Poetic Justice

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I really like Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. Like a lot. I could go on and on about the characters, the worldbuilding, the plot or the humor. Today, however, I will be looking at FMAB’s use of Poetic Justice. But what exactly is it? Poetic Justice is a term for when virtue is rewarded and vice is punished. This is normally something directly or indirectly doled out due to the characters own actions or it is delivered from some higher power. These are usually ironic, a righteous twist of fate so to speak. But I hear you saying “that definition doesn’t help much,” to which I say you’re correct. That was rather abstract. I could begin explaining it by showing how it is useful, but instead I’ll go over specific examples of how it is used in the anime specifically. Poetic Justice is used in each and every instance a Homunculi dies.

But I’m anticipating people reading this who haven’t seen the show. So what exactly is a Homunculus? For the sake of time I’ll give you the short, spoiler-filled explanation: There is a being known as Father who has removed his Seven Deadly Sins in an effort to become the perfect being. These vices are then condensed into artificial people with personalities and powers. Each of these beings is called a Homunculus and named after their respective sin they embody, which allows them to be on-the-nose to a point we wouldn’t tolerate with characters under normal circumstances. They serve Father and are the shows main villains, capable of regenerating if wounded up to a certain point. Now that there’s a groundwork for understanding why the villains are so obviously committed to a singular vice, lets begin. Spoilers for basically the entire show are ahead.

The first instance is the death of the Homunculus Lust. She takes the form of an attractive young woman and uses this to manipulate men as their plans require. While her powers, knives for hands, doesn’t seem to be reflective of her name, her personality is. Lust isn’t an interesting character. She’s shallow to the point of underwritten but that’s intentional. Because lust is shallow. This is one of the few instances of a story getting away with purposely underwriting its characters. Towards the beginning of the show she goes up against Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye. These two are both leading main characters and they have an unspoken relationship. Lust impales Roy, leaving him for dead. Lust then moves on to kill Riza only to have Roy burn his wound shut and incinerate her over and over until she fades away. The poetic irony here is obvious: Lust is shallow and the only way to be rid of it is being motivated by love and willing to kill lust over and over.

The next Homunculi is Gluttony, capable of absorbing an infinite amount. He is the only Homunculi to lose his regenerating nature, die, and then return. His first death merely moves the plot forward, while the second is full of poetic irony. He’s been alive for hundreds of years, yet wants more of life as soon as he approaches death. He hunts Roy for killing Lust, but never finds him as gluttony can never be fulfilled. Gluttony is assimilated by the Homunculus Pride, who desires more abilities. In other words, Gluttony is eaten.

The third example is Envy, a Homunculi whose ability is shapeshifting. His true forms are ugly and he despises them, preferring instead to take on the looks of anyone else. His two true forms are that of a giant dragon-like monster and a hand-sized worm. Which of these he is depends on how much Envy is fed. Less fuel, less power. In the end, Envy tries to turn the heroes against each other in a scene set up perfectly for them to do so. He tries to make them envious of what each other has and what they’ve taken from each other. They refuse. Then they reveal that Envy was jealous of humanity and that’s why he tried to emulate them at every turn. With his transforming ability removed, Envy is reduced to stay in his true worm-like body forever. He kills himself by removing his soul.

Next up is Sloth. This guy is a buff dude, standing twice the height of the shows second strongest character. He is bulletproof and can move faster than the eye can see. Unstoppable, right? Not quite. See, he’s Sloth. He’s lazy. He considers anything and everything a pain not worth the effort. That’s what sloth is: being capable of something but choosing not to exert the effort. He has the ultimate skillset but chooses not to utilize it. He is killed by the relentless fighting of the heroes. No really, they fight this guy for six episodes straight. He fades away, not knowing whether life or death is the greater pain. Sloth is defeated by relentlessness and choosing to act even when its hard.

