Every since I started doing themed months, there’s been this little desire in the back of my mind to do a whole month dedicated to FullMetal Alchemist. With two very different series, and two feature films, it isn’t like it’d be hard to fill a month of Monday Anime with that property alone.
While my internet has been out, I’ve had time to sit and watch the dvd’s again, too, so that probably has a lot to do with it going from a desire, to saying to hell with it and just diving in. It isn’t like I can re-watch much else right now, and I’ve already covered most all the shows I have on dvd.
Figures that’d bite me in the ass at some point.
Regardless, here we are, kicking off FullMetal Month, and not just with the Monday Anime, but with a few other fun things. To be honest, it’d take me a whole month to really get into all things about this property that are amazing, so maybe this whole internet outage wasn’t such a total bad thing after all.
I’m kidding. It fucking sucks.
To get things going, let’s take a look at the original FullMetal Alchemist series from 2003. Clocking in a whopping 51 episodes, mega-studio Bones, maker of all great things, set out to adapt the runaway hit that was the manga from the now legendary Hiromu Arakawa (Silver Spoon, The Heroic Legend of Arslan).
The story of Full metal Alchemist, for the few of you who either live under a rock, or are reading this and have no idea what anime is, is set in an alternate history Europe, where the science of alchemy has surpassed physics, and is the major branch of research. The study of the molecular structure of everything, and the ability to take it apart and put it back together in whatever way you desire is not just a fantasy in this world, but a reality.
In the early 20th century, brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric loose their mother to a plague, and being the gifted young alchemists they are, decide to violate the most important law of alchemy. They attempt human transmutation, in a desperate bid to bring their mother back to life. Too late they realize that human transmutation really can’t be done, and the dead cannot be brought back to life. However, for their sin, Edward looses his left leg, while Alphonse vanishes entirely.
Horrified at what he has done, Edward transmutes his right arm to bind Alphonse’s soul to a suit of armor, saving him, after a fashion. Frightened at the near death state Ed falls into due to blood loss, Al takes him to their neighbor, and family friend, the Rockbells, skilled doctors and engineers of prosthesis known as automail.
While Ed’s life is saved, the harsh reality is that he and Al have lost a great deal. When Colonel Roy Mustang of the military comes calling, offering Ed a place as a State Alchemist, he jumps at the chance, hoping to use his research grant to find a way to restore Al to his original body, and recover his own lost limbs. Thus, Edward Elric becomes known as the FullMetal Alchemist.
Little do they know that their search for the mythical relic known as the Philosopher’s Stone will pit them against unnatural creatures at every turn, dangers they couldn’t imagine, and the truth of their own past.
Much less just how different the story Bones would come up with would be from the manga. Nobody really saw that coming.
Which it is. When the anime was first started, the manga was still not that far along, which says a lot about how well it was received. For it to get an anime adaptation that quickly, and that early, is somewhat unusual. Arakawa and Bones staffers both knew they weren’t going to be able to make a proper adaption, as they would surpass the manga very quickly. So it was decided that ones would tell their own story, set within Arakawa’s world, and she would advise them along the way, but keep telling her own story her way, creating two very different versions of FullMetal Alchemist.
We’ll get more into that when we talk about the 2009 version of the series. For now, let’s just focus on this version, which is good, but not Arakawa good.
I’ve said int he past, when talking about writing, and various shows, that good world building is incredibly important. FullMetal has some of the best I’ve ever seen. Arakawa and Bones create a fully realized world that operates by its own laws, very consistently. Alchemy is treated as a branch of the sciences, and the act of deconstructing and reconstructing something on an atomic level is no big deal. The rules that govern it, especially the Law of Equivalent Exchange, are treated as ironclad throughout the show.
Even gaining the use of a Philosopher’s Stone, said to allow an alchemist to bypass equivalent exchange, doesn’t actually work the way it its billed. The law still holds, with the exchange being something a little more nightmarish than you’d expect from something that’s suppose to be so great.
I’m assuming everyone reading this has seen FullMetal Alchemist, but still, spoiler warnings, I guess. For you, over there. Yeah, you, Brandon. Christ. Always ruining everyone’s fun.
