Fullmetal Alchemist: Comprehension, Deconstruction, Reconstruction

hisui_icon_4040 I recently had to take a Friday off of work after I had spent most of Thursday expelling the contents of the digestive system. That meant I spent a good deal of two days mostly lying in bed. While the experience was hardly pleasant it did give me a good deal of time where I needed to entertain myself passively as I recovered. This gave me a good chance to knock out a very vital title in my pile of shame.

A while back Kate and I were asked if we could get the other host of the Speakeasy to watch one show what would it be. Kate said that she would get me to finish Fullmetal Alchemist. Fullmetal Alchemist was an odd case in my library. I started watching the original TV series but then the overwhelming outcry was the original manga was better. (If this is true is a matter of contention I will touch on later in the post.) So I put the TV series on hold and started reading the manga. I played with the idea of watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood but I was already decently invested into buying the manga and I heard that while Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood only got really good when it got into new material as the first parts of the story were extremely rushed since they were in the 2003 TV series. The problem was that halfway through the Fort Briggs storyline I got outsourced at work and my pay was significantly cut. This meant that I stopped buying a lot of manga series and one of those titles was Fullmetal Alchemist. I always meant to finish off the series but I just never got around to it.

So Fullmetal Alchemist fell into this limbo where I had gotten fairly far into the story so there was a drive to finish off the series but starting over from the beginning was a bit of a pain in the ass. I’m definitely in that position with Nodame Cantabile. I was really hoping that someone would get the itch watch Fullmetal Alchemist and I could tag along with them but that never happened. So I was in limbo until I got sick. It seemed to be the perfect catalyst. It also worked really well since I was a little loopy during the episodes I watched on Friday but that was mostly when I watched the part of the story that I had experienced multiple times. By the time I was generally feeling better on Saturday I had caught up to where I was in the manga. I then just spent the next week finishing off the series.

Now a LOT of ink has been split on Fullmetal Alchemist. If you want a complex analysis of the themes, characters, and plot it is not too hard to find. I instead wanted to just go over five things I noticed since I watched all of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in 2019. There are certain observations that are easier to make a full decade after the show premiered. Some might only be possible with that much distance. That is worth talking about thanks to perspective.

First of all, it is easy to forget what a powerhouse Fullmetal Alchemist was back in the day. If you are new to anime fandom Fullmetal Alchemist still has a decent amount of cache alongside series like Dragon Ball, Cowboy Bebop, or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite being “old”
those shows still populate many a list of canon that you should see and no one is super worried that they will be forgotten anytime soon. The thing is there like all those other series I mentioned at their heyday it felt like everyone one had either seen Fullmetal Alchemist or was intentionally going out of their way not to watch it. Opinions ranged from it was an instant classic to a piece of overrated claptrap but it seemed like the series was everywhere. It was constantly cosplayed at conventions. It was a constant topic of panels, podcasts, blog posts, humor, and general fan conversation. I know Kate avoided anything Fullmetal Alchemist just because it had such a huge cloud of hype around it that she waited until it died down to give the series a fair shake.

It also came out at just the right time. The Physical DVDs and manga were released alongside streaming episodes and a TV broadcast on Cartoon Network. That meant the show was extremely easily accessible in so many different formats. At the same time, the number of shows coming out was still small enough that popular shows could stick around for a while without immediately being completely replaced by the new hotness. It was definitely a mainstream success in fandom and even made a minor dent in the consciousness of the general nerdy public. I know Asami Sato’s character design from The Legend of Korra is partially based on Lust.

As I mentioned Fullmetal Alchemist is hardly a forgotten show. If you asked a crowd at any large anime convention you would undoubtedly still get a positive reaction from a decent percentage of the crowd. It is just the difference between the excitement for Attack on Titan in the middle of its first season and the fandom now. When Fullmetal Alchemist was on fire it blazed with the heat of a thousand suns. Now it is just a bright point in the sea of stars.

Secondly, it is easy to forget how odd the two different version of the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series. I have mentioned it so many times on this site but the fact that shows can take a few years off and still come back on a regular basis is a major game changer. Back in the day, there was a fear that if a series took a break to let the manga build up the fandom would die out. So anime original endings and filler arcs were rather common. They were hardly ever popular but they were often considered better than a “go read the manga” ending. Even in that climate the Fullmetal Alchemist TV  still stands out.

