease, and disgusted horror. Mustang wanted Hughes’ murderer brought to justice—and now he’s so angry he can barely speak, so lividly rigid with rage that he can barely even snap his fingers. This is an execution, plain and simple. This is vengeance, a vendetta come to a head. Mustang doesn’t want Envy to feel remorse, or guilt. He just wants the homunculus to burn.
You feel a queasy disquiet in the pit of your stomach, mixed with sadness. It peaks when Envy’s captured in his true, tiny form. Ed’s got him in his hands, and Mustang, in a strangely calm voice, asks for Ed to pass him over.
They bicker—and Scar pointedly remarks about not getting in the way of Mustang’s quest for vengeance. Then, as Mustang threatens to burn Ed for keeping him from his revenge, Ed pointedly asks for Mustang to look in a mirror, to see if he’s okay being king with a face like that. If he’s okay with being another monster.
Hiromu Arakawa specifically drew this sequence to inspire such emotions. She wanted the reader/viewer to feel that initial sense of “kick his ass!”, only to be profoundly aghast at what fury and grief can drive someone with that much might to do.
Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve been thinking more and more on this. I’m sure many of you reading have, too. We all feel powerless at times. In a time when hate-mongering, misinformation, and pig-headed oafishness rise to the high echelons of authority, it isn’t unnatural to desire a way to make such people go away; or, at least knock ‘em down a few pegs.
But, as Col. Mustang’s rolling rampage of revenge shows, too much power in a person’s hands can be devastating. And, like I said in my post about Princess Mononoke, hatred touches upon and poisons lives far beyond those in front of you.
Is what we desire power, or strength, then?
The two words are often used interchangeably. They are synonyms, after all. So why is it, in Project ARMS, when the kids’ ARMS evolve, the hosts are asked if they desire power? Why not strength?
I unfortunately cannot read kanji, so I can’t know what the word was in the original Japanese, but I’m guessing it was “power”, too. But although protagonists asking for more power is a staple in many manga, equally numerous are the series where the desire instead is “to be stronger”
But what does that mean? Do we humans truly desire power, or strength? Is there a difference?
Well, yeah. “Power”, technically, is work performed over time, or how quickly energy is consumed in doing something. “Strength” is more complicated. There are many different kinds of “strength”—mechanical, shear, emotional, and so on—but they all revolve around dealing with stress. A strong material is one that does not fail under stress; a strong psyche is one that does not crack under the pressures of this world. To contain compressed gas, cylinders have to be made of steel, so they don’t explode from the pressure.
To have power, one must have sufficient strength. That’s the ideal, anyway. Ideals rarely survive in reality, though.
At some point in each of our lives, we had to deal with bullies. Those who lorded their larger height, muscles, allowance, popularity, whatever, over us. I was short for most of my life, unathletic, and nerdy: a classic target. At times, when tormentors left me in tears, feeling even smaller than I was, I just wanted them to leave me alone. Other times, I wished I was strong enough to fight back, until they were the ones crying.
And in my darkest moments, when the world seems like it’s being engulfed by hatred and paranoia and stupidity, those wished-for tears turn into tears of blood. It isn’t enough, then, to stand up to them, with all their money and influence: I have to make them pay. For what they did to me, for what they’ve done to those closest to me. For every sleepless night my mother spent worrying about our family’s finances, her face drawn like piano wire. For those who’ve hurled abuse at my non-white friends.
In those bleak times, I don’t want strength. I want power. I don’t want justice, I want retribution.
Ashamed at not learning what the movie had to tell me when I’d seen it before. Ashamed at giving in to the same poisonous, corrupting hate as the boar gods and Lady Eboshi. And grateful, that serendipity had given me a chance to get it right this time.
The first time I watched Mononoke, I did wonder why Ashitaka was stronger after being cursed/infected. But now I know. What we hate, we want destroyed. We can’t stand to see the object of our loathing, can’t bear the thought of it existing in the world. And there are those who would sell their souls if it meant forging a spear of our enmity and using against whatever object, concept, or person who has wronged us or the people we hold dear.
