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How FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Saved Anime (for Me) - - OTAKU COMING HOME

American comic book writer Nick Tapalansky waxes philosophical on his early love of anime, the dark period in which he avoided it like the plague, and how FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST saved his nerdy life.

I stand before a towering Laputan robot from CASTLE IN THE SKY.
I stand before a towering Laputan robot from CASTLE IN THE SKY.

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.

Jackie's manga-tastic artwork.
Jackie's manga-tastic artwork.

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.

Beholding the EVA UNIT 01 with awe and fear.
Beholding the EVA UNIT 01 with awe and fear.

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).

The Octopus Kingdom that was.
The Octopus Kingdom that was.

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.

Ed and Al!
Ed and Al!

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 - -

Holy. Crap.

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.

And I want to remember that, always...!
And I want to remember that, always...!

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.

Brotherhood gave it another go.
Brotherhood gave it another go.

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.

AgentJon Sept. 6, 2012 at 4:01 p.m.

@NickTapalansky: Let me put it into these terms; It has been years since I last completely geeked out over the announcement of a video game (Perhaps the last was the Golden Sun announcement in 2007). I am almost literally examining every PIXEL of every screenshot. My love for the previous games in the series is almost unmatched by any franchise in the medium. We're talking about a series completely driven by great characters (the aspect I most prize in any work of fiction I inhale).

I recommend picking up either the Wiiware ports of the first three Ace Attorney games (the DS carts are pretty expensive these days) or wait for the phone "HD" release of the trilogy. Don't know how expensive that will be, but I already own those three games and I will likely still pick it up again. Whatever you do, don't let Ace Attorney 5 (the new game) be your first entry in the series. It will likely be spoiler-rific.

I'll second SOTY's recommendations of Summer Wars and Code Geass.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 6, 2012 at 8:22 p.m.

@AgentJ:

Haha! Wow, that's some high praise. But alright, you've sold me. When the HD games come out for phones, I'll grab 'em for the ol' iPhone (old DS doesn't hold a charge anymore and my Wii died a few months back and didn't get much use anyway, so I haven't had the willpower to buy a replacement).

SUMMER WARS I've been dying to see, but CODE GEASS was never on my radar. With two recs behind it now though I'll have to try out an ep or two to see what's up.

DBZ_universeon Sept. 6, 2012 at 11:50 p.m.

FMA FOR LIFE!!!

I too when I saw the title for the first time I was like *meh nothing special* but when I saw the first episode I was blown away!! I liked FMA from that point and on!! I have watched both FMAB and 2003... and of course read the manga!! and yeah it's one of my personal favorites!!

Also great review!! and I feel like reading some of those comics you make!! and I like your tattoo!!

sotyfan16on Sept. 7, 2012 at 5:02 a.m.

@NickTapalansky:

I haven't read the Death Note manga but from what I have been told the anime does well in sticking to the material. Speaking of, have you checked out Ohba and Obata's most recent work, Bakuman? The manga has finished in Japan and the anime is coming up on season 3. Being a book writer yourself I think you would like it. I really do. One of my favorites.

Forgive my constant suggestions.

As for Steins;Gate, the series is licensed by FUNi and the Part 1 boxset is coming out soon. You should be able to watch the series on FUNi's site or Hulu or YouTube. I'm waiting for a complete boxset before buying it but I finished watching it about a month ago and it was immediately another favorite of mine.

But Code Geass is one where you'll have to buy (or borrow) as there are no legal streams of the series. The nice thing about it though is you can get both seasons on DVD for $30 each, which is a good price since it totals 50 episodes. Surprisingly, it is also the series I've seen the most times besides DBZ and Black Lagoon (another series and manga I highly suggest). Once I watch my R2 boxset I think the total will be 4 times.

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 7, 2012 at 6:18 a.m.

@DBZ_universe:

That's awesome, man. FMA, in any form, seems to be a bit of universal glue (at least from where I sit). It really does reach across genre and medium to convey a solid, character-driven story that you become invested in VERY quickly. I think that's the appeal, whether to current fans, lapsed viewers, or non-anime fans. If you like exciting and heartfelt stories, you're probably gonna be hooked.

@sotyfan16:

Yeah, I've heard the same thing about the anime - I think that's why I put off watching it for a bit. I really enjoyed the manga, but I wanted some distance so I could enjoy the anime objectively (not to mention letting myself forget a few things so I could potentially be surprised). The animation by Madhouse looks, unsurprisingly, stunning.

Definitely don't apologize for making recs! Truth is, like everyone else I have finite time and funds to devote, but I'm always looking for suggestions. The ones that really grab me, or are really impassioned, go to the top of the queue or wishlist. So keep 'em coming, just don't be insulted if I don't get to all of them for a while!

sotyfan16on Sept. 7, 2012 at 8:54 a.m.

@NickTapalansky:

Of course not. While most fans keep up with a couple shows each season I while away at about half of each season. I have (sadly) limited time as well so I still have not finished 2011 series.

I wish I could forget details of series, especially if I enjoy them. Comedies can be difficult to rewatch if you remember most everything said or that happens.

