Fullmetal Alchemist has become the biggest multimedia phenomenon to hit Japan since .hack went big nearly two years ago, and rightfully so. There’s a plethora of big-name companies that got in on the action. What was originally the brain child of creator Hiromu Arakawa and Square Enix (best known for the Final Fantasy video games) has gone on to involve such prominent companies as Bandai (video games and merchandise), Sony (soundtrack), Shounen Gangan (manga serialization), and, of course, Studio BONES coming through with the animation. Each name acts as a stone pillar, supporting Fullmetal Alchemist in every way imaginable. From novels to bath towels, Fullmetal Alchemist is everywhere.
Fortunately, the anime lives up to the unnatural amount of hype that surrounds it.
When watching the show for the first time you’ll find that this isn’t your average series about magic and monsters. This series involves the scientific marvel known as alchemy. Unlike magic, which can make something out of nothing, alchemy follows the law of even trade, making something out of something. Of course, watching a guy turn water into salt wouldn’t make for a very entertaining series, so FA takes things to a much more imaginative level. By using certain circular symbols called “transmutation circles” (some also call these “arrays“), a house can be made out of rubble, or a sword from a chunk of metal. However, as with everything, there are some rules that should never be broken.
This is where our aspiring protagonists come into play. The young brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric have lost their mother to a rare illness and are unable to contact their father who’s been away. To fill this void in their lives, the boys turn to a study of alchemy. It isn’t long after their informal training that they attempt the most forbidden of alchemic crafts: Human Transmutation. They fail.
The price is high, as Ed loses both his entire right arm and his lower left leg, and Al loses everything. Using quick thinking, Ed grafts Al’s spirit to a full suit of armor using alchemy before passing out from the pain and blood loss. Likewise Al makes use of his new body to take Ed to their adoptive family, the Rockbells. It is here that Ed is fitted with a type of prosthetic called “automail,” a Rockbell specialty that allows for a full range of motion and added strength.
While recovering, the pair is offered a chance to be students at a special academy that will give them a shot at becoming State Alchemists (“government-issued” alchemists). Ed and Al see this as an opportunity not only to better their understanding of alchemy, but also to further research human transmutation, hopefully to regain their former bodies. To do this they find they’ll need an item that will amplify their abilities, the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s with this that their biggest adventure begins.
Much of the earlier story is told as the real story of FA progresses. The current story actually takes place about 5 years after the events that set the brothers on their path. Learning about events that have taken place in the past helps promote interest in what is a long, complex story full of well rounded characters. Everyone has a past to explore. The past is just as important as the present, and viewers will want to understand both series of events well. It goes beyond the Elric brothers’ search for answers as all chains of events become intertwined at one point or another.
The constant reviving of previous story arcs does much to keep the series fresh. By reintroducing characters that aren’t expected to return, the entertainment level rises greatly. Throwing in one plot twist after another only increases the anticipation of each episode.
Fullmetal Alchemist has full of some of the most interesting and well-rounded characters you’ll see in an anime. Thanks to the connections between past and present in the story, we learn much about the characters in a short length of time. We also get ample opportunity to watch the characters develop. In some cases it’s as simple as a State Alchemist rising in military rank, but other times it’s more personal, like a birthday. The characters mature, and as they reflect on their past lives, we often see changes in morals or ambitions.
Be warned, though: Don’t trust anybody in the show. One of the greatest things about this series is the ability to mislead the viewers into a false sense of security. Motives and intents change rapidly; the nicest character can quickly become the vilest. And of course, it goes both ways.
We also witness some of anime’s best character designs. You’ll never confuse characters in Fullmetal Alchemist, as each character has a distinct appearance. Some very calculated care was taken to make sure that no two characters looked even remotely alike. It’s especially important because most characters are part of the military and, thus, will be seen mainly in their uniforms. The one exception is Ed, who almost always wears variations on his familiar black suit and red coat.
The animation is squeaky clean. The colors are bright and vivid; even dull hues appear to glow. The animation is always flooded with colors–but never to the point that it becomes too busy or painful to watch. In some sequences they even use real photos of historical events like World War II. In other cases they use computer generated rooms and perfectly animate the characters within them, leaving a pleasant, uniform look to the animation.
Equally as impressive is the music. So far we’ve had opening and ending themes by such popular artists as Porno Graffitti, L’Arc en Ciel, YeLLOW Generation, and Crystal Kay to name a few. As of this writing there are still two more top names being added to the soundtrack, bringing the total to eight for this series’ fifty-episode run. Thanks not only to the variety of artists, but also the different styles that each one brings to the table, the music is never boring and worth taking the couple of minutes to listen to every time. Anyone who’s familiar with the quality of music that Square Enix includes in their games should know what to expect from Fullmetal Alchemist. Much of the background music is fully orchestrated, often relying on the use of woodwinds and percussions that are pleasing to the ear and in no way distract from any talking taking place.
One last thing: If you should happen to doubt the popularity of Fullmetal Alchemist, then check this out. Recently Square Enix announced they’d received a much higher than expected profit for the last fiscal year (3/2003 to 3/2004) and attributed this to three things: The popularity of Dragon Quest V in Japan, the popularity of Final Fantasy X-2 in the US and Europe, and the popularity of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga in Japan. So yes, it’s that big.
+ High quality animation for a TV series, Engaging story and characters
− They do like to reinforce plot points a bit too often, especially before each opening theme