“Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” Season 1

4 11 2009
Edward and Alphonse Elric are alchemists…
Edward and Alphonse Elric are geniuses…
Edward and Alphonse Elric are brothers…
Oh, and Edward and Alphonse Elric are sinners.

Good Evening!  This is Panda Masamune here, bringing you the first of many reviews on this site.  As it says in the “about” page and the byline, we at Segue want to “build bridges between nerd-dom and real life.”  (That’s a fancy way of saying that all three of the writers on this blog like our hobbies, but we think that our hobbies shouldn’t just be about entertaining ourselves; they should leave us as better people in the end.)  So it’s only fitting that our first post be about Fullmetal Alchemist–the series that gave me this idea in the first place.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

Medium: Television Anime

Genre: Drama, Shonen

Number of Episodes: 26 in the first season, but currently unknown

Summary:

Edward and Alphonse Elric are alchemists–people who deconstruct things into their base elements and reconstruct them into whatever they want.  Edward and Alphonse Elric are geniuses–while still a child, Ed passed the rigorous test to become a State Alchemist, with all of the benefits and baggage.  Edward and Alphonse Elric are brothers–after they were abandoned by their father and their mother passed away from illness, they decided that they would take care of each other.  Oh, and Edward and Alphonse Elric are sinners–they broke the taboo against using alchemy to resurrect the dead and paid for it with their bodies.  Ed lost his leg and Al lost his whole body.  In a moment of desperation, Ed sacrificed his right arm in order to affix Al’s soul to a spare suit of armor sitting in the corner.  Having been fitted with a prosthetic “automail” arm by his childhood friend Winry, Ed and Al set out to repair each others’ bodies.

This series tells the tale of the two brothers as they look for ways to heal each other.  Their research leads them on the trail of the “Philosopher’s Stone,” which is a stone that will allow them to create something from nothing.  In their case, it will allow them to restore each others’ bodies without suffering the rebound effects again.  However, the trail is one with a bloody history and an even bloodier future.  As they continue, they learn about the strange history of their country and uncover a conspiracy that could cost the lives of every last citizen.

So where can I get it?

Well, the DVDs aren’t out in Region 1 yet, but luckily, it’s being streamed in a number of places.  If you live in the USA or Canada, hop on over to Hulu or to Funimation’s official website.  They are streaming the subtitled version for free.  Here are a few links for you:

Episode 1 on Hulu

Hulu’s FMA Brotherhood channel

Funimation’s channel

For those of you living outside of the USA and Canada, it really depends on whether or not you speak Japanese.  The DVDs are now starting to become available in most Japanese rental stores, and you can always catch the original broadcast on television.  I think it is even airing in South Korea and Hong Kong in Japanese with subtitles.  But don’t quote me on that.  Just check your local listings.  If you really want to, you can download Hotspot Shield, which will mask your IP and make Hulu accessible.

Why I’m bothering to review it:

I watched the original Fullmetal Alchemist (hereafter FMA) back in 2005, and it was what really turned me into an anime nerd.   I was rooming with an anime nerd, and he had a poster for FMA on the wall.  What I saw was a typical shonen action character (Ed) and his hulking sidekick in a completely impractical suit of armor (Al).  They had some sort of strange powers (Alchemy) and they fought off legions of bad guys (Chimera).  Yep, I was completely uninterested.  Then one night, my roommate explained to me that the armor was empty, and that the soul that was affixed to it was the soul of a gentle 13-year-old boy. So I gave it a chance.  It was completely unlike anything I had ever seen before.  The characters were smart and likable, the drama was actually dramatic, the soundtrack was excellent, and the series pulled at your heartstrings.

In no time at all I had finished the TV series and the sequel movie (The Conqueror of Shamballa), and I set my sights on Arakawa Hiromu‘s original manga. At first, I thought the anime was way better; Arakawa didn’t have as clean of drawings as the anime and she relied too much on slapstick.  But then the storylines started veering off, and as the manga plunged ahead, it was so different that FMA fans started talking about two separate canons: the Anime Canon and the Manga Canon.  And after reading the manga for years, I have to say I prefer the Manga Canon.

So when I heard that Studio Bones was remaking the series following the manga canon, I was pretty excited.  And I still am.  And to pay homage to the original FMA, which first gave me the idea that anime could speak to real-life situations, I am reviewing season 1, episodes 1-26.