Funny that you mention Madhouse since sometimes the company does some poor work. But besides that, Black Lagoon, one I mentioned before, is also animated by Madhouse. In addition, the lead males in both series have the same voice actor in their dub versions.

DBZ_universeon Sept. 7, 2012 at 9:11 a.m.

@NickTapalansky: Yes i agree!! Also Edward is different from your typical protagonist who are selfish, arrogant, dumb, or that gets random power ups... no! Ed has great character development!! he is by far one of the best anime protagonist ever....

also this is one of my favorite scenes!!

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 7, 2012 at 9:42 a.m.

@sotyfan16:

It's funny, sometimes watching dubs, even good ones, is really hard for me because of the small pool of talent localization companies, like Funi, draw from for the leads. Someone might argue that Hollywood actors do the same thing, but there's a much larger pool and length of time between works for most. In anime, many American voice actors are insanely prolific by acting/performance standards. If I'm focused on a voice, I'm not focused on the story as much as I'd like to be, so in those cases, no matter how good the dub, I'll put on a sub instead if it's possible.

@DBZ_universe:

Exactly. You get some of that in the first series, but where FMA: B shines is in how well it translates Arakawa's character development onto the screen. Plus, every show I've seen animated by Studio BONES gets more and more beautiful than the last. I'm excited for their new one, ZETSUEN NO TEMPEST, just to look at the animation (thought I imagine it'll be a solid story, too).

sotyfan16on Sept. 7, 2012 at 10:15 a.m.

@NickTapalansky:

Granted. Anime VAs are prolific and are credited to a lot of shows. I wish more Hollywood talent would do anime roles so we could get some variation and possibly some better characterization.

If you get focused on voices then I doubt you would enjoy Afro Samurai since it has the voices of Ron Perlman, Samuel L Jackson, Kelly Hu, Lucy Liu, and some well-known anime talent. Other examples are Matthew Lillard in the Karas films and Keifer Sutherland in the Armitage movies.

It could be me but I'll pay attention to the voices long enough to decide whether I like them as the character and then move on. I could just be accustomed to quickly accepting the voice and watching for the story the rest of the time.

Even so, I suggest at least checking out the dubs of most any series you watch just to hear what it sounds like. I prefer watching dub for some simple reasons but especially so if I really like the voice cast and the series. Though sometimes I am disappointed in a dub (after first seeing a show in sub) and it takes a bit away from my enjoyment.

You don't seem to have much an issue with the whole Sub vs. Dub debate but essentially that is what it all comes down to. Personal preference my good man.

DBZ_universeon Sept. 7, 2012 at 6:26 p.m.

@NickTapalansky: Alright I'll check it out!!

NickTapalansky staff on Sept. 8, 2012 at 11:15 p.m.

@sotyfan16:

You know, hearing Hollywood voices in anime doesn't bother me. In fact, I thought Sam Jackson was the best part of AFRO SAMURAI next to the animation (the story was a distant last for me, despite liking the concept; I just never felt invested in the characters). The issue for me is when I go right from, say ROSARIO + VAMPIRE to BAKA AND TEST and hear the same voice coming from two pink-haired main characters. There are literally hundreds of other examples, but that one literally just happened to me so it's at the front of my brain.

I used to be hardcore "subs only" when possible because it was what I grew up watching once I realized the DiC dub of SAILOR MOON was an abomination of the original, despite my love for it. That was also around the time I wound up in Chinatown a lot with a bag full of bootleg fansubs, which meant I was watching tons of shows that wouldn't be localized for years. Being 12/13/14 at the time, it was a formative point in my development as a fan (not to mention a person) and I got really set in my ways. There were a few exceptions (the love it or hate it dub of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, for instance, which I'll watch subbed or dubbed) but, for the most part, I continued chasing subs even after I got back into anime again circa 2005/6.

There are, however, a lot of shows where I prefer and enjoy the dub. In fact, I think tons of Funi's localization work (and others, but they stand out to me) over the last five or more years has been stellar as far as acting quality. My hang-up on voice variety aside, we've come a looooong way from the dark days of the early 90's. VA quality back then was pretty touch and go (as was, of course, translation and editing, but that's a separate issue for another day). Today you can put on most any Funi release and enjoy it in English without rolling your eyes or laughing inappropriately. And that's AWESOME.

sotyfan16on Sept. 9, 2012 at 6:42 a.m.

@NickTapalansky:

The tough part about some VAs is they get typecasted as certain characters (though Chris Sabat's roles never disappoint me). But I found the Baka dub to be fine while the Rosario dub is pretty bad (one of FUNi's worst in recent years). What burns me is when VAs will not change their voice to suit different characters or are cast anyway when there are others would could do the voice and keep the character's personality.

I understand where you are coming from with growing up with subs. For me it was the opposite as I grew up with the DBZ, Tenchi, and Gundam dubs on Toonami. After a long break and coming back to anime I primarily watched dub shows until I found out I could watch new shows each week in sub. So while there are some series I'll watch the dub for, most series I've seen now I first saw in sub. I enjoy being able to compare.

I agree FUNi has done the best in recent time as there aren't many dubs from the company I don't like. However, I feel in the past year Sentai has been doing the better VA work.

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