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"Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" Part 1: The Boys Are Back in Town (Sorta)

by on July 21, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood certainly has big shoes to fill. It is the second adaptation of one of the most popular manga of all time, whose first adaptation is also one of the most popular anime of all time. The first anime caught up with the comic too quickly, and famously split off from its source material to tell a story that was wildly different from the one Hiromu Arawaka was writing. This new series aims to be a more faithful adaptation, sticking to the plot that the now-finished manga lays out. Unfortunately this release—Part One—is stuck with covering in thirteen episodes ground most fans have already seen. The entire set feels like it’s trying to tell an entertaining story while rushing to the split-off point (episode 13) as quickly as possible, with the added disadvantage of having to redo scenes that are by now iconic and crucial to the franchise. All things considered, maybe it’s a surprise the show turned out as good as it did.

I’m only bothering with a plot synopsis here for formality’s sake; if you’re not already familiar with the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise, you should probably skip this show until you are. Edward and Alphonse Elric are two young boys gifted in alchemy, a process through which matter can be reconstructed so that you can turn rocks into spears and do other awesome stuff. When their mother dies, the kids attempt to use alchemy to bring her back, but the resurrection backfires and the two children are horribly injured. Al survives only by having his soul bonded to a suit of armor, and Ed has to get a pair of synthetic limbs to replace a missing arm and leg. The two set out to discover how to restore their bodies, with Ed taking a position in the military in order to provide funding for their quest. Their main objective quickly becomes finding the Philosophers Stone, an object that is supposed to amplify an alchemist’s abilities. All of this sets the stage for a season of episodes involving governments conspiracies, religious conspiracies, and personal conspiracies, all centered around a mysterious group of villains who share names with the Seven Deadly Sins (which, for the record, I’ve always thought was very clever).

It’s impossible to avoid comparing these episodes to their pre-existing variants, and to the show’s credit few of them come off as inferior. At times, the series even surpasses its predecessor in terms of direction—a certain famous death scene, for instance, is much better paced here then it was in the first series, and the time spent in flashbacks to Ed and Al’s childhoods is much more poignant and much less cloying. But while individual episodes can be judged superior, the story as a whole suffers greatly because it’s so fast-paced. Wanting to get past material already covered twice makes sense. But the opportunity cost is character development for basically all of the cast besides the Elrics, and this is not worth it.

Take the aforementioned death scene. It’s spectacularly done, but I found myself not caring nearly as much because the character in question hadn’t had as much screen-time as he’d had before. This happens again and again, with all the supporting characters and some of the major ones; one important character has his entire debut episode relegated to a quick reference. Another, less important one doesn’t even get that, and simply appears suddenly without any explanation.

I understand why this is so. This show is strictly for fans, people who are already deeply familiar with these characters and concepts. But it’s not just a matter of whether or not the characters seem developed: it’s a matter of timing, and the series is often infused with the sense that something is missing. Still, the episodes individually tend to be amusing little affairs, and it is nice to see the characters again. I just hope this problem is straightened out in the next release.

A more serious issue is the show’s frequent misunderstanding of the franchise’s tone. The Fullmetal Alchemist manga told a story that was dramatic with sometimes heavy comedic undertones, and the first anime was fairly true to this format (though it occasionally put too much emphasis on “dramatic”). Brotherhood, however, often breaks the line that separates “funny” from “silly”, and episodes suffer as a result. The Liore episode, the Rush Valley episode, and Greed’s debut are the most jarring examples of this tendency, but examples can be found throughout the set.

The show’s visuals are an upgrade from the first anime: much more vibrant and expressive. The soundtrack is also superior, if only because of the fantastic opening and ending themes. The dub script could be more fluent, but the VAs (most of whom are veterans from the first show) are decent. One important cast change—Maxey Whitehead over Aaron Dismuke as Alphonse Elric—goes over well: at times the voice is too obviously feminine, and at other times it sounds too much liker Soul Eater‘s Crona, but on the whole it works.

I’m willing to wait for the second set before making any outright statement, either of praise or condemnation, about the show. It sucks that the first thirteen episodes have to be so plagued, but I have a feeling things will get really interesting once the series is forced to make its own name.

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