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"FMA Brotherhood" Part 4: When Wanting More Means Wanting Less

by on April 19, 2011

Fullmetal disclosure: I come to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood as a Fullmetal virgin. I’ve never read the manga; never seen the first series; never even really inquired into the whole thing. So I’m not watching this new series as a member of a pre-existing fan base, and I certainly can’t compare it to the other series or to the source material. I’m here to judge it on its own merits.

This may make me unique in the short run, but I am the future. Beginning this year, successive new generations of anime fans will have their choice of Fullmetal series to watch first, and there is at least a fifty percent chance new viewers will pick Brotherhood as their gateway to the Elric epic.

The best thing about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I find, is that it never quite ceases to be just a lot of silly, cartoony fun. No matter how dark the tragedy, how perilous the conflict, how dramatic the revelations, or how fraught the angst, it is never more than one or two pratfalls away from turning into a comedy. It’s hard to pull off this kind of balancing act, and though lots of other series have tried it, I’ve never seen one that even comes close to Fullmetal succeeding. Mostly, Brotherhood works because it takes its cue from its title character, Edward Elric. Ed is a capable young man, but he’s also a hotheaded teenager with a big ego who is stuck in a world that can’t quite take him seriously on account of his age and stature. And so he explodes every time someone—whether a good guy or a bad guy, whether in a threatening situation or in a sideshow—alludes to his height or mistakes him for the Fullmetal Alchemist’s little brother. These fits would be jokey if they didn’t happen so often or at the worst possible moment. When this kind of thing happens often enough, it stops being a joke and becomes character. And it’s a lovely thing to meet a shonen hero who is so bad at impulse control.

Fullmetal Alchemist‘s own character evolves in much the same way, by leavening its quite serious story with a lot of yeasty comedy. This is also an artful way of giving the series thematic depth. The villains make much about human weaknesses, about our species’ fears and follies. But weakness is a kind of incongruity, and incongruity is the basis of comedy. Do the Homunculi object to humans, then, because we are unfit to survive? Or do they object to the comicality of the human predicament? (Is it an accident that the only bad guy with something like a real sense of humor—rather than a carefully developed sense of cruelty—is also the one who can’t stop rebelling against his own unsmiling progenitor?) And so comical things will keep happening in Fullmetal Alchemist. People will accidentally undress in front of each other. They will argue at the worst moment about who owes how much money to whom. They will stand on their dignity, on tiptoes, with their hair combed straight up, just so they will seem tall enough to ride the giddy rollercoaster of life.

This kind of thing is a lot of fun to watch, and is all the more fun when filtered through the wonderfully appealing character designs. The characters have very toony angles and proportions—round heads, round limbs, and round eyes, all set relatively close to the ground—and carry no distracting linework or superfluous details. Their simplicity also means they can be very expressive even outside of any kind of deformed mode, and it gives them a kind of transparency that lets their character traits shine through. They are all vivid and attractive, and the fact that none of them are in on the jokes makes them even funnier. (Colonel Roy Mustang is decisive proof that few things are funnier than a dignified man who has been chased up a tree.) Their rubberiness also means they can give 150% to the serious scenes without breaking.

I hope I haven’t made Brotherhood sound like a straight comedy. It’s an action show with some pretty disturbing things in it. Again, there are a lot of series like that out there, and however powerful or well-made they are, they can be pretty dour—things to be respected and admired rather than loved—and which sink like a stone into your stomach. Brotherhood‘s comedy keeps it buoyant, so that you can cheerfully anticipate the bad things that will happen to its characters rather than dread them.

That doesn’t mean Brotherhood is perfect. You can’t really judge a series until it’s over, and this one still has a significant number of episodes to run through after Part 4, which FUNimation has recently released stateside. But it’s hard not to watch this two-disc set without feeling that too much steam is geysering out of too many joints. Part 1 had tremendous forward momentum as it used some self-contained stories to construct the foundation for an intricate, series-long plot arc. Part 2 swept its characters to a near-despairing climax as the extent of their enemy’s power and influence became apparent. But Part 3 ground to a near-halt as our heroes consciously became anti-government dissidents and began to put together a counter-conspiracy of their own. Part 4 sees them launch that conspiracy—but it still feels like the plot locomotive has become mired in quicksand.

Part of the problem is that it has to juggle so many active, intersecting characters—the separated Elric brothers; Colonel Mustang; Generals Armstrong and Grumman; the fanatical Scar; the Homunculi; and various supporting characters (like the revived Greed) with their own agendas—that it can’t quickly bring any plot chapter to a satisfying conclusion. Fights start, and they don’t end until several episodes later because they are constantly interrupted by scenes (and fights) taking place elsewhere.

There is something nicely ambitious about this, and maybe the series is being very faithful to the original manga by including so much material. Also, to its credit, there are no scenes that you want to see consigned to the cutting room floor. But it’s dispiriting to watch the first episode on this set, and the last episode, and to see just how little progress gets made between them. Sometimes it feels like it’s all moving in real time, and you begin to wish that the scriptwriter and director had more faith in their medium’s ability to telescope the action, or to have connected plot points A and Z without having slowly and meticulously drawn the connecting line before our very eyes.

But maybe this is all just a backhanded way of saying that Brotherhood is so good at generating tension and interest that the viewer won’t like getting stuck in one place for very long. I can’t wait to see how it all wraps up—even if I do suspect that when it is over I’ll wish it had compressed the last thirty or so episodes into twenty.

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