Even though Fullmetal Alchemist revolves around the story of the two Elric brothers, it was always Edward, the eldest, who had more importance and screen time. That’s why I decided to analyse and talk a bit about Alphonse Elric, the younger brother, who I believe is sadly underrated. This analysis works for both the canon part of Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
WARNING: This analysis contains SPOILERS for the series
First of all I’m gonna make clear that this is not a comparison between Alphonse and Edward. However, sometimes it is unavoidable to compare some traits of their personalities given that they come from the same place: aside from all the similarities that two siblings can have, Edward and Alphonse also share the same backstory, lived the same traumatic event and find themselves under pretty similar circumstances.
Let’s talk about that traumatic event that we all know so well: the failure in the human transmutation they performed to bring their mother back. And here’s where we find one of the main differences between the two brothers: Edward lost an arm and a leg, but Alphonse lost his whole body. This fact alone could fill a whole other article in which I could talk about the importance of embodiment in the human experience as well as opening a debate about the relation between body and soul. ‘Can you be human if you don’t have a body?’, ‘How would you define being human?’… These are questions that are usually left to science fiction, where they explore deeply what it is that makes you human. There is indeed a short arc dedicated to Alphonse questioning his own existence after he faces Barry the Chopper, who asks him how can be so sure that he is, in fact, human and not just a creation by his brother. Given that he doesn’t have a body, the only thing that he’s got left are his memories which could have been implanted by Edward. Even though the issue is fixed quickly in the following episode and is treated as Alphonse being mean to Edward for even thinking that of him (after all, Edward gave up an arm to save him), Alphonse’s questioning is more than valid. This serves us to show that Alphonse’s got another layer of existentialism that Edward lacks.
As important and interesting I think that is, having no body and having to live as an armor is just a condition. We could already see from the flashbacks that Edward and Alphonse are quite different anyway. And it’s also possible to appreciate this differences during the whole series. While Edward is always more energetic, impetuous and comedic, Alphonse tends to be more sensitive, kind and thoughtful. Unlike Edward, he doesn’t blame his father for abandoning them. Instead of that, he’s thankful when he comes back and gives him a chance to explain himself. He wants to see the best in people and he believes there is a reason behind each action. Alphonse has probably one of the purest hearts that I’ve ever seen in an anime. So much that it can be irritating and makes you wanna grab him by the shoulders, shake him and make him realise how cruel this world is. But guess what, he already knows that. And he’s still the kindest person you’ll ever meet. He’s never rude to anyone, he even saves the homunculus Marta and he wants to save everyone even though that means staying without a body until he fades away.
Alphonse is also calm, and would rather think things through than throw himself into action. This facete contrasts with his brother’s, who’s more impulsive. I guess that, as brothers, they complement each other. After all, we wouldn’t be able to talk see Alphonse’s impulsiveness if we didn’t have his brother to compare him to. However, as rational as Al is, he still remains childish and innocent, in the sense that he’s easy to manipulate. After all, both him and May Chang are the youngest during the war (which also makes Edward, who’s only a year older than Al, incredibly mature for his age, almost acting like an adult). On the other hand, many people don’t like Al because he’s got a very tough appearance (he’s a walking armor after all) but is actually very sensitive, soft and kind, which doesn’t match his appearance. However, he dislikes being called “big” (“you know, I didn’t ask to be this big!”) and likes it when others treat him as what he is: a child.
We are constantly reminded of Edward’s pain and how much he blames himself for what happened when they were kids. But we barely get to see Alphonse’s thoughts on the matter. It is revealed later in the series that he does in fact blame himself for the failed resurrection too. Alphonse and Edward carry the same burden but we barely ever get to hear from Alphonse, who is incredibly selfless and usually uses his energy towards helping other people. His ultimate sacrifice is also very well-known: he gives up his life to give Edward his arm back so that he can save himself from Father. And that wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for how much he trusted his brother to bring him back.
“This body comes with many inconveniences. But inconveniences don’t make me miserable! There is no reason for you to pity me! My life was put back together with alchemy by my brother. If I deny myself, that would mean I’m denying my brother, along with alchemy. I believe in the potential that alchemy holds. I want to believe in it!”
As the elder brother, Edward is the protagonist, which is also why he’s given more charisma. Furthermore, it’s easier to empathise with someone who actually looks human than with an armor. However, the fact that people see Alphonse as just “Edward’s younger brother” or someone who Edward needs to save, I’d rather see him as an amazing case to explore the role of embodiment in the human condition and the enviable ability to put up a smile and be kind in the face of evil.