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"Fullmetal Alchemist" Seasons 1 & 2: Full Throttle Excitement

It’s never a good idea to read a show’s source material before watching the show itself. Too often it raises expectations that will be impossible to meet. But I can happily report that the Full Metal Alchemist anime (adapted from the hugely successful manga) meets these expectations in a quite unusual way: though adaptation decay.

The anime’s plot, for instance, has been radically altered from the manga’s. Whole story arcs are re-written, key characters are often either removed (Prince Lin) or changed (Lust), and the sequence of events in general is re-arranged. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in fact, it’s one of the smartest set of moves the production crew could have made. The original Full Metal Alchemist manga had plenty of virtues, for instance, but good dialogue was not among them. This is not particularly noticeable while reading, but it is painfully apparent when spoken aloud. The episodes that stick closely to the manga are actually some of the weakest ones; it’s when the show writes its own episodes that it’s most impressive. Even more admirable is the way that, even when completely derailing a character or snipping a plot thread, it remains true to its source material, in spirit if not superficially. It feels the same, and has much of the same charm and wit as the manga.

The plot, with as few spoilers as possible:

Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, are orphaned when their mother dies. Grief stricken, the brothers hatch a plan to revive her using alchemy (magic, basically, but with limits and stuff). Long story short, it screws up, and the spell (sorry, the transmutation) backfires, resulting in, shall we say, substantial bodily damage to the brothers. The two then traverse the globe (with Edward taking a job for the military), searching for the philosophers’ stone, an amplifier that will allow them to repair the damage they caused themselves. It doesn’t stay at that, of course; in fact, FMA’s got a plot intricate to the point of ridiculousness. I could spend pages detailing it; suffice it to say it involves war, government conspiracies, human sacrifice, and lots and lots of explosions. More important is how the story is presented, and while this presentation starts out a little weak, it markedly improves as the show moves on. The second season, for instance, is an improvement even over the first; and while the first two episodes are poorly constructed, the last two are simply breathtaking. The show puts you in a dramatic stupor; even if you’re not exactly impressed by some of the episodes, you’ll still end up wanting to know what happens next.

Since I’ve already used the phrases “adaptation decay” and “intricate to the point of ridiculousness” as compliments, I’ll go ahead and mention another seeming weakness that turns out to be a strength: the size of the cast. FMA has a buttload of characters, and it occasionally seems that they are competing with each other for screen time (I want more Armstrong). But each one still comes across as a fully rounded personality, with the obviously positive side-effect that we are endeared towards the characters almost immediately, which is a rare achievement in any art form. The two brothers complement each other; in one episode, Alphonse mentions that Ed “Just turns into a jerk without me.” This is a surprisingly astute assessment of the relationship; one of the brothers would be insufferable without the other. Of particular note are the show’s villains, the cackling, morally confused homunculi; each one is named after one of the seven sins, and each one is certainly among the shows strongest characterizations. It would not be false to say that they outshine the heroes, but only just; the foul-tempered, small-statured Edward Elric is a hard guy to upstage. Some other important characters include Edward’s superior, Roy Mustang; the brothers’ mechanic, Winry Rockbell; their teacher, Izumi Curtis; and the mysterious leader of the homunculi, whose identity I wouldn’t dream of revealing. All of these characters, as well as a score of minor ones, are strongly depicted and quite likable.

The voices, both English and Japanese, are a mixed bag, although this probably ties in with the “unmeetable expectations” thing I mentioned. Edward (Rie Kugimiya/Aaron Dismuke) sounds a bit too manic in some of his appearances, and his voice was not quite what I was expecting, but it grows on you quickly. Toru Okawa and Travis Willingham have arguably the hardest hill to climb as Roy Mustang; their character must be part comic and part dramatic, but they pull it off reasonably well. The strongest voices are probably those of Winry Rockbell (Megumi Toyoguchi/Caitlin Glass), who has remarkable talent in making awkward conversations come out naturally, and Barry the Chopper (Kentaro Ito/Jerry Jewell), who is such an appealing caricature that I was actually sad at his inevitable defeat. As you can probably tell by reading the above, the dub and the sub are basically inter-changeable.

The chronology of the some of the early episodes is a bit off-putting; after the first two episodes we are treated to a seven-episode flashback—that’s seven episodes—one of which is a fairly pointless filler. No flashback needs to last that long, and it’s a bit puzzling as to why the show didn’t simply start with these episodes, but after that this is rarely an issue. A common criticism is that the show spends too much of its time wallowing in angst; this is a legitimate criticism, and while it too is most obvious in some of the early episodes, it spills into some of the later episodes as well. (“Bonding Memories,” anyone?) The show usually moves at a fairly brisk pace, with the minimum amount of filler, but most of the filler that is there is bad even by filler standards. Still, these are mostly minor criticisms, and they are not even apparent in most of the episodes. The show certainly starts off weak, but it’s more than made up for this by the award-worthy climax.

The visuals are not as impressive as the story (shonen anime visuals rarely are) but they have their moments, particularly during some of the sprawling fight scenes. A word should also be spared for the music. Though probably the weakest element, it’s not exactly bad, but neither is it particularly memorable. In addition to in-episode audio, the show has three different pairs of opening and ending theme songs; the best of the openings is undoubtedly the third one (though whether this is actually due to the music or the pictures accompanying it, I’m not quite sure), while one ending theme is about the same as the others.

Down to the more technical details: these two box sets collect, on eight separate discs, all fifty-one episodes of the show. Special features are sparse: a music video of the second opening theme, lots of advertisements, and, more importantly, episode commentaries for several of the show’s more pivotal points. (There is also an “Inside Look” on the show, contained in the last disc of the second season.) Each box set also comes with a set of booklets containing character profiles and artwork.

Fullmetal Alchemist is fetching a hefty price right now (both box sets together come to roughly $110), but it’s worth it for any anime fan. I enthusiastically recommend them.

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