Don’t be a dick, Brandon.
Ed and Al soon learn the truth behind the Philosopher’s Stone, that it is made of people. Basically, it’s Soylent Green, only slightly less nutritious. To create a Philosopher’s Stone, you have to extract the life essence, or the soul, of a lot of people. Like, a whole lot. Then you fuse them into a compact form, and exchange those souls for the ability to do pretty much anything you want with alchemy. However, eventually, the souls run out, and the Stone vanishes, so be careful how many flying cars with the face of Randy Savage you make.
As horrified as the brothers are at this, they are soon faced with even greater horrors, in the form of the Homunculus. Humans created through alchemy, they are artificial life forms, and have abilities and powers far beyond that of normal humans. Taking the names of the seven deadly sins, these creatures are after the Stone for reasons of their own, and some even work for a sinister force that seeks the Stone for far darker reasons. The search for immortality.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the brothers constantly have run ins with a mass murder named Scar, one of the few survivors of a genocidal war some years back. The country of Amestris, where the Elric’s live, annexed the small nation of Ishval, and soon, a war broke out, leading to the Isvalans being almost wiped out. Scar, a survivor of the war, lived through the horrors perpetrated by the Amestrian State Alchemists, and now hunts them for revenge. To say his motives aren’t as black and white as that is an understatement, however, and as he and Ed clash frequently, we begin to see things from Scar’s point of view.
It’s fairly chilling. Scar isn’t so much homicidal, and he simply has nothing left to loose, or even gain. He’s a rather tragic figure, no matter how you look at him.
Despite these overwhelming forces arrayed against them, the Eric’s have people in their corner. Colonel Mustang and his team of soldiers continue to provide the brothers with a great deal of support, as does Major Armstrong and Lt. Colonel Hughes. Mustang and Armstrong are both State Alchemists as well, and not only support, but frequently advise the brothers.
Also, Armstrong is the best thing to ever happen in anime. He’s so freaking hilarious and awesome.
Outside the military, Ed and Al have Winrey Rockbell, the engineer who designed, built and maintains Ed’s automail. A childhood friend of the Elric’s, she’s smart as a whip, mean as hell, and tough as nails. Basically, Winrey is awesome. There’s not much else to say. Winrey is awesome.
They also have their teacher, Izumi, who is about as terrifying as a maternal figure can get without being an actual wicked witch. While she does love the brothers very much, she has no problem kicking them around the yard and reminding them that she’s the boss. Not just as an alchemy teacher, but a maternal figure, Izumi saves the brothers frequently.
Which, when you get down to it, is a lot of what the show is about. How none of us can save ourselves. How we all experience grief, loss, sorrow, and pain. How the only thing we can do is keep moving forward with life, and leaning on the people who love us when we must.
Can’t imagine why that would appeal to me right now.
Beyond just the world building, the characterization is incredibly well done. Alphonse, despite being stuck in an unfeeling suit of armor, is always compassionate, and empathetic to others. Edward, despite all he has been through, and the guilt he carries, is… kind of a dick head most of the time. He’s smart mouthed, antagonistic, as short tempered as he is short, and impulsive. He’s also a brilliant alchemist, and endlessly creative with his application of it.
Much of the story revolves around Ed and Al’s interactions with what is called the Gateway, what it is, and what it means. While the gate in the 2003 series is a literal gate, and ties in to how alchemy works, it’s a vastly different thing in the manga, and the 2009 series. Which, again, we’ll discuss later.
The Homunculus are also somewhat different. Here, they are the result of a failed attempt at human transmutation. The result, if you will, that has been abandoned and left to find their own in the world. Often without any real understanding of what they are, and what their purpose is, the end up being drawn to the concept of being the seven deadly sins, something put in their heads by the series antagonist, Dante, who seeks immortality, and uses the homunculus to that end.
I suppose a better way of saying it would be that Dante seeks to maintain immortality, as she already has it, after a fashion. The story gets pretty complicated at this point, and a lot is left kind of open ended, and unexplained. Which isn’t bad, as it leaves room for more story later on. Still, overall, the 2003 version of the story isn’t as well realized as Arakawa’s manga.
