Reconsidering 'Fullmetal Alchemist'

"Fullmetal Alchemist" was initially a manga by Hiromu Arakawa, running from 2001 to 2010. In 2006, I watched the TV series based on the manga: it's called (no surprise here) "Fullmetal Alchemist" and was released as 51 episodes of 25 minutes each across 2003 and 2004. What that means - that I didn't know back then - is that the TV series came out, and finished, well before the manga was completed.

COVID-19 has left me with plenty of time on my hands, and when I spotted "Fullmetal Alchemist" on Netflix I remembered it fondly and decided to re-watch it. This led to a very interesting discovery, because Netflix kept recommending "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood." I assumed that it was a sequel to the original, but in looking it up I discovered that it's a re-interpretation of the full manga series, as this one got started around the time the manga was ending. The first TV series - the one I'm discussing today - was accurate to the manga for about 14 of the 51 episodes, and from there on it diverges. The second one - "Brotherhood" - is apparently accurate from end to end. I fully intend to watch it, but perhaps not right after finishing watching this version.

The world of Fullmetal Alchemist is commonly described as "steampunk" and incorporates Alchemy. The buildings and interiors are late 1800s European, and most of the technology (cars, telephones, guns, tanks) is 1930s. The people are frequently blond, often with light-coloured eyes (I've always been fascinated with Anime's tendency to non-Japanese-looking people). Our heroes are Edward and Alphonse Elric, a pair of brothers who show an incredible aptitude for alchemy. But their father has left them, and their mother dies when they're young. In their grief, they ignore the strictures against human alchemy, and at the ages of 11 and 12 they attempt to resurrect their mother. This goes horribly wrong, creating a short-lived thing and causing Edward to lose his leg to "equivalent exchange" which governs alchemy. Worse, Alphonse loses his entire body, and only by trading his arm does Ed manage to bind his brother's soul to a huge set of "automail."

And so we meet them: fortunately for them, "automail" is far more advanced in their world than prosthetic limbs are in ours, so Ed is outfitted with a very effective arm and leg. They've realized the error of their ways, they're not going to try to bring their mother back ... but each of them is determined to restore his brother to his proper original body. And to this end, by the time Ed is 14 and Al is 13, they're taking the test to be State Alchemists to get access to the body of knowledge about alchemy held by the military. This all happens in the first couple episodes, and the series is about them trying to keep their morality intact in a time of war while researching the "Philosopher's Stone," which would allow them to restore themselves.

Ed and Al are wonderful characters: Ed is impulsive and occasionally argumentative, Al is the quieter and more even-tempered of the two. Together they make a hell of a team. Sometimes they fight, but in the end they always support each other.

In the first half of the series, they frequently find themselves up against moral conundrums. And not just for-kids-or-teens moral quandries, these are routinely questions that will throw adults into serious contemplation of how this might be solved. This is inevitably interspersed with Anime humour and manga emotional messaging (people's faces are suddenly oversimplified and turn ridiculous colours to convey a particular state of mind). The show has a broad and interesting set of characters, my favourites (after the brothers) being Scar, Mustang, Greed (yup, we have embodiments of the seven deadlies), and Maes Hughes. Three out of four of these characters die: the series is loaded with tragedy. That implies tragedy is a dominant tone in the series, but it would be more correct to say it's about hope in the face of tragedy. Almost none of the antagonists are out-and-out evil (maybe Envy): all of them have reasons for what they do, although you may not agree with them.

I felt like the quality trailed off as we progressed into the second half. There was no clear point where that happened, but it's less surprising knowing that this series was diverging further and further from the original manga after the first 14 episodes. I'm intrigued to see how the original author chose to end the series, and "Brotherhood" will tell me that. Given how well she started it, I think she'll end it better than this series did ...