EDITOR'S NOTE: Ever since I realized what show Nick's tattoo was paying tribute to, I've been hoping to have him write something for this site. Guy's an otaku from bone to flesh, and he's got plenty of perspectives to offer in what will hopefully be a regular column. Make him feel welcome.
Hi there. My name’s Nick Tapalansky, and I write comics for a living. I’m a self-professed nerd. You might even say I wear it on my sleeve (more on that later.) Today, I’m here to tell you just how FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST saved my nerdy life. Let’s get acquainted first, though...
A zombie-noir called AWAKENING was my first book (recently reprinted by Archaia Ent., purveyors of such fine titles as HYBRID BASTARDS! by your own Tom Pinchuk). My wife, Jackie Santiago, is a freelance American manga artist who's making waves in the sketch card world. I’ve got another book due out sometime next year. It's a supernatural teen romance that owes much to my other great loves: anime and manga.
All this is to give you an idea of just what I, an American comic writer, am doing here. Anime and manga, and Japan in general, is one of the common joys in my marriage. We marathon shows. We’re playing through a JRPG bucket list (just wrapped FINAL FANTASY X-2 last night and started PERSONA 3: FES). We honeymooned in Tokyo, braved torrential rain to reach EVANGELION WORLD at Fuji-Q Highland, and piled our bags high with swag from Akihabara.
We’re going back for two weeks this October with two of our friends, intent on acquiring more nerdery, culture, and ramen.
So to review, I write comics, love Japanese culture and media, and spend time with my wife watching anime and playing video games. But there was a skip in the record a few years ago. A near thing, when anime was just tossed off the table.
I’d seen it all, I thought. Like an old flame that had come around and broken my heart a few too many times, anime had started to feel almost TOO predictable. (And this was coming from a guy who, just a few years before, had sat through 508 episodes of DRAGON BALL through DBGT without complaining).
There was a time that every dollar I had was spent at Octopus Kingdom or Games and James in NYC. That was where you could get fansubbed VHS for $5 a pop. And these weren’t the crappy Suncoast-bought domestics (see that recent Vice Pit if you don’t remember those bleak days). Oh no, these had six, seven, sometimes as many as eight episodes a tape. It was a golden age, and I tried everything. YU YU HAKUSHO, PSYCHIC FORCE, RUROUNI KENSHIN, EVANGELION. And yeah, my favorites, DRAGON BALL and SAILOR MOON. It got to a point where I’d walk in and they’d just pack a bag for me and give me a price. I didn’t even know what was in them, a lot of the time. I had a wall of VHS in my room, and I loved it.
But somewhere in my senior year of high school I started to see redundant tropes. Maybe it was just me getting older. Maybe it was me getting deeper into American comics that were speaking more to my creative interests at the time. From SANDMAN to BONE, American comics were doing things that few anime series seemed willing to do - - they were testing me, challenging me, deviating from the tired tropes of yesteryear. I had grown up loving American comics but - - like anime circa 1998 - 2000 - - I felt it hit a rut in the early 90’s, right around when I met SAILOR MOON. Now, it was happening in reverse.
Octopus Kingdom closed. Anime hit the mainstream in a big way thanks to Toonami. And I was missing it, even if one or two of my friends still kept on with the love affair. When they recommended things for me to watch I’d smile and wave them off. I’d seen it all, hadn’t I?
Oh no. Oh no I hadn’t.
One night, on one of those amazing “order as many pizzas as they’ll deliver and guzzle a few liters of soda” nerd gatherings we all covet so much, I finally relented. My friend had been raving about some show he’d fallen in love with. I’d been out of the loop for a few years and was pretty amazed to find he had the complete series subtitled on DVD long before the first season hit domestic shores. Wonder of wonders. The show itself didn’t sound like anything special at first: some fantasy jaunt, brothers in search of a Philosopher’s Stone, blah blah blah. Whatever, put it on, I’m gonna read this comic and - -
I brought the series home with me. I watched it as quickly as I could. Then re-watched it right away. It subverted all the tropes I’d grown weary of. It had real characters who broke molds. It was an adventure, a tragedy, a romance, a horror, a commentary on the power of the state and science vs. religion (a personal fave).
I could write a thesis on the portrayal of western religion in anime and FMA would fall right in as Exhibit B (Exhibit A, of course, is EVANGELION). It was sweet and funny and honest. It was the sort of story I would want to tell one day. Maybe I still will. It meant enough to me to put a piece of it on my body for the rest of my natural life, because above all else, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST is a disarmingly human story. It resonates with me in a way that few stories in my life ever have.
So, yeah, FMA saved my nerdy life. Sure I was playing KINGDOM HEARTS at the time (another tattoo for another article). And yeah, okay, I’d already started writing comics (an admittedly nerdy pursuit). But without FMA I would’ve missed out on worlds of enjoyment and thought-provoking inspiration. I think I can honestly say that I’ve been more inspired by anime and manga than by American comics at this point. More importantly, watching FMA reminded me of some of the best times of my younger years. In a way it was like coming home again.
In my youth I’d watch anything if it came from Japan. Then I closed myself off, some kind of self-professed (idiot) expert who’d seen it all. Not long after watching FMA and starting to get back into the mix I met my wife. Coincidence? I think not.
Nowadays, thanks to being back on the scene and the power of Netflix, I watch anything if the animation is up to snuff. After FMA there’s been SAMURAI CHAMPLOO, MUSHI-SHI, SCI-FI HARRY, GHOST IN THE SHELL: SAC, EDEN OF THE EAST. I moved backwards, forwards, and sideways. I’ve caught up on all the Miyazaki flicks I’d missed, like SPIRITED AWAY, one of my favorite movies, period. I’ve been surprised by OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB, laughed at BAKA AND TEST, and positively rolled for HIGH SCHOOL OF THE DEAD.
More recently there was, of course, FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD. I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say it’s one of the finest serialized stories ever animated. A timeless series that appeals to most anyone. Maybe that’s why Toonami's still running it, two years after it wrapped up. It’s a wake-up call to people who, like me, had closed themselves off because they thought they’d seen it all.
It represents a new trend in anime, sticking closer to the manga on which it’s based and not being afraid to revisit something older to present it from a different angle. The recycling trend we all roll our eyes at in American media (largely because it seems to be done for a quick buck than for artistic merit) has been subverted by the Japanese and turned into something worth celebrating rather than reviling.
Like any creative medium, anime moves in cycles. To write something off for a perceived lull is not only foolish but self-defeating. That kind of elitism is an idiot’s prison, not a haughty pedestal. Anime is going to hit ruts, and yeah, some of it, maybe a lot of it, is going to be derivative. But if FMA is anything to go by I think we’ll all be inspired, and have lots of new and exciting shows to watch, for years to come. And going back to the motherland this October, you’d best believe I’m going to be on the lookout for the next big thing.
So what about you, Anime Vice community? Any of you ever walk away from anime in frustration, fists shaking at the screen? What show brought you back into the fold? What should I be looking for when I hit Akihabara? Hit me in the comments below!
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at his website and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.