Maligned 101: Dante (Fullmetal Alchemist)

Welcome to my new series, “Maligned 101”, where I take a popular/obscure character from anime that’s unfairly criticized and discuss why said character deserves better reception. The character can be a hero, anti-hero or villain, but, ultimately, the character must be interesting enough to warrant a second-look. I’ll start with one of the most controversial anime antagonists of all-time, no doubt because of the backlash that her show has received for “deviating from its source material”. I’m, of course, referring to Dante from Fullmetal Alchemist.

There’s plenty of debate as to whether or not Fullmetal Alchemist is superior to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. While many would say yes, many more would say no, going as far as ripping to shreds what it stands for. Not surprisingly, its chief antagonist, Dante, is amongst the elements that get ripped apart, namely because “she’s not as good as Father”. Speaking as someone who was iffy on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and, subsequently, loved Fullmetal Alchemist, I think it’s only fair to explain why Dante deserves more credit than she actually gets.

Dante is introduced in Episode 32 of Fullmetal Alchemist. Originally a kind, frail, elderly lady who specializes in alchemic medicine, you don’t initially think of her as a threat; in fact, Greed, who has a vendetta against her, is much more threatening because he’s strong, able-bodied and has a posse of genetically-altered chimeras at his disposal. So when she manages to body-swap with Lyra, her apprentice who was introduced in Episode 9, and disable Greed on her own, it’s a little confusing. It’s never outright stated what'd happened, so it’s easy to assume that Lyra had murdered Dante for her own personal gain. The only clue is the ominous music that plays on her radio, but outside of that you wouldn’t know what’d transpired if you hadn’t already seen the show.

That feeling of confusion comes back in Episode 39, when it’s revealed that Rose had been raped by soldiers, impregnated, given birth and become mute while defending her people in Lior. Scar has also been using her as a catalyst of revenge for what’d happened to Ishval, a notion supported by Lyra. Lyra states that her intentions are to help Lior get back on his feet, believing Scar to be the one to make that happen, but something doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t help that Lyra is incredibly-and perhaps uncomfortably-warm to Rose and her child, and this uncomfortable feeling doesn’t go away even after the citizens of Lior escape and Scar creates a Philosopher’s Stone.

It isn’t until Episode 44, when Hohenheim confronts Lyra, that the truth comes out: Dante hadn’t died back at the mansion, Lyra had. Using the last remains of the Philosopher’s Stone that Hohenheim had given her centuries ago, Dante had attached her soul to Lyra. It was then that she could paralyze Greed with the remains of his human body, make it look like he’d murdered her in cold-blooded revenge and allow Edward to defeat him. After all, with no one to hunt her down, Dante was free to pursue her ultimate goal: immortality.

In fact, I think Dante’s back-story, a romantic relationship with Hohenheim gone wrong, pretty much explains that for itself:

That music gives me chills. (Courtesy of inthelandofnumbnuts.)

What makes Dante interesting, especially in comparison to the often-more celebrated Father? I think the answer lies in a small, yet frequently overlooked, element that distinguishes the two antagonists. In the case of Father, you have a dynamic ruler who desperately wants, like Dante, immortality. Like Dante, Father craves control. Like Dante, Father wants that control through the means of a Philosopher’s Stone, something he can only get via the Elrics and their desire to regain what they’d lost. But the one detail that sets them apart is their ambition. This is especially the case for Father, whose goal is to absorb God and attain the highest knowledge.

In contrast, Dante’s ambitions are simple. She’s interested immortality for her own sake. She’s afraid of death, an understandable motivation, and wishes to live forever. Father wants something big and unattainable, while Dante wants something small. And while the desire to live forever is, itself, clichéd, it also plays more to real life than Father’s “Tower of Babel” motivation. It makes the story and ugliness of Dante that much more believable.

However, immortality is impossible. Hohenheim had long ago realized this and desired to live out the rest of his life in peace. But Dante hadn’t moved on. She was so enamoured by the feeling of eternal youth, much like an infatuated schoolgirl, that she craved it more and more. Her body started aging, so she transferred her soul to a younger, fresher one. When that one started aging too, she transferred her soul again. This cycle of jumping bodies was an addiction, such that, while not constant, by the time she’s confronted by Edward in the finale it’s revealed that she’d jumped bodies close to 10 times in 400 years.

