Fullmetal Alchemist Anime Review
Hagane no Renkinjutsushi
US Release By
Mahou shounen not in training
51 25-minute episodes
2003-10-04 - 2004-10-02
When they were little, Edward and Alphonse Elric lived happily with their mother, but one day, quite suddenly, she died. Using alchemy, a magical-like science based on the law of equivalent exchange ("To receive, you must give something of equal value"), the two attempt to bring her back to life--with disastrous results. They accidentally open a door to the spirit world that tries to pull them both in. Ed loses an arm and a leg (later getting them replaced with a sort of magical robot limb called automail), and Al nearly dies, but Ed is just able to bind his spirit to a suit of armor so that he can survive, using the armor in place of a body. Astonished by their potential, state alchemist Roy Mustang decides to take them in and helps Ed get a position with the state alchemists, where the two hear about a mythical Philosopher's Stone that allows you to do alchemy without obeying the law of equivalent exchange--meaning they could use it to repair their bodies.
Full Metal Alchemist is way too complicated to stuff into one little synopsis. If you've somehow never heard of this show, you probably have no idea what I was going on about up there. That s okay--I never stop giving away details about the show in my reviews, and this is one time where it ll be a good thing.
To begin with, the science of alchemy in the show is based on the real-life alchemy done from the 15th to 18th centuries. Its main purpose was to use nature's law of equivalent exchange to find a way to transform other metals into gold by adding to them some of the essence of something as superior to gold as gold was to the other metals (gold was thought to be the perfect metal). This "more perfect than perfect" substance eventually became known as the Philosopher's Stone (and if you re wondering, it is the same thing that was in the first Harry Potter, which was changed to "Sorcerer s Stone" in the US because they thought American kids were too stupid to pronounce "philosopher"). Full Metal Alchemist takes place in essentially what late-19th century Europe would have been like if alchemy had been a real science, with everything from technology to environments to architecture to characters' names fitting within this setting.
Any show that gets that involved with its subject matter must have had a lot of work done on it, but none of that would mean crap if the rest of it was worthless--which it's not. What allows this show to get so complicated is the fact that its main storyline is so simple; essentially, it's just a quest for the Philosopher's Stone, but with more stops along the way than any bus could reach. Along the way, villains, tenuous friends, sticky situations, and socio-political issues with relevance much closer than such a fantastic setting would indicate are thrown in front of our two heroes. The only ones Ed and Al can really trust are each other (and maybe Winry, but I don't know--she had an evil look in her eyes when she handed over that tool).
The themes are what really drive this show, but there are two ways to present themes: the boring way, where you just kind of throw them out there in boring, pointless conversations and monologues, or the good way, where each character expresses a different theme through their pasts and personalities. Full Metal Alchemist chooses the good way by using characters to show different mistakes people make or problems they encounter. Heading up the cast is Ed, a completely atypical main character for a shounen anime. Unlike other shounen heroes who are either angsty, easily shaken bleeding hearts or straight-out evil themselves, Ed is confident, intelligent, and knows himself and what he values down to the last drop. When villains attempt to compare themselves and their goals to his, Ed doesn't look down at his hand with wide eyes and go, "No... could it be true? Am I really... like them?" He's immediately ready with a valid, logical reason that sets them apart. And when confronted with the option of continuing life limbless or joining the state alchemists, Ed isn't deterred by the fact that state alchemists have to carry out the government's orders because he knows that he is strong enough not to go against his values and become their machine. Al is Ed's calmer half, who helps him out a lot; but you can easily see that neither can function without the other, unlike other shows where the hotheaded main character is useless without his more cool-headed friends. Al, you see, has no initiative and less will than Ed; so without Ed, Al would never get anything done, but Al is around to see that Ed does things right. Al is also Ed's main motivation to keep going; Ed doesn't mind having automail so much, but he is determined to return Al to a real body--despite being told by a number of characters that Al is really better off living as armor.
Most of the other characters are Ed's colleagues in the state alchemists: Colonel Mustang, Lieutenant Colonel Hughes, Lieutenant Hawkeye, and Major Armstrong. Only Mustang and Armstrong are actually alchemists; Hughes and Hawkeye (I m pretty sure) are just normal people. Hughes becomes quite important to the plot towards the end of Season One, but even I won't ruin that. In contrast, Armstrong and Hawkeye never really become important; Hawkeye is Mustang's stalwart vassal and Armstrong is basically the comic relief, although he's actually one of the strongest alchemists and does have a few fights. (It sometimes seemed like Armstrong was in the manga and they had to have him for the fans, but there wasn't really a place for him within the plot of the anime). Armstrong's power, aside from his giant muscles and the spiked knuckles he wears, is to launch big rocks and stuff at people. I never found out what sort of alchemy that's supposed to be, though.
My favorite character in the show is Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist. Mustang is arrogant; he wants to become the Fuhrer (the ruler of the country where the show takes place) and isn't shy about saying so. He's also eminently informed on Ed and Al's doings while they search for the Philosopher's Stone and makes this known at every opportunity. For both these reasons and more, Ed doesn't like him, and he's presented like a villain in the early episodes. But about halfway through Season One, it turns out Mustang has some emotional baggage connected with things he did during a controversial war about ten years ago, and this later connects with his reasons for wanting to become Fuhrer and even with Winry.
