Saturday, June 19, 2010

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist (season one)

With Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood nearing its conclusion, I decided to look into the original anime. I’d seen a handful of episodes aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block and what I saw was very entertaining, but I very little idea as to who was who and what was going on in the story. So I went ahead and decided to pick up the first season on DVD once I had done a little background research on the series and heard overwhelmingly positive reviews from others.

Viewers are introduced to Edward and Alphonse Elric as two young but incredibly talented alchemists. The series begins with a bang as Ed and Al attempt to bring their mother back from the dead. However, the two try to override the law of equivalent exchange and have nothing to offer as substitution for a human soul. Thus, the reaction backfires and costs Ed his right arm and left leg, while Al loses his entire body and has his soul transferred to a suit of armor thanks to Ed’s quick reaction.

Colonel Roy Mustang visits the home of the Elric brothers, intrigued by the fact that the two managed to survive the ordeal. Ed vows that he will find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone in order to restore Alphonse to his original body, but in order to access information on the Philosopher’s Stone as well as progress to higher level alchemic research, one of the brothers must join the state military. Both Ed and Al study day after day under the care of Shou Tucker, a highly-regarded alchemist in Central City until the examination day arrives. Knowing full well that the state only accepts one or two new alchemists per year, Ed decides to bear the burden, arguing that Al has already been through so much. With each assignment Colonel Mustang gives to Ed, he and Al take time to look for clues related to the Philosopher’s Stone.

Full Metal Alchemist is a curious series in that it starts off rather innocently and focuses on fantasy elements, capturing a genuine sense of wonder and amazement with each turn the story takes. None of this is really lost in the later portion of the first season, but things do take a turn down a much darker path as Scar threatens to kill all state alchemists he encounters, and the brothers uncover some secrets the military has been holding for many years on the intricacies of the Philosopher’s Stone.

The characters are tremendously enjoyable, from Mustang’s cocky ambitions, to Winry’s peppy and upbeat attitude, to the devious intentions of the Homunculi. The military characters, though they are supposed to be the most serious, are generally the complete opposite, which makes for some very ironic interactions. As serious and mature as Mustang tries to be, he does let loose from time to time, and gets plenty of grief from Maes Hughes for his strict demeanor. Hughes, on the other hand, is obsessed with his wife and daughter, feeling the need to share their photographs with every person he encounters. Still, he is always there for the Elric brothers as part of the investigations department, saving their skin on a few occasions and reminding them that, despite their skill as alchemists, that they are not invincible. Alexander Louis Armstrong, the Strong-arm Alchemist, appears about halfway through the season and is instructed by Hughes to act as a bodyguard for Ed and Al, as Scar seems to have chosen Ed as one of his primary targets. Armstrong is immensely powerful and played a role in the Ishbal Massacre years ago, but now he is a soft-hearted man who is built like a tank, and he is one of the most comical characters in any anime I’ve seen to date.

The Homunculi are not covered in great detail in the first season, though they do play a pivotal role in the later episodes. They are inhuman and possess unique abilities, and they seem to follow Ed and Al’s progress with the Philosopher’s Stone throughout the course of the series. Their motives are only briefly covered late in the first season, and much of their true intentions are left for the second season, but the mystery surrounding them will certainly keep many viewers on the edge of their seats.

Scar is a survivor of the Ishbal Massacre and has vowed to kill any state alchemists he encounters for the sake of his brother. Scar’s backstory is not explored much until late in the first season, though it is made clear early on that he believes alchemy to be against the will of God. He is cold and serious, but also uncertain as to what the tattoos on his arm truly imply, only that they are both a gift and a curse from his brother.

With all of these characters in mind, the show is - at its core - about Edward and Alphonse Elric. Alphonse is more likely to follow the rules and hope for a peaceful resolution to things. Edward, though not often to start a fight, does not take well to people giving him grief about his stature and can be very short-tempered. Al often has to restrain and calm Ed down following such events, but his far more innocent nature makes it quite obvious that Al is the younger of the two. Ed's desire to make his brother whole again coupled with Al's unyielding support for his brother in the face of immeasurable danger solidifies the duo as both stong and greatly entertaining lead characters.

The series comes to a major climax near the end of the season that is both wildly intriguing and a satisfying wrap-up of the preceding events. The episodes that follow play out as falling action in order to set up for the transition to season two, though episode twenty-four in particular seems very out of place. Al runs away after an argument with Ed and meets up with Scar and a handful of refugees from Ishbal. As Al is not a certified state alchemist, Scar bears less resentment towards him and the two work together to rescue an Ishbalan child from a corrupt group of mercenaries. The end result is that Ed and Al resolve their issues and Scar’s involvement in the story seemingly comes to a close. But as the following episode proves, Scar’s story is far from over, and it makes episode twenty-four seem rather pointless in the grand scheme of things.

The series takes place in a time period reminiscent of World War I, with automobiles becoming mainstreamed and steam powered trains and boats still largely dominant modes of long-distance transportation. From the brick buildings of Central City to the farmhouse of the Elric family, the series stays within its bounds in regards to real-world architecture and design style, while including fantasy elements such as auto-mail artificial limbs and the more obvious alchemic practices. All of this plays out quite smoothly and is portrayed in lush vibrant colors when the mood is upbeat, while changing to cool shades of grey and blue for more tense and dark scenes. Accompanying the beautiful art style is an even more beautiful soundtrack. The strings and woodwind instruments carry out a more epic sound to play along scenes involving haevier fantasy elements, while brass and percussion set the mood for the state military and its ordeals.

The Japanese voice actors do a splendid job with each character. There were some voices that I found familiar, such as Romi Paku (previously voicing Loran Cehack in Turn A Gundam) as Edward and Rie Kugimiya (Nena Trinity in Gundam 00 and Lichtenstein in Axis Powers: Hetalia) as Alphonse. The English dub, however, is one of (if not the) best anime dubs I have ever seen/heard. Vic Mignogna and Aaron Dismuke steal the show as Ed and Al, though Sonny Strait as Hughes (Lupin in Lupin the Third and Krillin in Dragonball Z) and Chris Sabat (Piccolo in Dragonball Z) as Armstrong provide very strong performances as secondary characters. Caitlin Glass carries across a very sincere and humorous Winry Rockbell, and even fairly minor characters, such as Pinako Rockbell and Psiren are portrayed with great attentiveness.

Full Metal Alchemist is a series that has something to offer fans of varying anime styles. The serious is not so by-the-books and serious that it only attracts science whiz-kids, and is not so ridiculous that one is laughing the entire way through an episode. Granted, there is plenty of humor in the series, but much of it is drawn from the ironic situations in which the characters find themselves. The incredibly well-written story is surpassed only by the broad and believable cast of characters and their respective voice actors. Despite some initial skepticism on my part, the first season of the show has me convinced that this is easily one of the best anime ever conceived. The sheer sense of wonder one gets while watching it is enough to draw viewers in and the narrative is sure to keep them hooked for a long time thereafter.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)

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