Review: 3.5/5

As I have said, the Manga Canon’s story is incredible, and so if you are new to the series, you will still find Season 1 incredible.  However, for those that watched the original anime, the first 13 episodes will be a complete re-tread of things you have already seen before.  The problem is that the first anime series did these stories so much better.  It almost feels like Studio Bones is just trying to get this part of the story out of the way. The one exception to the rule is episode 1, which introduces an original character named Isaac McDougal, aka. The Ice Alchemist.  Episode 1 operates as a standalone story that (re)introduces the key players of Ed, Al, Mustang, Hughes, and Armstrong, with smaller roles from Kimbley and King Bradley.  Some found it to be too much of a roll-call episode, but I loved it.  It introduced the concept of a city-wide transmutation circles in a dramatic way.  But aside from episode 1, the first half can be a chore to get through.  I give it a 2.5.

Then episode 14 rolls around, and everyone’s patience pays off.  The last half of the first season is stellar, introducing the countries of Xerxes and Xing along with their characters (Lin Yao, Lan Fan, and May Chang) and their Alkahestry (rentan-jutsu).  The action is non-stop, the plot is full of twists, and the emotions run high.  Characters develop in new ways, with certain characters like Al, Winry, Scar, and Gluttony really benefiting from the new portrayal.  Al even learns to use alchemy without a circle.  It is fantastic.  I will try to avoid spoilers, but the final three episodes will leave you on the edge of your seat.  This is FMA to its fullest potential.  The final part of season 1 gets a 4.5.

As is expected, the production values are top notch.  They are, however, different.  The art style uses much thicker lines, which doesn’t look as good in still shots, but which makes for amazingly detailed action sequences.  Any of the battles that involve Scar are at the top of television animation.  The music is suitable, but tends towards the bombastic in scenes where scaling back would be much better.  And finally, there is the slapstick.  All of Arakawa’s slapstick from the manga is here, and at times it just feels out of place.  However, all of these things are negligible.  This is still anime at its finest, and it easily beats out 95% of the competition.  The only problem is that it doesn’t live up to it’s own potential.

So for a lackluster first half, an amazing second half, and good production values that nevertheless have some flaws, I’m giving season 1 a comfortable 3.5/5.  I fully expect that season 2 will score higher.

Bridging Nerd-dom and Life:

Ed and Al are smart–something not typically found in the Shonen genre which is dominated by love-able lugheads like Naruto and Luffy.  They study.  In fact, the anime shows them studying.  How often do you see that nowadays?  When they fight, they fight just as much with their minds as they do with their bodies. It’s a really positive picture that I hope gets subliminally embedded in the minds of any teenagers watching this show.  Gaining knowledge is not a bad thing.  It’s good.

But that’s not the best part of this anime.

The thing I appreciate most about this series is its ability to introduce ethics in a believable and thought-provoking way.  Ed and Al are not like Christopher Nolan’s Batman, who spouts such tripe as “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”  They are not the bad-ass antiheroes of pretty much every Hollywood movie since 2000.  No.  These are two boys who see the dark side of this world first-hand, and yet chose to remain good.   I mean, Ed goes through the whole series without killing a single person (yet)!  Though he sees death all around him, he sees life as sacred.  One of the most touching moments from the first season is a conversation he has with Winry about how her hands were meant to give life, not to take it.  He gives the example of his prosthetic arm, which she built for him so that he could face life again.  Keep in mind that this all happens while Winry is holding a gun on her parents’ murderer.  But she chooses to break the cycle of hatred, and it not only changes her character, but also the character of the murderer.

We are nerds.  We like to play video games, watch cartoons, and read comic books.  But we are also citizens of this world.  We see all of the wars that have happened in the last decade, all of the greed that causes starvation and hunger even though there is enough food to go around, the apathy people towards those that are suffering, whether they be homeless men in our cities or men and women in areas like Darfur.  And you know what?  Seeing all of this makes cynicism and apathy easy.  I mean, if the world is as messed up as it appears, why not live for ourselves?  But what is easy is usually not what is best.  And what is best is doing exactly what the characters in this anime do: instead of being ignorant about the true face of the world, they meet the darkness head on and choose to be good in spite of it.  It’s kind of like what a famous Greek philosopher once said: “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the world of life.”

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