Winry is Ed's automail mechanic and the boys' childhood friend. After their mother died, the two lived with her and her grandmother. Winry isn't a character with much depth, but she does have a few moments. The other important characters are Sciesca (pronounced "Sheska"), a bookworm with a photographic memory who reproduces some documents for Ed and Al and later becomes involved with Hughes; Izumi, Ed and Al's alchemy instructor; Dante, a mysterious old lady; and the seven Homunculi, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, and Pride. Each of the seven have different powers (except Pride, as far as I can see), but all share the feature of working towards some unknown purpose and being impossible to kill.
Compared with the incredible story and characterization, the technical aspects aren't much to speak of. The animation is clean and generic-looking, but the budget was big enough for them to squeeze a few truly awesome fight scenes out of it (like the battle between Ed and Greed in Season Two) and the character designs are original and mostly good-looking (although watchers of the subtitled version might confuse Ed for a girl--he's short, not very muscular, has a blonde braid, and in the Japanese version is played by a woman). The background music wasn't really my favorite. A lot of sites have complimented the music, and they're all done by well-known j-pop bands (although I've never heard of them), but most of the openings and endings weren't really that good. The first opening, Ready Steady Go, is only okay, and all the endings except the first are pretty mediocre too. My favorite song was definitely the first ending, Kesenai Tsumi, and I did also like the second opening, Rewrite.
The dub voices are all excellent. It's one of those dubs that makes you forget about the difference between dubbed and subbed. The dub was done by FUNimation, but only a couple voices were recycled from their other dubs: for example, Lust was played by Laura Bailey, who also did Keiko in Yu Yu Hakusho and Tohru in Fruits Basket, and Armstrong was played by the same guy who did the voice of Piccolo in Dragon Ball Z. I don't really like it when they use voices from Dragon Ball Z in other shows, but other than that it was a pretty good voice.
Full Metal Alchemist is a huge show, and with good reason. It combines all the elements a good anime should have--an original plot and powers, great fights, excellent characters, drama and comedy, and some (but not too much) social commentary. The last show I enjoyed this much was Rurouni Kenshin, and Full Metal Alchemist is even better.
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Notes and Trivia
Based on a manga by Hiromu Arakawa. The manga is being released in the US by VIZ.
The official title is Fullmetal Alchemist. Why this would be I don't know, except that at one point in the show it is shown spelled that way. I thought of that as a spacing mistake since Japanese doesn't put spaces between words, and aside from that, I think the spelling Full Metal Alchemist looks better aesthetically.
In the specific genre above I used the term "Mahou Shounen not in training" because Negi Springfield from Mahou Sensei Negima, and even Harry Potter, could qualify as mahou shounen, but they're of a very different type (and are both in training).
At first I thought Sciesca was spelled as "Sheska," but then some magazine (it was Anime Insider) comes along spelling it as "Scieska." I usually like to spell made-up words of dubious spelling according to the rules of some language for consistency's sake, but Scieska doesn't fit any language I know of, so I spell it Sciesca, which goes according to the rules of Italian.
There is also a movie in Japan called Full Metal Alchemist: Conquerer of Shamballa, and two video games released in the US: Full Metal Alchemist and the Broken Angel (I was tempted to write butterfly, like that weapon in Resident Evil 4) and Full Metal Alchemist: Curse of the Crimson Elixir. A third, Full Metal Alchemist: The Girl who Succeeded God, was not released in the US because, basically, the first two were crap. (They could have done so much with it and all they make is a lame brawler with bad controls!)
Thanks to Wikipedia for the video game and movie information.
One final note: if you ever get the chance, check out the song "Ame no Hi wa NO THANK YOU", one of the most bizarre image songs in an anime that I've ever heard. It's a duet of the voice actors who played Mustang and Hawkeye.
US DVD Review
FUNimation's uncut DVDs include four episodes per disc with Japanese and English audio and an English subtitle track. Extras include commercials, interviews, character info, a documentary, and various art galleries. There are a total of 13 DVDs
FUNimation appropriately calls it 13-up, though it might even be 16-up depending on your standards.
Violence: 3 - At first it looks pretty tame, but it gets gruesome later.
Nudity: 1 - Winry's outfit is fairly revealing, and I think they showed Hawkeye's foot in the shower once.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - A tiny bit of James Bond-level sex in one episode, and a ton of very depraved science.
Language: 2 - Compares favorably to The X-Files (Ed is even a lot like Mulder).
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Edward Elric: Romi Paku
Alphonse Elric: Rie Kugimiya
Winry Rockbell: Megumi Toyoguchi
Roy Mustang: Tohru Ookawa
Riza Hawkeye: Michiko Neya
English Dub Cast
Edward Elric: Vic Mignona
Alphonse Elric: Aaron Dismuke
Winry Rockbell: Caitlin Glass
Roy Mustang: Travis Willingham
Riza Hawkeye: Colleen Clinkenbeard
Available in North America from FUNimation on bilingual DVD, 13 volumes in total; some volumes are also available with a collector's tin that holds several discs. (Help shopping: Fullmetal Alchemist DVDs at Amazon)