Debuting today on Netflix, the live-action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist presents an alternate history world in which alchemy, the impossible feat of material transmutation, is commonplace and its ramifications are everywhere. As such, it can be a little difficult to get your bearings in this brave new world where the impossible is an everyday occurrence, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
There are only a few key things you need to know about the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, as imagined by manga artist Hiromu Arakawa, to get the most out of the new film. From alchemy to the history of Armestis, the film’s primary setting, consider this a mostly spoiler-free primer to get you up-to-date. Once you’re done here, you’ll be slapping down transmutation circles in no time.
Amestris is where most everything happens in Fullmetal Alchemist. As one of the predominant cultural and military forces in the known world, the country of Amestris is a force to be reckoned with -- and it expands frequently. There’s good reason for that. Amestris is ostensibly governed by a parliament, but it is actually ruled by the country’s military force.
The leader of Amestris is Fuhrer Bradley (often referred to as King Bradley), the Commander-in-Chief of the State Military and the head of government. With the military so intertwined in the governing of Amestris, it’s no surprise that much of the country’s history is defined by war. Amestris became the ever-expanding empire it is by waging war on neighboring nations for hundreds of years, subjugating culture after culture.
This means the country of Amestris is enjoying a kind of Edwardian era, with the citizens of Amestris secure in the knowledge that the empire is infallible and ever-growing. It’s a time of high fashion and cultural excess, which even extends to certain members of the military.
Amestris is also the first country in modern history to have mastered alchemy. Alchemy as a practice is a strange mixture of science and magic that allows for everything from the simple mending of broken goods to feats of cosmic power, though the latter is incredibly rare. Alchemy requires a transmutation circle to function and abides by some very important rules.
For alchemy to function, the alchemist must first understand what they are trying to transmute and how it operates. Once they understand how the target thing works, they use a transmutation circle and alchemy to deconstruct the target. Then, the target is reconstructed into something else, or, in the case of a broken clock, the target might be mended.
Alchemy must also abide by the Law of Equivalent Exchange. This rule states that something cannot come from nothing. In order for alchemy to work, the physical laws of mass must be respected. Similarly, the target of transmutation can only be transmuted into something similar. So, a pile of sand couldn’t become a loaf of bread, but all the necessary components of bread (flour, water, salt and yeast) could be transmuted into a full loaf.