Needless to say, each transfer also brought with it an unfortunate side-effect. Like Voldemort from the Harry Potter series, trying to become immortal resulted in the decay of Dante’s soul, such to the point where her body began to rot too. Again, Hohenheim had long ago come to this conclusion on his own, while Dante hadn’t. She was convinced she’d eventually crack the code for herself, and she was willing to use a vulnerable Rose, as well as her newborn child, to make it happen. She also took advantage of various homunculi, each of whom were desperate to become human and could only do so via The Philosopher’s Stone, and used them as catalysts to wage wars against neighbouring countries and create stones as well.

Basically, Dante is a human parasite.

Of course, Dante is defeated via a combination of neglecting her lackeys and her Philosopher’s Stone being used by Alphonse to bring Edward back to life, but the fact is that her motives feel more real and dangerous than Father’s. When I think of what Father is after in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I picture King Nimrod of Babylon demanding his citizens build a tower to the Heavens so as to kill God. When I think of Dante, I picture something more human and relatable. And while it could be argued that her character is sexist, and that’s a subject for another time, in the end she’s a well-written cautionary tale, unfairly maligned and well-worth another look.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer not to, but that’s another discussion…


  1. None of this explains why Dante is better than father as an antagonist

    1. My intention with this series is never "why is X character better than Y character?" To argue that would require its own, separate piece. My point with Maligned 101 is, rather, to argue why I think the character in question deserves more appreciation. To that end, I think I succeeded...

  2. I'm so glad to see someone else who likes Dante too!

    1. I appreciate not being alone. Though, honestly, she does have a following, it's just not as big as Father...

  3. This honestly is a good defense of the character. I did warm a little more to Father as a villain upon rewatching Brotherhood; even if he still gets a bit too over the top in the finale of that show, I still have to concede that he was a good fit overall for his respective continuity. Even so, Dante deserves more credit as a well-crafted character than she sometimes gets. She might be outshown in the memorability department by the majority of her lackeys, but she's a good fit for the 2003 show's plot and themes, and a perfectly adequate antagonist in her own right.

    1. Basically what you said. Though, to be honest, I doubt I'll ever be fully sold on Father. Both he and Dante have pretty generic motivations behind what they do, but I can actually imagine someone like Dante existing in a world where such power is readily available. Father, on the other hand, I can't really...

    2. One thing I think you forget is that unlike Dante, Father is not, strictly-speaking, a human; he is more a fantastical creature who just happens to have some things in common with humans. As such, there is no logical, in-universe reason why his motivation *has* to be something more understandable from a human perspective. Within the context of Brotherhood's universe, Father is actually quite believable indeed. Its kind of like how the complaints about Sauron's evilness in Lord of the Rings not being believable completely miss the point about him being a demon, and not a human- and therefore not at all being liable to think or act like a human would.

      You're free to prefer Dante- I myself prefer Dante. But your complaints about Father's motivation not playing more to the lives we humans live, while a legitimate *subjective* reason to be less interested in him, are nevertheless a moot point where the plausibility of his character is concerned.

    3. I guess I never thought of it that way (though, to be honest, I always found Sauron to be the weakest of Lord of the Rings. Give me Saruman the White any day!) My thoughts don't really change on Father, but you have a valid point...

    4. In fairness to Sauron, Tolkien knew full well the dramatic limitations of the kind of character he was, which is why he purposely distanced the reader from him by never showing him directly save for one fleeting moment at the end of the Battle at the Black Gate. Instead, he conveyed the evilness of Sauron through its effects on the peoples of Middle Earth, both on an individual and a collective level. Its one of the many ways in which Tolkien tended to have a greater grasp on how to make the tropes he utilized work than do many of the fantasy writers who were ostensibly influenced by him.

      Father, on the other hand, we get to see a fair amount of in person. In fairness to Arakawa, I'm not really sure how this could have been avoided without substantially altering the nature of the story she wanted to tell. But it is something to consider if you want to further compare and contrast Father with Sauron.

      "Give me Saruman the White any day!"
      Strictly-speaking, Saruman isn't human either, but he does get more in-depth characterization than Sauron, its true. I can understand preferring him.


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