Learning from your typical shonen anime, death isn’t something that many of your musclebound heroes take particularly seriously. Take a look at Dragon Ball Z: people come back to life so much throughout that series it’s staggering. One Piece? The hero has so much drive that it really doesn’t matter what happens to him. Fullmetal Alchemist may look like your typical shonen romp, but it manages to go quite a bit deeper than that. It was an immensely anticipated anime before it hit American shores, and for good reason. Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t shake off the triviality of death completely (which is a disappointment) but the end result is a remarkably serious look at loss and the effort it takes to overcome it.
Elder brother Edward is all about the action.
Fullmetal Alchemist follows the diminutive and short-fused alchemist Edward Elric and his armor-bound brother Alphonse. As children, Ed and Al lived with only one parent, their loving mother who took care of them. Ed and Al learned through their distant father’s books the power of alchemy, a mysterious science where matter is deconstructed and reconstructed. Eager to show their mother their abilities, the boys’ lives are changed when their mother dies. In a desperate effort to overcome her death, Ed and Al attempt the forbidden procedure of human transmutation. The attempt is a disaster: as payment to revive a soul, Alphonse’s body is destroyed and Ed’s leg is taken. Also, the revived body of their mother is a grotesque monster. With little hope remaining, Ed offers his right arm to bring back his brother’s soul and bind it alchemically to a suit of armor. Upon their recovery (and Ed’s mechanical surgery, giving him an arm and leg made of automail), Ed and Al discover information about the Philosopher’s Stone, a powerful alchemic artifact said to overcome the payment process in transmutation (the process known as “equivalent exchange”). Ed enlists in the national army as a State Alchemist in order to gain access to information about the Philosopher’s Stone, and together with his brother, Ed aims to bring their bodies back to their original states.
One thing that Fullmetal Alchemist aims to do is show the viewer a very Anti-transcendentalist view on death. Unlike many other idealistic communions with higher powers, Fullmetal Alchemist shows the dangers of “playing God” and reviving the dead. Nearly all of the attempts to bring someone back from the dead backfire, looking at Edward’s cost along with the cost of his teacher Izumi. Unlike many other anime, Fullmetal Alchemist makes death a serious matter. It shows a negative view of achieving a higher power and compared to anime like Dragon Ball Z, where death is reversible, there’s nothing to fall back on when someone dies in Fullmetal Alchemist. This is clear in the harrowing scene of Ed and Al’s transmutation of their mother’s body, which is a frighteningly gruesome and horrific moment. Ed and Al preach the power and danger of reaching for a higher power, “to challenge the sun”, and the series really puts that front and center. Good thing it works.
The series introduces the characters very well, diverging from the full picture until the third episode, and even then the entire background story isn’t fully in view. Once the second part is complete, viewers are introduced to Izumi, Ed and Al’s teacher, along with the threat of Scar, a powerful and destructive man who aims to kill State Alchemists for “playing God,” and the Homonculi, who aim to become human through the power of the Philosopher’s Stone. Once the ending episodes roll around however, the antagonist isn’t particularly defined, and not knowing who to believe makes the entire ending confrontation a bit harder to deal with. The final conclusion also feels too ambiguous and broad, lacking the sense of a concrete end. If that’s your thing, go for it. Anyone else may find the conclusion to be a bit too far on the unachievable. It’s heartwrenching, but unrealistic, a stark contrast to the realism of the rest of Fullmetal Alchemist’s material.
Younger brother Alphonse is bound to a suit of armor.
In between the seriousness, Ed and Al’s journey is defined through their characters. Edward is a hot-headed guy who gets ticked off anytime someone calls him short, while his younger brother Alphonse is a timid and much quieter character. This contrast works well for the brothers; it makes them capture that duality, that buddy-movie vibe. In addition to Ed and Al, the characters also have plenty of defining features. Winry Rockbell is Ed and Al’s childhood friend, while also being Ed’s mechanic is a sisterly and caring person, while also getting upset at Ed’s recklessness frequently. Roy Mustang, Ed’s superior in the military, is a serious guy most of the time, unless it involves women, where his lieutenant Riza Hawkeye is out to keep his mind out of the gutter. Covering the bases isn’t Fullmetal Alchemist’s style. Instead, it makes some clear distinctions in its character design, something that clearly defines its lighter moments.
Fullmetal Alchemist looks sharp and retains the dark and aged mood of its story. While the small amount of true battles are animated okay, it doesn’t reach the quality of full-action series like Bleach. It’s when Fullmetal Alchemist is either messing around or getting truly serious that the animation really is good. The music is fantastic, especially the “Brothers” theme, which shows the two heroes’ brotherhood vibe well. Fullmetal Alchemist is a great looking anime with some truly standout scenes, even when the entire mood shifts into a slower pace.
+ Realistic approach to loss and death distinguishes the storyline
+ Clever character designs
+ Awesome presentation
- Last few episodes start to drag their feet
- Ambiguous conclusion may leave some in the dark
Fullmetal Alchemist is a great anime that just loses a bit of its steam near its end. It truly defines what death is in a serious light. It’s not just about losing a friend or loved one and getting upset about it; it’s about getting on your feet and doing something about it. It’s that sense of empowerment that proves to be a double-edged sword for Ed and Al, and fortunately, their struggle is portrayed in a fully unique way. Those who are looking for an alternative to the over-the-top battles of Bleach or the melodrama of Neon Genesis Evangelion will find Fullmetal Alchemist to be a thoughtful romp with some clever distractions along the way. Fullmetal Alchemist has its ups and downs, but the end result is something truly special in anime. It’s a powerfully investigative anime that will make you think about the power of loss and its effects on people. Don’t miss it.