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Alchemical Storytelling

Monday, August 29th, 2011 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

I haven’t watched much anime in my time. Frankly I haven’t gotten a lot out of the shows I’ve seen, many of which seem to consist of posing in the midst of fights and shouting at opponents. But I chanced upon something a few weeks back that began with potential and then delivered on it episode after episode. I found fabulous world building and strong character arcs.  I watched half hour after half hour the way I devour chapter after chapter in a great fantasy novel, poised on the edge of my seat wondering how things would resolve.

brotherhood2The show that so enthralled me is Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The series is set in an alternate world in the 1900s, one very similar to our own, except that alchemy works. Those talented and diligent enough can transform matter from one state to another — fix a broken radio into one that works, or transform a metal bar into a sword. The story’s protagonists are a pair of young brothers of tremendous talent who used their powers to commit the ultimate alchemical taboo: they tried to bring their dead mother back to life. They paid a terrible price when the transmutation went horribly wrong, and spend much of the series trying to put things right.

As the young men search for solutions, they uncover  hidden layers to the way alchemy, their country, and their world, truly work. As the mysteries deepen, so do the characters and the world. I really don’t want to say much more for fear of ruining the many unfolding surprises.

If, like me, you’re unused to anime, there are a few caveats. There are occasional odd tonal shifts. For instance, when characters feel a really strong emotion (like anger or sadness) they’re often briefly transformed into caricatures of themselves, with exaggerated features. Some of the humor doesn’t translate and comes off as a bit goofy, and characters do sometimes speak over dramatically or are too revealing of their motivations when they talk. I wasn’t sure what to make of it after the first one or two shows, but kept watching… and I was glad I did. Most of the time it works, and overall it works brilliantly. Male and female characters are given strong roles, and face difficult choices.

fullmetal-alchemistWhat starts out seeming like a lightly interesting and slightly goofy cartoon show quickly develops into something that explores some very deep themes: honor, responsibility, sacrifice, redemption, duty to one’s country, duty to humanity, the duty of a ruler to his people, loyalty, friendship, love, death. Alphonse and Edward face temptation many times, but after their initial mistake stick always to their principles, no matter how much tougher that makes things for them. And for all that there is cartoony martial arts violence there is also death, and the deaths on the show have real and lasting impact upon the characters.

The story is greatly aided by strong, fluid visuals, including some incredible action sequences and magical displays, and it is brought to life by the American voice actors. All are at least passable (there’s no one wooden), and many of them are good to exceptional, particularly the leads. Vic Mignogna, who voices Edward, is phenomenal, and has been recognized as such by the American Anime Awards, who presented him with an award for Best Actor in a lead role for his work as Edward Elric.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood closely follows a recenty famous — and bestselling — manga (a graphic novel series) written and drawn by Hiromu Arakawa. In 2003, after the first third of Arakawa’s manga was published, an earlier anime was begun, also titled Fullmetal Alchemist (without brotherhood). Lacking a completed story, the earlier show’s writers made up their own conclusion, one that left threads unresolved and wrapped up others in unsatisfying ways. (Honestly, that’s being charitable.) This version should not be confused with Brotherhood. One does not follow the other, although, if you find that you’ve loved Brotherhood, the first ten or twelve episodes of the original deal with parts of the opening story sequence in a little more detail (unfortunately, they don’t fit seamlessly together, as divergent plot threads occur pretty early on — so start with Brotherhood and come back if you want to see just a little bit more of the brothers in action).

Lt. Hawkeye.

Lt. Hawkeye.

I watched the first three seasons courtesy of Netflix, found the fourth season on Hulu, and then, as the fifth season wasn’t yet on Hulu, took the extraordinary (for me) step of ordering the fifth and final season to watch from disc. I just couldn’t wait to see how the plot threads and character arcs all worked out. Believe me, it was worth it, and I can see myself watching the show again with my children when my daughter is just a little older. And that leads to a final, important point: there are some disturbing moments of violence and horror within the story, although they do not seem gratuitous. Those moments have lasting impact upon the characters who witness them. As I said, deaths in this show have repercussions. Children who are used only to seeing American action shows where bullets always miss and everyone is just fine in the end might be rudely shocked, and some of the images might grant nightmares. Younger children and even pre-teens probably wouldn’t be able to follow along with the complex themes and shifting loyalties, either.

If you haven’t already tried it out, I hope you’ll give it a look, and I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts. Be sure not to read series discussions online, as many of those who’ve written about it carelessly reveal plot points and character outcomes. It’s constructed well enough that you should try to experience it the way Ms. Arakawa intended.

