Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fullmetal Alchemist: A Retrospective

I've been a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist for a very long time, originally picking up the series back in the summer of 2007. Granted I was coming in towards the middle of the American release of the series, but I've watched the series develop over these four years and reach its final run. I will say that I am sad to see the series end, however I think that's ultimately a good thing because it hasn't outstayed its welcome and has told the story it set out to tell. I highly recommend this series for anyone who likes sci-fi and is curious about anime and manga.

Let me begin by explaining manga and anime for the uninitiated. Manga is the Japanese term for what we would call comic books, however there are some significant differences. Manga is published entirely in black and white and most series release a chapter each week. The chapters from different series that have come out that week are published in a weekly anthology magazine which generally publishes stories in the same genre. Broadly speaking the Japanese divide manga into four genres: shonen, comics for pre-teen and teenage boys, shojo, comics for pre-teen and teenage girls, seinen, comics aimed at male adult audiences, and josei, comics aimed at female adult audiences. Thus a weekly anthology will probably publish a bunch of shonen titles, but not have much else. After their initial release in magazines, the chapters of a series are collected into volumes called tankobon, much like trade paperbacks of American comics, which is how I personally get my manga. Some series have a short run with as few as four volumes, while some longer-running series have close to sixty volumes. At twenty-seven volumes Fullmetal Alchemist definitely has significant length, and if you want to buy the books it represents a considerable investment, but I think it could not have told the story it tells as well as it did with less volumes.

That being said, like some comic book series, manga gets adapted to TV which is called anime. Pretty self-explanatory. Usually an anime adaptation will pretty closely follow the manga, however there are sometimes significant differences. It is very common for a manga series to get an anime adaptation before it has even begun to delve into its plot. Thus an anime adaptation can have the same characters as the manga but end up with a very different plot. A prime example of these differences is in the two anime adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist, the first one called Fullmetal Alchemist and the second one called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I want to talk about those a little more, but I'll save that for the meat of the review. Right now it is sufficient to say the first series came out in the middle of FMA's publication run and as such takes a very different turn with its plot about halfway through, while Brotherhood follows the storyline of the manga.

Fullmetal Achemist, by Hiromu Arakawa, is set in a world very much like early 20th century Europe, with steam trains, developing automobiles, and forays into telephone and radio technologies. Even culturally speaking There is, however, a very important difference. This world has unlocked the secrets of alchemy, which enables people to transmute matter from one form into another. This does not mean that an alchemist cannot do everything, though. Perhaps most importantly on a day-to-day basis you have to obey the conservation of matter, however there are of course other rules. The series follows two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who are both highly skilled alchemists and attempted the forbidden practice of human transmutation. Unfortunately their transmutation went terribly wrong, and Ed lost his right arm and left leg. Al...Al disappeared entirely. Ed was able to bind Al's soul to a suit of armor, but what happened to his real body is still a mystery. Determined to regain their original bodies, the Elric brothers set out to find the philosopher's stone but in so doing discover a far more sinister conspiracy regarding their home country.

If there is one thing I absolutely love about Fullmetal Alchemist as a series is that the story arc is absolutely fantastic. We get to watch as Ed and Al, not to mention the rest of the cast, develop as characters throughout the entire story arc. Characters that initially appear shallow and one-note, such as Major Alexander Louis Armstrong,  reveal hidden depths and their own personal motivations. Furthermore a majority of the characters serve an distinct purpose in the story and help to move the plot along. Many of the characters we have met along the journey come back in the final chapters and kick an insane amount of ass. I do have to admit that a lot of people die in this series, and while some are far more heart-wrenching than others I don't think any of them are meaningless. I guarantee you will come away loving at least one of the characters in this series and won't forget the many other members of the cast.

As for the overall plot regarding the philosopher's stone and the Elric brothers' quest, we get the basics of the story in the very first chapters and watch it become deeper and more complex as the series progresses. Important hints about the final chapters are seeded in the earlier chapters and gives Fullmetal Alchemist an excellent re-read value. Now, Fullmetal Alchemist has plenty of kickass action sequences, but don't think that it's just a bunch of hot-blooded brawlers getting into fights. Arakawa blends thought-provoking moments of serious reflection seamlessly into the story and makes us think about friendship, family, and what it means to be human. Based on its story and characters I think both teenagers and adults will appreciate Fullmetal Alchemist.

Now, as I have mentioned there are two animated adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist, Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, both of which are available on Netflix. (At least with streaming, I don't know about DVD delivery.) While I have not really watched either of these series, my associate Mr. Carvan has and he strongly recommends going with the Brotherhood adaptation. As Mr. Carvan has said, while the  Fullmetal Alchemist follows the plot of the manga it remains very strong, not to mention makes the deaths of certain characters incredibly heart-wrenching. If there's one thing it does better than Brotherhood it's pulling on the heart strings. However when the anime begins to deviate from the manga it seems to loose inertia. Characters other than the Elrics fall out of focus and even the brothers seem to be wandering around without a goal. This isn't to say a lot of people didn't enjoy the first animated series, but in Carvan's opinion Brotherhood is the better of the two.

If you're going to pick up the series I have to warn you that buying the manga can become prohibitively expensive. Twenty seven volumes at ten dollars a volume adds up to a significant chunk of change. However, if you're willing to lay down that much money it is well-worth the investment. For those of you who don't have such a large budget I recommend streaming the series from Netflix or seeing if your local library has the manga or DVDs of the anime. Again, with the anime it's probably best to go with Brotherhood which has the same plotline as the manga. I encourage all of my readers who have not picked up Fullmetal Alchemist to look into this series. 

- Kalpar


  1. Is it just for kids or people of all ages?

  2. The anime I'd say is more for teens and adults, there is a bit of blood and violence that may not go over to well with the kids (but this is just my POV)

    Loved the article :)

  3. Excellent review. I'd say if you're looking to save money and not purchase the manga (I got 5 volumes in and had to stop) then Brotherhood is the way to go. It sticks pretty much to the original story of the manga the entire time. I think the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime series is good for people who have already finished the manga and want a variation in the adaptation. I haven't made it through the original entirely though so don't hold me to that.

    As far as whether it's for kids or not Katie, I'd say it depends on the kid and if they're allowed to watch/can handle things with blood and violence.

  4. Really appreciate the detailed explanation of manga and anime - I've been confused. Thanks!

  5. Thank you so much for this wonderfully informative post!