The first Homunculi chronologically is Pride. He is looked down on for appearing as a foolish child, when in reality he is hundreds of years old and a terrifying monster. He has countless eyes with which to see the world around him but they mainly see himself. His artificial body resembles a child, but this is merely a hollow vessel holding the true darkness. Pride wields this darkness by controlling shadows. He needs light to do so, otherwise he’s useless. However, if he gets too much light his shadow body disintegrates. Similar to how real life pride cannot thrive in isolation, without bragging and boasting, and how admitting to pride and bringing it into the light kills it. Pride kills Gluttony because he looks down on him and deems his own survival as a higher priority than Gluttony’s. He later assimilates a character named Kimley because he looks down on his philosophy. This comes back later in his final fight. Edward, the hero, is able to get the upper hand on Pride because Edward has been looked down on his whole life. Having been there, Ed knows how someone will fight when they have something to prove. That’s when Kimley paralyzes Pride from the inside. This allows Ed to finish Pride, not by killing him but by turning him back into an infant, a being incapable of arrogance. Ed wins because he got the pride kicked out of him and is humble. Pride loses due to his arrogance, believing anyone else to be foolish and weak.

          Second to last, yet second to none is Wrath. He is by far the most complex of the Homunculi, dwarfing even the main villain in memorable qualities and awe inspiring moments. His power is his Ultimate Eye, which allows him to see any weakness at a glance. Similar to how the angry are quick to see flaws at those they’re mad at. Perhaps his most memorable quality is his anger, which should be his defining trait. His anger isn’t the yelling, explosive rage of one who’s had enough but rather the slow burn that eats you up inside. His wrath is hating everything from his silence, despising all that is beneath him. His second quality is his atheism. He despises the idea of a god and anyone who believes in such. Thirdly is his kingship. Wrath is actually the leader of Amestris, the country FMAB is set in. He believes people exist to serve the king, not the other way around. As one can imagine, these three qualities play off one another to create a chilling antagonist. His death is a masterpiece. We begin with an assassination attempt on his life by people who feel nothing towards him. Wrath escapes. He returns towards the shows end, mowing down a group of soldiers. Here, he faces multiple opponents too complex to describe in detail here, all with differing political views. Suffice to say, they hate Wrath and their anger makes them easy to defeat. So if you have nothing to be angry at Wrath isn’t a problem and if you try to take him on when you’re angry it fails. Not all is without gain though. Due to their political views of leadership helping the people, the combatants are motivated to combine their abilities in a clever attack and wound him, throwing him into the waterways beside the fight. Wrath then resurfaces one final time to fight Roy and Scar. Roy is just getting over an intense hatred and Wrath easily dispatches him. Meanwhile, Scars’ entire arc is about forgiveness, overcoming anger, and making progress through peaceful means. He is a devout believer in the god Ishvala. And Wrath’s government had tried to exterminate Scars people due to their differing beliefs. This fight is the culmination of Scars arc. The fight is clever, fast paced and intense. The duel takes place during a lunar eclipse, commonly thought to be a divine act. Near the end, the moon moves suddenly and the sun blinds Wrath, giving Scar enough time to finish him. Wrath is killed by the wounds enabled by democracy, an act of god, and a warrior who has conquered his anger. Wrath dies peacefully, with a smile on his face.

      The final and best Homunculus is Greed, the only one with a redemption arc. He wants everything in the world, including people. He splits from the other Homunculi because they want to reel in some of his tendencies. His new friends and fellow partners in crime he refers to as his possessions and he considers someone killing them theft. Naturally, Wrath kills them all. But Greed recovers. He’s harboring a deep resentment for Wrath but gaining new associates, mainly Edward, the aforementioned main character. Greed does some crazy stuff in the plot’s midway but I’m not gonna bother explaining as it doesn’t pertain to our discussion. In the end, Greed is faced with the death of a friend, except this is different than before. This is a friend dying not a possession being stolen. Greed has grown as a person. He flies into a rage, killing hordes of the enemy and facing Father head on to protect Ed. Father kills him, but not before Greed decimates Father’s defenses by emptying himself of power, his only remaining possession. Greed dies satisfied, knowing he had little but used what he had to help others.