22 Comments »

  1. Ah, man. iTunes only lets you BUY it, not rent by the episode. And I DON’T HAVE NETFLIX!!!

    I was gonna say: SOLD! But one has to be reasonable. I wonder if the LIBRARY has ’em?

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - August 29, 2011 1:42 pm

  2. Yes! The LIBRARY DOES HAVE IT!!!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - August 29, 2011 1:43 pm

  3. There’s also Hulu, which doesn’t require a subscription. You just have to watch a commercial or two at every commercial break. Hulu.com.

    Make sure you’re watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, not plain old Fullmetal Alchemist!

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - August 29, 2011 2:11 pm

  4. Glad to see Fullmetal Alchemist getting attention beyond the anime/ manga fandom. Fullmetal is one of my top three manga series, and I agree with much of what Howard says.
    Another site to watch the series is on Funimation’s website, by the way.

    Comment by sftheory1 - August 29, 2011 2:42 pm

  5. haven’t… watched… much… anime? Howard, I don’t comprehend such words. Another big place to check is Crunchyroll (www.crunchyroll.com), which you can connect to via devices such as the Roku (don’t know about other devices) in addition to watching through your computer. There are a ton of series available there, and it’s free (includes occasional commercials). Of course, with so many series available, you’ll find how much bad anime is out there as well.

    FullMetal Alchemist is a great one. Currently, I’m hooked on Gin Tama (hilarious science fiction), which sadly is not dubbed, so I have to read a lot of captions. Naruto is still my all-time favorite, though I read more of the manga than I watch the anime.

    -Matt

    Comment by Matthew Wuertz - August 29, 2011 6:53 pm

  6. Hmmm this is a surprising post. Watched the first 20 or so episodes of the first anime series and quit watching it when it got all weird towards the end. Maybe i’ll give brotherhood a try. I really liked the show up till the end there.

    Comment by Glenn - August 29, 2011 9:26 pm

  7. on a side note i thought Scar was so cool i kind of home-brewed my own dnd class inspired by him.

    Comment by Glenn - August 29, 2011 9:27 pm

  8. Hey Glenn, I know how you feel. I simplified my actual experience to make a more succinct review. I got hooked on the original just like you, and, like you, thought it really went off the rails. I was skeptical to try the second series until I learned that the first one had been continued by hands other than those of the creator at the same time it went south.

    I started watching the second one with diminished expectations, only partly watching while working on the computer, and pretty soon I was hooked, and leery that it too would go off the rails. There were one or two moments where I got concerned along the way, but the more I watched, the more I had faith in the storyteller.

    And Scar, if anything, is even cooler in this incarnation. Everyone is. Wait until you see what they do with Kimblee this time around. And Hughes… is much smarter and important.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - August 29, 2011 10:21 pm

  9. Hey Matt,

    I don’t know my way around anime much at all; I’ve never known anyone who could point me toward good versus bad, and until Brotherhood most of what I stumbled upon was pretty bad. I almost didn’t try Brotherhood because the first series went so badly off the rails and disappointed me after that strong start.

    I’d love to hear from you and sftheory1 about what else is a must see. For instance, I’ve heard that Bleach and Deathnote are both worth a look. But I don’t know enough about any of them to judge what next to try. I love the secrets that are revealed over the course of Brotherhood, and the character arcs. It really felt quite special, and I’d have a hard time imagining that there is a lot out there of the same quality. I would love to find out I’m wrong, however!

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - August 29, 2011 10:28 pm

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  11. Howard,
    I haven’t watched Deathnote myself, although I’ve read the first two volumes and enjoyed them. Naruto and Bleach are good options, but they are both really long running series that contain a mountain of the dreaded filler arc. In my opinion, Bleach has a good start, but goes off the rails.
    Shorter series that I’ve enjoyed are: X, Cowboy Bebop, GunxSword, Nabari no Ou, Baccano!, etc.

    Comment by sftheory1 - August 30, 2011 12:00 am

  12. Skip Bleach and Naruto–they go on FOREVER with no conclusion and much filler. The ones I recommend most highly are:

    Gurren Lagann: “It’s a man’s passion that burns white-hot! Gaze upon the manly art of combination!”
    Cowboy Bebop: The show that inspired Firefly.
    Samurai Champloo: Swords&Hip-hop in feudal Japan
    Ghost in the Shell S.A.C.

