Thursday, December 29, 2011
Fullmetal Alchemist: A Retrospective
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.
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.
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.