      While not one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Father was their creator and his death bears discussing as well. Father strives to become the ultimate being and does so through complicated means. Remember, he is what the Homunculi came from and as a result has many of their attributes. This complex plan he has could be done in about a year but due to his personal sloth it takes hundreds. He envies humans for being able to experience all life has to offer, something he is incapable of due to his nature. He is silently wrathful and his defining characteristic is pride. He assimilates countless souls to further his strength, brought on by his greed. His ultimate goal is to absorb what he deems to be god, a being known as Truth. Rather gluttonous, no? While he seemingly fails to display lust to any capacity, that could fall under greed and envy depending on how you look at it. In the shows final episodes, Father absorbs the Truth, attaining ultimate power. However this ultimate power is difficult to control, making him an easy target for the heroes. They rain down attacks on him until he’s weak enough for the Truth to escape. Greed decimated Father’s only remaining defenses. Now, Father is left powerless. Ed, a young boy with no skill set he can currently use, beats the “ultimate being” by punching him in the face a few times. Father is beaten by the weakest one there, who is as full of virtue as Father is vice. After his death, we see Father sentenced to an eternity in the portal of Truth, a realm of nothingness from which Father was born. He gets the power he wanted, but not in the way he wanted. He gets it in a punishing way that horrified him, because he can never wield it and he will be forever alone. I suppose there is also a great deal of poetic justice in Father’s treatment of Hohenheim, but that is a topic for another day.

      So then, you probably have a pretty clear grasp of what Poetic Irony is by now. But the question remains, why and how should you use it? Several reasons. Firstly: Its set up and pay off. This is basically all a story is, making promises and then fulfilling them in an unexpected way later on. Poetic justice is making the promise of evil being punished and fulfilled in a satisfying way the audience doesn’t expect. This requires you to know how the character ends before their inclusion in the story begins, so that the pay off works and they don’t feel inconsistent. It is well worth the extra effort to attempt this, as it not only improves the story, but force you to examine the entire story from start to finish before you begin.        

Second: It is satisfying to see a villain beaten by his flaws. When you see a villain beaten by a more powerful hero the theme becomes might makes right. However, when the villain fails by his own flaws the theme becomes the opposite of whatever the flaw was. Poetic justice does this as a side effect, as the vice must be punished often at the characters end. It is often important not to make someone else punish them. Then the theme is justice, not the opposite of the villains vice. If the prideful is defeated due to thinking their plan is foolproof, the theme is humility. If the wrathful is defeated by his own anger getting the best of him in the face of the heroes self-control, the theme is self-control. If the villain is defeated in a way unrelated to his personality or vice, the theme is usually along the lines of power or justice, both of which aren’t terribly interesting. No one wants a story that tells them life gets better when you’re powerful enough to crush those in your way, and no one wants a story that places its faith in a third-party arbitrating fairly. Poetic justice forces the theme to be clear and concise.

      In conclusion, poetic justice is a remarkably useful tool for stories. I used FMAB as my prime example and I tried to be as light on context as I could. This proved difficult, but this article is intended as a helpful tool for everyone interested in storytelling, not merely fans of FMAB. It is used in plenty of other places, such as Infinity War as each of the children of Thanos are defeated in a poetic way. Ebony Maw’s main weapon is telekinesis, so his mind is his most powerful ally. However, when it comes time to use his superior mind, he is outsmarted not by a genius or a neurosurgeon, but by a highschooler. There is a sense of satisfaction seeing a powerful mind beaten by the dullest person in the room. This isn’t quite as poetic as the deaths of the Homunculi, but I thought it bore mentioning if only to use another franchise as an example. Poetic Justice is a very powerful tool when it comes to storytelling. Not only can it help draw a story to a close, but it gives an added layer of satisfaction to the climax and resolution to the story. Each character that is coupled with poetic justice is given almost a plot line of their own, with major plot points, a climax, and a resolution, however short or long that may be. Every character contributes to the overall themes the story conveys. This makes everything feel even more connected. Poetic Justice helps make sure that the villain is brought to justice, but in a way that brings satisfaction to the overarching story, and also draws the antagonist’s or protagonist’s mini plot line to a close.

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