Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist (season two)

(WARNING: There may be some spoilers if you have not seen season one)

Season two picks up directly after the conclusion of season one. The Elric brothers, now aware of what is truly required to make a Philosopher's Stone, head out with Winry in hopes of finding some alternative solution to regaining Al's body. This will ultimately lead them to cross paths once more with Izumi Curtis, the brothers' teacher from their early days of learning alchemy. Izumi was given a brief cameo in season one, but until this point the only impression viewers have of her is the harsh and unforgiving persona the Elric brothers imply her to be. This ends up as only partially true, as Izumi is thoroughly strict and will only agree to train her students if they wholly devote themselves and remain focused, but she is revealed to have a sad past and knows how to treat the Elric brothers with compassion when needed. While viewers are given a look into Ed and Al's time training under Izumi, this serves a purpose that is less focused on providing backstory and more focused on clueing viewers into the direction that the show will take over the course of the second season, primarily dealing with strengthening their relationship as brothers.

Season one only managed to scratch the surface of the story of the Homunculi, revealing a few of them and showing off their respective powers. Season two explores all seven of the Homunculi in great detail - how they originated, how they influence the brothers' journey, and what their ultimate goals are. I won't spoil the roles that each Homunculi plays in the story, though some of them do complicate things for the Elric brothers and other characters in ways other than just physical confrontations. My personal favorite Homunculus was Greed, who is both clever and immensely powerful. He relies on assistance from the chimeras he rescued from Laboratory 5 but also has a high level of respect for them, treating them as more or less his equal as opposed to science experiments. As his name implies, Greed wants what he doesn't have and is a rebel among the Homunculi, disagreeing with their plan and carrying out his own mission.

Gluttony is largely the same throughout the entirety of the series, though Lust does change her outlook on her standing as a Homunculi during the latter half of the season. Envy, who appeared only briefly in both the very early and very late episodes of season one, does make a handful of appearances of the course of season two, but his role in the overarching story is left almost entirely unexplored until the final episodes. While I was admittedly a bit disappointed that Envy's story was put on the backburner, given his role in things, it makes perfect sense to reserve it for such a late point in the series. Wrath, one of the Homunculi new to season two, plays an integral role in influencing the Elric brothers and others because of his origin, as do Sloth and Pride. The identities of those latter two are kept under wraps for quite some time with good reason.

Aside from the threats each Homunculus presents, the Elric brothers must also deal with certain members of the state military who have intentions of hindering their progress. Solf Kimblee, the Crimson Alchemist, was introduced at the end of season one and has escaped from the Laboratory 5 complex. While his true intentions remain shrouded for a good portion of the first half of season two, it is clear that Kimblee doesn't exactly follow a by-the-books style like many of the state alchemists. In a more powerful position is Lieutenant Colonel Frank Archer, a calm and collected individual who is more concerned with impressing Fuhrer Bradley than he is about the safety of his men or civilians caught up in in the states' military interventions.

In my review of season one, I made a minor complaint about Scar being seemingly phased out of the story only to be dragged back in episode twenty-four, "Bonding Memories". While I still feel the choice to carry out part of Scar's story in that manner came across as somewhat awkward, his involvement is season two flows quite smoothly. Scar gives viewers a more in-depth look at Ishbalan society, as well as a very satisfying explanation for his relation to both the Elric brothers and the Homunculi. While often a rather difficult character to read, there were times where I found myself cheering Scar on, in spite of his previous attempts to kill Ed and countless other state Alchemists.

Admittedly, there were three episodes in season two that I felt were not as cohesive as the rest in regards to how they factored into the overarching story. "Reunion of the Fallen" tells the story of a village where the people have contracted a disease that slowly turns their bodies to stone. This is by far the single weakest and forgettable episode in the entire series. That isn't to say that it is performed poorly, but it is more filler than substance. The only payoff this episode manages are the first steps in exploring a side of Lust that viewers have not previously seen. "Her Reason" - the first episode of the second season - flows somewhat better with the themes and story of Full Metal Alchemist as a whole, though it is largely focused on Winry's relationship with the Elric brothers, more specifically with Ed. The events in this episode are somewhat split down the middle. One one hand, it does a good job of reinforcing the characters and their long history together, and begins to bring Winry forth as a more important character than in season one. On the other hand, much of the episode is spent running in circles as Winry wants Ed to be more grateful for all the help she's provided him with over the years, and the new characters introduced in the episode are some of the very few throughout the series to never be heard from after their initial debut. Finally, "The Flame Alchemist, The Bachelor Lieutenant, and the Mystery of Warehouse 13" is a less-than-serious take on the current state of affairs in Colonel Mustang's unit. There are a few short subplots woven into the episode and while it doesn't manage to accomplish much in the grand scheme of things (aside, perhaps, from further fleshing out the characters of Havoc, Fuery, Breda, and Falman), overall the episode meshes well with the rest of season two, and is the source of a few good laughs among an otherwise darker-themed season than the first.

The animation is just as good as in the first season, with perhaps some minor tweaks/improvements sprinkled throughout. Some of the backgrounds are given more detail and lighting/shading effects seem to be a bit more dramatic in season two (though this could be due to the different locales visited in season two). The soundtrack utilizes many of the same pieces used in season one, though some new pieces are introduced along with variations on the aforementioned familiar tunes.

Full Metal Alchemist has one of - if not the single best - English dubs of all time. Vic Mignona and Aaron Dismuke steal the show as Ed and Al respectively, but Travis Willingham as Colonel Roy Mustang and Chris Sabat as Major Alex Louis Armstrong go above and beyond in their roles as secondary characters. Every one of the Homunculi is matched with a fantastic voice actor, each of whom emphasizes the traits that give the Homunculus their namesake in a manner that is entertaining but not overbearing.

Full Metal Alchemist has quickly climbed the ranks to become one of my favorite anime of all time. With a wildly entertaining cast of characters, fantastic animation, and a captivating soundtrack, it's an experience every anime fan should give a try. Even though the story diverges from the plot of the manga, Studio Bones did a phenomenal job of carrying a story that captivates viewers' imagination. The finale is about as satisfying and near-perfect as they come, avoiding the cliche while proving just how strong of a bond the Elric brothers share.

My rating (for season two): 9.5 (out of 10)

My rating for the series as a whole: 10 (out of 10)

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