*Major spoilers for the FMA manga and FMA: Brotherhood*
Eyes are literally everywhere in FMA. From the gigantic eye that means the Gate of Truth is open, to the multitude of creepy red eyes Pride possesses, eyes feature prominently in the show’s visuals and themes. There is an incredible amount you can say about the use of eyes in the series. But for now, I’m going to look at how Hiromu Arakawa uses eyes to convey humanity or a lack thereof.
As a rule, the eyes are the most expressive part of a character in FMA. They do most of the work when telling the reader/viewer about the character’s emotional state.
Ed’s gold eyes are very expressive and usually clear to the viewer. As the main character we’re introduced to the story through his perspective, so we naturally need to feel a sense of empathy for him. We can easily understand and connect to Ed’s thoughts and feelings through those piercing gold eyes. He’s a passionate guy with a can-do attitude!
Al on the other, hand, doesn’t have this. Alphonse’s “eyes” are naturally more limited in their emotional range. The eye holes in Al’s armour eyes glow white with a red tinge to tell us his soul is in there. He’s experienced sensory deprivation for years, watching everyone experience the world in a way he can’t.
Even if Al can’t express himself through an organic body, the lighting, background and framing complement his emotions. They express his anger, doubt or sadness vividly.
He looms over Ed with lots shadows and the animators make his eyes narrow. There’s also a black and purple backdrop to add to the comic air of intimidation. And poor Ed sweat drops profusely in response!
When Al questions his humanity after Barry tries to make him doubt his own existence, we get a visual of Al in his own mind.
The manga completely fills the eye slits in a white glow, while making his body black in contrast. There’s no trace of the human Al inside the armour that we’ve come to know. The background static adds to eerie, non-human feeling. Here is FMA: B’s take on the panel:
The animators use colour to full dramatic effect, making his blood seal glow red to complement his eerily glowing white eyes. He’s bathed in black and red, with a white and bluish-purple background for contrast. Al’s perception of himself brought about the doubt Barry put in his mind, is very different from the sweet, determined, and very human Al we’ve come to know.
Al’s eyes flare up with passion, with Arakawa making them wide and making the white around the edges comes off like sun rays. He’s ironically displaying a lot of passion for someone who worries that they’re just an empty husk.
Al’s look of surprise and befuddlement when Winry tells him to go talk to Ed is wonderful! Arakawa makes a suit of armour look innocent and adorable, with the closest thing he has to eyebrows curving down, and his eyes wide in amazement. His expressiveness may be limited by his lack of facial features, yet the illustrations and animation find ways of expressing his emotions. The narrative (as well as Ed and Winry) never forget that Al’s human.
Now we’re going to look at the definitely non-human characters. Al isn’t the only character with blank white eyes. Out of the seven Homunculi, only Sloth and Gluttony have inexpressive white eyes in their usual forms.
They’re also the only ones who immediately stand-out as non-human. The only exception being Envy, who’s a shape-shifter and can take any form to blend in among humans. They were the only two of the Homunculi Father created not to have interactions with human society.
Greed is mistaken for a sharp-toothed human at first glance. Pride appears to be a normal child on the surface. Lust is a spy who can blend in when with humans she needs to gather information, and Wrath was a human turned into a Homunculus for the purpose of having someone at the head of the country carrying out Father’s will. The only thing distinguishing Wrath from a human is his Ultimate Eye that he keeps concealed under an eyepatch.
Gluttony on the other hand, is just the heavy-hitter, meant to act as extra muscle for the other Homunculi when needed. And Father uses Sloth to dig tunnels underground, non-stop for years!
Gluttony and Sloth are the most one-note of the seven Homunculi, which is reflected their wide eyes. They’re far more limited in their expressiveness than even Al’s. Where Al’s white and red eyes vary from wide to narrow, Gluttony’s eyes stay simple, blank white orbs, even when upset.
Sloth only has one visible eye, and it also lacks any expressiveness. Like, Gluttony, he comes off as a monster with no free-will or agency. All he does is complain, dig and smash in the direction he’s told to.
The closest either Sloth or Gluttony’s eyes are allowed to emote, is when they glow menacingly. White or red glowing eyes are usually used as shorthand for dangerous and/or non-human being. The effect is creepy and reminds us that they’re the muscle of the team, nothing else.
And of course, this is all part of Father’s design. He has a completely utilitarian view of the Homunculi he created. They’re just a way for him to reach his goal of surpassing God. Although all of the Homunculi are limited in their free-will, Lust, Greed, Envy, Wrath and Pride at least had some opportunities to interact with humans and discover more about themselves (for better or worse).
Al feared that he was a “fabricated little brother,” but Father really did create artificial beings to serve him in some way. Ed put Al’s soul in a suit of armour to save his brother. Father doesn’t see the value in humanity and has no desire to. He not only sees humans as resources, but his “children.” By creating the Homunculi, he expelled the part of himself that wanted attachments (Greed).
The way the manga and FMA: Brotherhood uses eyes, tells us about the characters in subtle ways, that really stand out. The art and animation complement the humanity of characters who are human despite initial appearances. It also shows the forced limitations of characters who are never given the chance to explore their personhood.
Now, we’re going to turn to characters who are human in appearance, and how their eyes are used to convey ideas about them.
When we first learn about the conflict in Ishval, this is how the Amestrian’s are depicted:
All colours are muted, except for their detached blue eyes. The soldiers are a cold, relentless, monolith, marching forward to carry out genocide against the Ishvalan people. The soldiers’ eyes aren’t obscured or made to look monstrous. Because FMA wants you to know that humans carried out these atrocities against other human beings.
