Fullmetal Alchemist Vol 1: The Wait Is Over
It’s rare for a series to be licensed for American distribution midway through its broadcast in Japan. Thanks to FUNimation, Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the few. Despite its youth, it is the most anticipated release in anime history (please, don’t anybody start shouting ‘Naruto’). Being a breath of fresh air in terms of storytelling, animation, characterization, and appeal, I couldn’t wait to check out this prestigious release.
Most folks might not picture Square-Enix as a company that would produce anything but cheesy animes adapted from video games, but this series proves their commitment to producing a quality product. For the two of you that aren’t familiar with the plot, it revolves around Edward Elric and his brother Alphonse, two alchemists in search of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. In a world that feels like the early 1900’s, magic and alchemy are commonplace, even used by a special branch of the military. Dubbed “State Alchemists,” these powerful soldiers keep the peace in a land ravaged by past wars and hostility. Without giving too much away, Ed and Al both work alongside and cross paths with the military in the search for their prize.
The first episode, “To Challenge the Sun,” begins with Ed and Al entering the city of Lior. Run by the holy priest Cornello, its citizens live happy lives thanks to their belief in life after death from the sun god Leto. Suspecting that the miracles that Cornello performs aren’t divine power from Leto, but tricks using the Philosopher’s Stone, Ed decides to investigate. Finding that his suspicions are correct, he demands that Cornello hand the stone over to him and Al. Cornello refuses and a duel of alchemy ensues. This is one of the best opening episodes of any series that I’ve seen. The characterization of Ed and Al is wonderful, and within minutes I felt like I had known these characters for years. The duel with Cornello is exciting and Ed’s uses of alchemy are very clever and inspired. Even Rose, who is just an incidental character, is portrayed in a sympathetic and effective light.
The second episode, “Body of the Sanctioned,” picks up where the previous one left off. Forced to retreat due to Cornello’s henchmen interfering, Ed and Al plot to expose him to the public as the fraud that he is. Ed intentionally gets captured so that he can gain a private audience with Cornello and find out why he is deceiving everyone. Al, with help from Rose, broadcasts Cornello’s plan for the entire city to hear. Upon being exposed, Cornello attempts to quiet the masses, but his stone shatters, proving that it was just a fake. In light of the revelation, the townspeople revolt and Cornello goes into hiding, only to be killed by two mysterious visitors. Who they are and what their motivations are is a mystery. This was another brilliant episode with lots of character development, action and drama. It ends on a somber note as Rose wonders if exposing Cornello, fraud or not, was a good thing considering all the hope that he brought people.
The third episode, “Mother,” tells the origin of Ed and Al and why they got into Alchemy. Years earlier they had lived with their mother in a small village. Even though their father Hohenheim Elric had abandoned them years earlier, Ed and Al follow in his footsteps by learning alchemy. One day their mother becomes ill and passes away. Distraught and heartbroken, the brothers decide to break alchemy’s main law and attempt to bring her back to life. At first the spell seems to be working well, but suddenly Al’s body begins to disappear as well as Ed’s arm. After it’s all over, Al’s soul is encased in a metal suit of armor and Ed has lost an arm and a leg, all thanks to alchemy’s law of equivalent exchange. After healing and having his missing limbs replaced by mechanical “Auto-Mail,” Ed and Al leave in search of Col. Roy Mustang, a man who after witnessing their talents invited them to join the military. This is perhaps the best episode of the series. Characterization is at its peak, the pacing is incredible, and it will most definitely touch anyone who watches it. At first I was skeptical of this episode’s placement in the series, but in retrospect it works great.
Episode four, “A Forger’s Love,” is actually the weakest of the entire series. Shortly after leaving their hometown, Ed and Al stop in a small village to talk to a man named Majhal that may know the whereabouts of their father. Learning of a ghost terrorizing the village, the Elric brothers decide to assist the townspeople. Finding out that the ghost is nothing but puppets imbued with the life force of Majhal’s lost love, Ed challenges him to a battle ending with Majhal’s death. This episode seems like filler material, pure and simple. The pacing and plot is rather poor, there are one too many “oh puhleeze” moments present, and it has no impact on the overall storyline. Perhaps what makes this episode so bad is that it is coming off the heels of episode three.
Despite episode four, the first three episodes represent the finest that Japan, or even America for that matter, has to offer in terms of animation. For its grand debut in North America, Fullmetal Alchemist is available in the standard version or the collector’s version, which I can’t recommend enough. The soundtrack CD is a masterpiece, featuring several beautiful yet haunting orchestral pieces that suit the series perfectly. It also comes with a metal tin to store the first several DVDs in. While it is a bit on the delicate side, the tin is all class with a door with a hinge on the front and features a cool profile shot of Al. The DVD cover art features a badass picture of Ed showing off his auto-mail arm. Just for extra panache, a mini booklet on the series is included in both versions, showcasing character profiles and design sketches.
Fullmetal Alchemist is truly a masterwork. Despite the lackluster episode four, the other three episodes are mind-blowingly amazing. If you are a true anime fan, you need to own this disc. In fact, why are you reading this? Go buy it now!