“Fear and anger only make it grow faster”. We fear what we do not comprehend. We may be the top of the food chain, but we are still animals: confronted with something foreign or different, our response is still “fight or flight”. Our minds, fantastically complex and capable as they are, still take shortcuts, and so things are either in keeping with one’s mindset or not. What the mind cannot comprehend, cannot make fit with what it’s already established, upends the view of the world that helps form our identity. The “something new” threatens our way of thinking, and so must be either escaped from or destroyed. And hatred is thus born from fear.
But if fear is the mind-killer, the answer is knowledge. Ashitaka knows both sides of the conflict. He understands why they fight, and cannot bring himself to hate one side or the other. He just wants them to stop, and talk to each other. It takes great mental fortitude, but it can be done.
Fear may be allayed with learning, but it’s harder to stop anger. It’s instinctive, connected at times only loosely to reason. The colonel in the fight? Those are not the eyes of a person in control of themselves.
Thing is, the whole Mustang vs. Envy fight doesn’t end with Envy’s corpse charred to the wall. Ed and Hawkeye talk him down from his brutal spree of wrath. He realizes how much his rage hurts those around him, how much pain they feel when he’s swallowed in his own. And he lets it go.
That’s the message that Arakawa wanted to convey to the reader/viewer.
It’s alright to be angry at someone or something. Anger reveals to us what we idealize, what concepts and beliefs form the core of who we are. We get angry because we seem something fundamentally wrong happen. Anger doesn’t last, though; it actually physically can’t. But just as a fire turns wood to charcoal, so too can anger change to malice, enmity, hostility. That is how anger can continue to smolder, by turning to hatred. And after hatred has burned through in a blaze, after it has given you the power you need to destroy whatever or whoever is the target of your loathing and enmity, all that’s left is dust. Hatred is a pyre that burns you, leaves you hollow. It may give you the power and focus to do incredible feats—like lifting a gate it’d take ten men to push—but it’ll kill you, in the end. It’ll incinerate everything around you.
It’s a concept that shows up in Mononoke, in FMA, in Trigun, in Aldnoah ZERO, and so many other series. It’s a lesson I keep having to re-teach myself.
Rage might be one hell of an anesthetic, but it isn’t true strength. At the heart of a bonfire, there’s always blue flames at its center. These are the hottest, purest flames you can get. Anger’s blue flame is passion. At the heart of anger, is passion.
Part of me will always want power. I could ignore it, but that would mean ignoring part of who I am. Instead, I need to ask myself, why do I want power? Or, rather, is power what I really want?
No, what I want isn’t power. It’s the strength to withstand the assaults on my passion, and the things that I hold dear. The ability to withstand the slings and arrows the world throws at me, to stand against the tide of hate, proud of my convictions. I want my friends and family to be happy, and safe. I want the environment protected. I want to be the kind of person that my younger self would be unashamed to meet.
I implore you, dear reader, don’t ask for power. Ask for strength. Don’t fight to vent your anger, fight to defend what you believe in. Don’t become a cannon, aimed at anyone and everyone who stands in your way; be a bulwark, a shield, a pillar of support. A bastion for something better. Cynicism on breaking the cycle of hatred is cheap to come by. It’s so easy to give in to hatred, the desire to crush all those who hurt you and yours. But is that really what kind of person you want to be?
Life will deal you wounds and agony. It will do its best to beat you down. Naturally, you’ll want to beat it back. But consider this. When making things out of steel and iron, even with today’s extensive knowledge of materials science and engineering, we still have to hammer away at it.
Whether the metal is hot or cold, we still have to temper and shape it. From this beating comes one of mankind’s most important materials. Steel for a long time was used to forge weapons of war, and it still is, to some degree. But I bet you anything one of the first things that pops into someone’s head when steel is mentioned is a skyscraper, or a bridge—some kind of structure. Such edifices may represent power, but that’s only symbolically. For them to stand, to bear the brunt of human life and nature’s fury, they need strength.
That’s what I really want. To bear the scars of life with a grin on my face. It won’t be easy, but then again, what is? Colonel Roy Mustang can keep his flame alchemy. I’d rather have a heart made fullmetal.