Studio Ghibli and Saltkråkan’s “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter” Premieres on Amazon Prime on January 27, 2016
Fans of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood who are suffering withdrawal from the show may find solace in the release the “4 OVAs and Comic Theater,” lately released by FUNimation in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack. This collection four short (plus one very short) stories from the FMA franchise contains only minor pleasures, but they are Fullmetal pleasures, and that is enough.
The collection starts with its best foot forward with “The Blind Alchemist.” This story, which is set very early in the series’ continuity, has Ed and Al seeking out an alchemist who is reputed to have succeeded at human transmutation; what they discover is a family with a fairly macabre secret. No prizes will be awarded for guessing that the experiment was not a complete success, but it comes with at least one good surprise. It’s not really possible, with a story this short and undeveloped, to say more about it, except that the final reveal is both gruesome and heartbreaking.
“The Blind Alchemist” is then succeeded by two quasi-comic character studies. “Simple “People” pits Ed against Winry as the former tries bribing his way back into the latter’s good graces after he keeps damaging his arm. It’s exactly the sort of thing that fans of the two characters and their relationship will enjoy, even if it doesn’t deepen either principal. (Like “The Blind Alchemist,” it is set early in continuity.) In “The Tale of Teacher” we get to see Izumi undergo her own wilderness training back when she was just starting to study alchemy. Again, it’s a very minor outing, but it has a lot of fun pitting the warrior-woman against the elements and those unfortunate enough to get between her and survival.
(It is followed by the short-short “The Tale of Teacher’s First Love,” which is a one-joke idea almost perfectly executed.)
The last and most ambitious of the shorts is “Yet Another Man’s Battlefield,” which shows the early relationship between Roy Mustang and Maes Hughes. Most of it is set in their training days, and we get to see how they bonded first as intense competitors and then as allies against a gang of bullies who are abusing an Ishvalan recruit. The action then shifts to the battlefield, which shows their differing–and nearly incompatible means–of coping with the awful tensions they feel at being caught in an ugly war. There aren’t many surprises about Mustang–he is a known quantity, and the story can’t risk doing much that could undercut his character–but Maes shows a kind of steel that was not often apparent beneath his rather goofy good nature in the main show. That said, “Yet Another Man’s Battlefield” is rather grim going, with very little humor and a lot of angst.
These five stories together have a running time of only an hour, so it’s not like we are getting fully realized “lost episodes.” Padding out the disc is forty minutes of lightly realized sketch comedy in the “Four-Panel Comic Theater.” This is a series of fourth-wall-breaking vaudeville sketches that treat the characters as self-aware play-actors, and which even mocks some of the most intense and harrowing sequences in the Brotherhood series. Only a few of the sketches are genuinely witty; most are sophomoric; and too many feel like they were invented by writers who are still in grade school, but on the English dub, at least, they are sustained by expert and energetic voice acting.
This collection is so minor that I’m hesitant to recommend it, even at the near-bargain price that Amazon carries it for ($12.96). It doesn’t shed much light on the overall story, and even when it approaches the depth and emotion of FMA: Brotherhood (as it does in “The Blind Alchemist” and “Yet Another Man’s Battlefield”) the stories are too short to really run rampant. But it is definitely a worthwhile rental: these characters are always a pleasure to have as company.
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