    Comment by Sean Stiennon - August 30, 2011 11:58 am

  13. I got the first three episodes of Brotherhood from the library. Don’t worry. I read your article. I know the difference between the two. :)

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - August 30, 2011 12:56 pm

  14. FMA: Brotherhood is good stuff, and Netflix is tormenting me by how slow they are releasing the series to Watch Instantly. I still wonder if I don’t like the original Fully Metal Alchemist better, though. The franchise has to be one of the all time greats, and next to it, a lot of other anime comes up disappointing.

    Comment by Theodric the Obscure - August 30, 2011 2:08 pm

  15. Claire: I’ll look forward to hearing what you think. Are those the first three episodes, or the first three seasons?

    Theodric: I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say when you watch the conclusion, which wraps things up in a way that left me feeling satisfied, as opposed to irritated, which undersells my reaction to the way the last series ended. But I would agree I enjoyed the slow build of the first episodes of the original an awful lot. The two-parter in Liore in the original was more powerful, and disturbing, than the revisit in the remake. And we saw Ed being more clever there as well.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - August 30, 2011 2:25 pm

  16. I’ll throw in a few suggestions for other self-contained (and modestly sized) series. And I’ll advocate for subtitles as a rule of thumb. Sometimes they get good voice talent for the dubs, but much of the time it’s just awful.

    Baccano! has a lot of fun with its theme ingredients of trains, gangsters, and immortals. See also Durarara! by the same team. (In the case of the former, a couple coda episodes are weaker than the rest of the series, and the first season of the latter is stronger than the follow up, but there’s no are-you-kidding-me? drop in quality.)

    Dennou Coil is good, and on my list of shows for my daughter when she’s old enough. Ghost Hound has some nicely creepy bits. Watch Paranoia Agent for weirdness that hangs together (and a great opening song).

    Comment by mmill - August 30, 2011 4:14 pm

  17. The case says “Part I: Episodes 1-13.” Which I’d initially misread as 1-3.

    COOLNESS!!!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - August 30, 2011 11:11 pm

  18. Death Note is a must — really intelligent plotlines. We actually own that series. Also, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. For humor, as stated, Gin Tama is great (and it gets serious at points as well). Naruto is great, except when it departs from the manga; those “filler episodes” range from mediocre to awful. Bleach is too confusing for me; perhaps if I started from the beginning it would be better, but I have yet to find someone who can explain to me what in the world is going on with that.

    Comment by Matthew Wuertz - August 31, 2011 8:24 am

  19. Mmill, Matthew, thank you for the further suggestions, and the discussions about what makes them good, bad, or mixed.

    It’s pretty exciting to discover a new genre of interest, and I appreciate guidance. There’s a LOT of anime out there, and I know next to nothing about what’s good or bad, or even which critics share my outlook about what is good (or the reverse, which can be equally useful — if THAT guy hates it, I’ll probably love it). It’s an interesting place to be. I feel almost like a young teen again staring at the bookshelf in my mom’s study and wondering if the Heinlein books or the Tolkien books or the LeGuin books would be interesting to read…

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - August 31, 2011 10:50 am

  20. Howard,

    I started watching anime back in the nineties, and back then, there was plenty of good stuff to watch; nowadays, I find most of it to range from mediocre to just plain bad. Much of it is targeted at adolescents, and it shows. But there are a few gems worth seeking out, particularly in the genre of speculative fiction. One thing about Japanese fantasy is that a lot of it is based on Asian, rather than European, folklore, which can be a nice change if you’ve grown tired of the Tolkien clones and the medieval European settings. A few recommendations:

    Vision of Escaflowne: In my opinion, the best secondary world fantasy in anime. Great plot, strong characterization.

    Twelve Kingdoms: Secondary world fantasy loosely based on ancient China, from a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono. Awesome magical creatures; sophisticated, complex world building. See this one for the world building alone. Starts out a little slow; many fans say it takes about five or six episodes to get hooked.

    Witch Hunter Robin: Gothic fantasy/horror in a contemporary, urban setting. Great goth chick protagonist.

    For sci fi fans, I recommend Akira; Ghost in the Shell (1st movie and tv series); Cowboy Bebop; Wolf’s Rain; Now and Then, Here and There.

    And finally, a couple of recommendations that aren’t speculative fiction: Monster and Yawara, Fashionable Judo Girl. Both are by Naoki Urasawa, who’s renown for his complex plots.

    Comment by Affrit32 - September 1, 2011 6:26 pm

  21. Affrit32, I’ml grateful for your suggestions. Thanks to you and the other post contributors, I have a sizable list of shows to explore.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - September 7, 2011 6:49 pm

  22. […] which they’ve been attending for the last two days, one dressed as Maes Hughes (from Full Metal Alchemist), and the other as Aloise (from Black Butler). Apart from hanging out with friends and others who […]

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