When I first heard of Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA) in high school, I was kind of skeptical. A year later, it was one of the best things on Adult Swim. While I can’t remember what initially got me interested, I can talk about the FMA anime series. Although this is just one of many forms a consumer can take in the FMA universe, this post will be limited to the series released in 2003. (In addition to the manga, a second anime series titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was released in 2009.)
Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead
FMA is based on the manga of the same name by Hiromu Arakawa. The first anime adaption, produced by Bones, aired October 2003 until October 2004 and totals 51 episodes.
Set in a world modeled after Industrial Revolution-era Europe where alchemy is the major science, brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric break the ultimate law and use alchemy to resurrect their dead mother. Their attempt fails, and as a result Alphonse loses his body, becoming a soul trapped in a suit of armor. Edward, meanwhile, loses his left leg and right arm, replacing them with automail, or mechanical prosthetic limbs. Acknowledging their mistake, the boys set out to find a way to restore their original bodies–focusing their efforts on finding the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which can break the fundamental laws of alchemy.
Under the advice and guidance of Roy Mustang, Edward passes the certification exam to become the youngest State Alchemist in Amestris, earning the title of Fullmetal due to his automail limbs. With Ed as a State Alchemist, the Elric Brothers have access to the best resources their country can offer to help their search. However, State Alchemist certification comes with a price as Edward is now required to follow military orders, even when he doesn’t agree with them. Colonel Roy Mustang, Ed’s superior, often protects the brothers from the interest of high-ranking military officials and sends Ed on missions that might prove useful to his search.
The Elrics eventually realize something is happening in the higher ranks of the military, and it involves the Philosopher’s Stone and the mysterious Ishbalan War of Extermination that tore up the east several years ago.
I can’t help but compare this series with the second anime. Although this first anime remains true to the source material until about halfway, it takes the time to develop several relationships before their Impactful Moments, most notably Nina Tucker and Maes Hughes. Nina is the daughter of an alchemist the Elrics study under for several episodes, and I appreciate seeing more of her in the original series. She calls the Elrics “big brother” and waits outside the government building when they take their certification exam. This last scene, I feel, spoke wonders to their relationship. Additionally, we see a lot more of Maes Hughes, and we could all use more Maes Hughes in our lives.
The relationship between Ed and Roy I find a bit more realistic in this series. Roy is more omnipotent than he appears in the other series, and he often blackmails Ed whenever Ed shows reluctance in accepting a mission. Ed is open about his dislike of Roy, but his attitude also shows that he accepts Roy as the best superior to have, despite his smugness. The power play between them is really entertaining.
There are several aspects of the world development that I like. For instance, alchemy seems more of a science. We see people studying it and not being good at it and struggling to understand concepts or theories. It also helps to see more objects associated with science and chemistry, such as beakers and bunsen burnders. Additionally, the absence of Father gives this series a more secular feel. Instead of the Ishbalan War being the whim of a wannabe-deity, the war was the result of a cultural conflict between the people of Ishbal and the people of Amestris. It makes that whole aspect of the story much more terrifying.
I also think the homunculi are handled better. They all have goals that they’re working towards, which makes them more believable as characters. How a homunculus is created is more interesting with them being the byproduct of failed human transmutation. So things get interesting toward the end when the Elrics encounter their mother’s likeness and are, in a sense, forced to face their mistake all over again.
Despite these good qualities, I do have a few critiques, most notably in the second half. While I like how some things are handled, I do feel the second half gets a little confusing and fails to develop a few points introduced in the first half. For instance, Ed and Al’s father is referenced in the first half as being a great alchemist who studied with several other alchemists and helped to further their research. This suggests he was a big name in the alchemy field and contributed a fair amount to research. I was disappointed when we finally met him. His contribution to the story itself was quite minimal, and I was disappointed about that.
My biggest issue is probably the introduction of parallel worlds. The last ten episodes introduce the idea that our world (set in WWII) exists as a parallel with the world in the story. If you so choose, you can cross between the worlds through human transmutation. Personally, I think that if you’re going to introduce parallel worlds into your story, you need to plant the seed in the audience’s mind sooner and more often than what this series did. Images of atom bombs in the second episode is not enough of a seed for me. The audience should be able to anticipate something larger is going on.
Finally, I take issue with the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. During the first half, the series suggests that it takes a LOT of materials and advanced alchemy to create the Stone, which is created in steps and requires a lot of research to get to the final points. When a stone is finally created, most of these materials are missing. Additionally, the power of the Stone decreases as the series progresses. This coincides with the series debunking the theory of Equivalent Exchange, which I feel shatters all the effort put into world building.
Would I recommend Fullmetal Alchemist to others? Yes, absolutely. Japanese-style storytelling coupled with an alternate Industrial Revolution-era setting make for an engaging experience. The anime balances the darkness of the story’s themes with comedic moments and well-done action sequences. Whether you choose to watch with English subtitles or with English dubbing, you’re in for a real treat.
Bookshelf – Netflix Instant