Around the introduction of Greed the first Fullmetal Alchemist TV series goes off in its own direction in amazingly significant ways. Characters like Ling Yao and Olivier Mira Armstrong are not in the original anime and there are new characters like Frank Archer and Clara are used instead. The Homunculus are radically different in both versions with some Homunculi have different identities and powers and others being totally new characters. Also, major characters like Kimblee and Van Hohenheim share similarities to their original versions but are pretty much new characters. In fact, even something like the fundamental principles of alchemy and the themes related to that eventually radially diverges. Also, the endings would actually try very hard to be any more different than they are now. The 2003 version is not some series where they slap on a quick ending in the last three episodes. Watching Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 and 2009 is like watching two different shows. It is pretty much its own show once they start diverging. I don’t think something like this would happen today without a request from the original author.

It is also sort of crazy how quickly they put out Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood after Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 ended. This is back in a day when reboots were hardly unheard of but were also nowhere as frequent as they are today. Even today a totally new series like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood would raise some eyebrows at how quickly it came out. But I think it speaks volumes how well Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 sold. They knew they had a huge pile of money on the table and a complete story that they could adapt with a huge amount of demand attached to it. If you look at the credits for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood you will see Funimation’s fingerprints all over there. Funimation clearly saw they had a hit on their hands and did everything to strike while the iron was hot.

Third is how odd it is that Hiromu Arakawa has fallen out of the spotlight. It seemed like Hiromu Arakawa was poised to be a rock star mangaka. Just slap “From the creator of Fullmetal Alchemist” on the cover of whatever she did next and just wait for the money to pour in. The major problem is her next two major works were Silver Spoon and The Heroic Legend of Arslan. I actually like both series immensely so I’m not saying she is some unfortunate one hit wonder. The problem is neither series was able to capitalize on the English speaking fandom in any meaningful way.

The problem with Silver Spoon is it is NOTHING like Fullmetal Alchemist. Fullmetal Alchemist is a classic fantastical shonen adventure with lots of hooks for a western audience. Silver Spoon is a very down to earth comedy series that is so very Japanese in its look at an agricultural college. Especially in America, the parts of fandom that care about both types of story is rather slim. It is not that Silver Spoon totally fell off the face of the earth. It is just that the narrative shift lost so much of the original audience and was replaced by a much smaller seinen fandom. In Japan, the series is a hit but here it is mostly an oddity for scholarly nerds and oldtaku.

The Heroic Legend of Arslan seemed like it should have been the one to carry the legacy of Fullmetal Alchemist. The original novels are by the author of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It is an epic fantasy adventure loosely based on a Persian epic. If you have read the original manga you will see that Hiromu Arakawa really hit it out of the park with her adaptation. This was the series that would appeal to Fullmetal Alchemist fans 100%. But the anime was super mediocre. Painfully so. It is not bad. It is just so very lackluster. Without a killer anime, the manga sort of just exists in limbo. Hardcore fans know about it but everyone else in the dark. It did nothing to sell itself and so The Heroic Legend of Arslan sort of just faded into obscurity.

It is just sort of crazy to think about. A super popular mangaka sort of faded from the spotlight despite having two really solid follow-up series. In a way, she sort of has become a one-hit wonder despite doing nothing to deserve it.

Fourth is how nice the series looks at the time. I’m sure a sakuga expert could go into greater depth into the best parts of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood but even my amateur eyes notice that most episodes have at least one or two dazzling scenes that really knock your socks off. I know that budget alone does not determine how well a series turns out. But when a series has a solid set of tracks laid out the amount of money poured into the show yields results with far better efficiency. It is very clear that everything was set up that the team working on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood could do their best and the end result shows that. Not every episode is a masterwork and if you want to nitpick you will find what you need over the course of 64 episodes. But objectively  Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very pretty show that was extremely well crafted.

Fifth is how well the series holds up now. I have to say that Fullmetal Alchemist still feels fresh and exciting. The themes of the show are still very relevant and powerful. Everything with the Ishval Civil War still has strong real-world parallels and feels heavy in a way that adds layers of depth and meaning to what otherwise might be a simple fight series with some cool magic effects. The corruption of the Amestris military, the philosophical dilemmas of the Philosopher’s Stone, the questions of what makes someone human, and even the beginning storyline with the Church of Leto all still make you think. While both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist eventually go their own ways both of them take the core ideas and run with them in fascinating ways.

I think that should make it clear that if you have not experienced any version of Fullmetal Alchemist it is a series you should not sleep on. If you have to pick one I would go with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (or just the manga) for two reasons. The first reason is the manga snob in me says when in doubt go with the original story. The second reason is I like how the manga very deliberately structured so the narrative of the story mirrors the creation of a Philosopher’s Stone in classical western alchemy. That is some high-level planning. While the story is strong in the Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 version the changes make it so that structure is no longer present. It is an odd reason to prefer something but also a very Alain reason to prefer something. But both stories are solid enough that there is something to be gained from watching both versions.

Fullmetal Alchemist maybe over a decade old but it still feels as fresh as when it first came out. It deserves its place alongside the other classics of anime.

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