Given her skill at writing, that’s not surprising. I’m not sure anyone could top the story she told.
As a series, however, the 2003 FullMetal Alchemist is a brilliant piece of work, full of incredible moments, powerful characters, and solid world building. When I first encountered it, already dubbed into English by Funimation, on Adult Swim, it blew me away at how well realized a story it was. Given that I’d always had a love of anime, this served as the match that really reignited by passion for it, and lead me to doing this blog, right now.
Weird how that works, ain’t it?
Speaking of the Funimation dub, it is genuinely great. Funimation really set the bar for well dubbed shows, and in a real way, FullMetal set them head and shoulders above the competition for quality. While they had dubbed quite a bit of anime before this, the work done on FullMetal was not only amazing, but really launched some amazing careers, including Travis Willingham, who voiced Roy Mustang. Vic Mignogna Aaron Dismuke, and Laura Bailey also really blew it out of the water as Ed, Alphonse, and Lust, taking them from somewhat well known names, to international stars.
Well, I guess Vic was already pretty famous, and Laura had done Kid Trunks on Dragon Ball, so… I may be overstating that a bit. Still, the work Funimation did on FullMetal was game changing, and really put some people on the map. As a fan of many of them, I am grateful.
Actually, that was kind of a fangobbering moment, there, wasn’t it? Guess I can do that. Who knew?
In terms of animation, FullMetal is, frankly, stunning to look at. The backgrounds are beyond beautiful, detailed, and lush. The character designs are amazing, original, and unlike anything else out there. Everything moves with a fluidity that is top notch, and in every way, Bones raised the bar for quality animation with this show. It really is one of the most stunning animes ever made, topped only by the 2009 remake.
The series was directed by Seiji Mizushima, who also directed Shaman King, Mobile Suit Gundam 00, and Concrete Revolutio. While I’ve only seen bits and pieces of his other works, I can say that I’ve seen enough to call the man a capable director. Going into FullMetal, he was aware that there wasn’t enough of the manga to build an entire series around, and dedicated himself to at least telling a story worthy of the world and the characters. His love of the property, and Arakawa’s work, is obvious. The original FullMetal stands as a testament to what anime can do, and what a good director can do with but a sliver of a story.
Helping him in this was writer Sho Aikawa, who wrote for Concrete Revolutio, Eureka Seven: AO, and Chaos Dragon. Like Mizushima, Aikawa knew they wouldn’t be working with the full story, and focused instead on writing something that was consistent with what Arakawa had already done. According to Aikawa, he and Arakawa communicated often, mostly about keeping things consistent with the world, and the characters. Arakawa herself has praised the writing, so however different it may be from the manga, it is every inch an amazing piece of writing, and something Aikawa has every right to be proud of.
The music was arranged by Michiru Oshima, who composed for Snow White With The Red hair, Little Witch Academia, and Le Chevalier D’Eon. Two of those shows I’ve praised the music for before, and here will be no different. The soundtrack for FullMetal is classic, and one of the great collections of anime music. I would even have a hard time saying that the music for the 2009 remake is better, though personally, I do lean more towards it in terms of my preferences. Regardless, the OST for FullMetal is amazing, and helps move the story in ways visuals and dialogue alone can’t. That’s everything a good soundtrack is suppose to do, and Oshima excels at that kind of work.
Even if you are a fan of the manga, or prefer the 2009 remake, the original FullMetal is the kind of anime that lends a lot of credence to the argument that the medium as a whole is an artistic pursuit. While I remain firm in my belief that anime is no different than any other television programming, entertainment for the sake of making money, the work that went into this series was definitely above average in every way, and does elevate it to the level of art.
From the exploration of the concepts of life and death, to the philosophical questions the show grapples with, everything about FullMetal stands as an example of what the medium of anime is capable of producing, and bringing to the mainstream, in the right hands. From mangaka, to everyone involved at Bones, these hands were most certainly the right ones.
Next week, the first FullMetal Alchemist movie, The Conqueror of Shamballa.