FMA uses a different effect for when they show Ishvalans as a group:
Again, everything except the colour of their eyes is in a muted, gray pallet. However, their eyes are vacant and haunted by the trauma of the military’s brutality. They are advancing forward for the sake of survival. This is a powerful contrast showing oppressors and the oppressed.
Arakawa explores trauma through the eyes of the soldiers deployed in Ishval.
Roy was an idealistic young man with dreams of using alchemy to better the country. He didn’t realise that he’d become a human weapon. Riza also joined the military and was ordered to participate in the massacre while still a cadet.
Riza’s eyes are cold, wide and focused as she does the job of a sniper. Even with her menacing appearance, Maes reminds us that she’s “a little chick.” When she steps out of the role of sniper, we see the eyes of a broken young woman. The drastic change in her eyes, emphasises the devastating impact war has on individuals.
Riza and Roy recognise that even though they were manipulated, they still took part in the destruction of Ishval. They have to take responsibility for that. The best they can do is never forget the lives lost, and work to build a country where atrocities like that can never happen again.
The only time the haunted look leaves Roy’s eyes is when he decides to become Fuhrer so he can change the country for the better.
Roy’s eyes are fixed on where the Fuhrer is standing. He is responsible for decreeing the massacre of the Ishvalans and he dictates the culture where this kind of atrocity could happen. In a line that was sadly cut from Brotherhood, King Bradley notes that Roy isn’t looking at him, he’s looking past him. Roy is looking past the military dictatorship of the Fuhrer, to a new era of democracy, where he and others can be seen as war criminals. It’s no accident that Truth takes Roy’s eyes. He envisioned a better future for Amestris, so they are the “toll” he had to pay.
The Ishvalans’ red eyes are often present in the visuals of FMA: Brotherhood to reinforce the devastation they experienced.
Their horror-stricken red eyes stand out vividly as Kimblee rises to cause an explosion. We see Kimblee’s from the perspective of his victims. Unlike, Riza, whose eyes transformed from cold to devastated, Kimblee’s eyes literally light up. They take on the glow that usually represents maliciousness.
Since eyes are generally the most expressive part of a character in FMA, it’s meaningful if they’re out of in some way. Obscured eyes usually represent a sinister or uncertain motive, or to hide the character’s emotional state.
Ishvalans are the underprivileged minority in Amestris. Scar and his people are outsiders to the country, and exist without a home. In his despair, Scar hunts the State Alchemists down and kills them out of revenge. And he fully expects this to end in his death. He hides the greatest signifier of his identity under a pair of glasses.
It’s only through the experiences he has with people such as Miles and Mei Chang, does Scar abandons his self-destructive quest. He decides to change the country for the better. He looks to his brother’s research so he can find a way to stop Father’s country-wide transmutation circle.
So, it’s appropriate then that the final shot of Scar in the series is of him looking ahead alongside Miles. He’s going to live and work for a better future for his people.
FMA cleverly uses eyes to tell us about a group, and the state the individuals in that group are in. We’re taken on a journey from the status quo of Amestris, to the future that those individuals work towards.
Whenever the Gate of Truth opens, a large creepy-looking eye appears before the person who will be dragged into it.
Interestingly enough, we never see Truth with eyes. Only as a white being with no discernible features. Who is Truth?
Truth defines themselves this way:
“Who am I? One name you might have for me is the world, or you might call me the universe, or perhaps God, or perhaps the Truth. I am All, and I am One. So, of course, this also means that I am you. I am the truth of your despair, the inescapable price of your boastfulness.”
Truth, from the view of the audience and characters, is like a cipher, taking on the attributes of those who come before him, such as the arm and leg Ed sacrificed.
Truth reveals, well, truths to those who enter their realm. The truth, as in real life, is often painful and brings despair. But as Ed says in his summarisation of the series, “a lesson without pain is meaningless.” Truth is higher being beyond our comprehension. Anyone who tries to bypass what is in essence, the universe, receives the consequences. No one is above those consequences. Truth’s eye leads humans to their judgment.
However, the main conflict of the series is fueled by the character who wants to go beyond any limitations.
This creepy little ball inside a flask is responsible for triggering off the most devastating events in the series. Born as the result of a scientific experiment, the being inside the flask says he just wants to leave the confines of his flask. But he wants to go far beyond just have the ability to engage with others freely. As we established in part 1, the being in the flask has no interest in achieving humanity. He even tells Hohenheim this towards the end of the series. His goal is going beyond the “lowly humans,” and achieving godhood.
This is what becoming a god means to the being the flask, or Father:
He uses humans, the homunculi and eventually even Truth as a resource for achieving that. While Truth is a being beyond comprehension who takes on the traits of others, Father forcefully takes from others. He even appropriates the idea of family without having any real desire to understand what it means. Everything is artificial and borrowed with Father.
When Father is brought before the Gate of Truth, this is what his gate looks like:
It’s completely blank with nothing inscribed onto it. Every other gate we have seen, has the something represents something about that person.
Ed’s gate has the type of alchemy that he’s studied on it. It represents everything he knows about alchemy and how it works. Roy’s represents the flame alchemy he has studied:
By contrast, Father has achieved nothing on his own, so that’s what his gate reflects. Father even tries, and fails, to replicate the gate of truth through Gluttony:
A major sign that this isn’t the Gate we know, is that the eye on GLuttony’s stomach is Father’s eye, and not the large grey eye that signals the Gate’s opening. It shows Father doesn’t know what he’s doing in his arrogance and his willingness to only take from others, instead of learning from and work with them like Ed did, Father ensures that he will never gain his goal.
Because as much as he tried to co-opt Truth, he sure couldn’t see it.
In conclusion, eyes are used in FMA to represent truth on a thematic level, and how we choose to process that truth.