Welcome to the very first 3P Review. A bit of history, I started this review series years ago, and made the horrible mistake of choosing to write about every single episode of an anime with 60+ episodes that I had lukewarm feelings about. I actually got to about Episode 60 and then just stopped entirely for reasons I can’t remember, but which I assume were entirely justified. Anyway, I’ve decided to go back through and update the review and make it, you know, readable.
I have never been a huge fan of anime, though I have enough of a passing familiarity with it that I can recognize the common hallmarks and ticks of the genre. I know this particular series is sort of the Harry Potter of anime, that some consider it to be one of the best, some consider it to be good but pedestrian, and even people who don’t like anime often like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The bottom line is, I don’t know any anime fans who actively hate it, and I know quite a few anime fans.
So, is it sacrilegious to say that I like the earlier anime more than this one?
Yeah, probably. I initially thought this series was a sequel to the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist on the basis of its title and its first episode. They were both on Netflix at the time and I was a baby to anime then, so I panicked and went with the older one first. I liked it, though I didn’t manage to get my hands on the film that concludes the narrative, so it ended up having an oddly unresolved ending for me.
To brief the uninitiated, Fullmetal Alchemist was an anime that aired in the middle of the manga’s run and eventually caught up to its source material, a la Game of Thrones. This is not uncommon for animes, as the novels they’re based on tend to show less story progression per chapter than a television series can show per episode, and the time needed to produce a high-quality original manga chapter is comparable to or greater than the time television studios usually spend on individual episodes of a show. Television productions often have larger budgets and far more people working on them than comics and manga. It’s almost universally more efficient for a television studio to pad a season of a popular series while waiting for the source material to catch up, or else veer in a different direction entirely, than it is to keep the show true to the original narrative as it comes out if the two are running parallel to one another.
Fullmetal Alchemist is actually a pretty good illustration of two of the major philosophies of adaptation, with the first show veering away from the manga in rather significant ways after its first ten episodes or so, while Brotherhood follows the now-finished manga rather closely (or so I’ve been told — I’ve not actually read it myself). Coming into the series with no preconceived notions as I did, I connected with the original anime and found the divergence in the latter portion of Brotherhood — especially the ending — to be less fulfilling. I’m sure primacy bias plays a role in that perspective, and rewatching the two, the original anime clearly has problems with its delivery of certain characters and plot points that play a bigger role in Brotherhood. Its lack of a complete ending attached to the series is another major problem. I won’t be comparing the two much in this review series, but that background is somewhat important in understanding my particular take. For instance, I much prefer the origins of the Homunculi in the original anime, as well as their deaths, and also the more sinister nature of the main characters’ father. Greed, of course, is much more fleshed-out figure in Brotherhood, and the original is lesser for its omission of Olivier Armstrong. However, I think it’s worth keeping in mind the merits of both series, as Brotherhood is far from flawless, and I think that a more perfect series lies between this series and the older one.
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Episode One: Fullmetal Alchemist – ***
Part One: Start with a Bang
The first thing the show has to do is establish its premise. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist is a sprawling fantasy landscape with multiple major cities, a host of characters, and a complex magic system. The first episode is set in medias res, with the two protagonists already in Central City (the creatively-named capital of the main country) and the titular character already an experienced alchemist.
In a nutshell, a former State Alchemist with ice-based powers has broken out of prison and is running amok in the city. Teenagers Edward Elric, the titular Fullmetal Alchemist, and his younger (but physically larger) brother, Alphonse, try to chase down the escaped alchemist. Other alchemists try to confront the episode’s villain, but they all sequentially fail. We learn that the magic system of the series requires elaborate circles, called transmutation circles, to be drawn in order to perform spells, but Ed appears to be able to use alchemy without these circles. Ed reports back to his superior officer, Colonel Mustang, and they discover that the escaped alchemist is trying to create a giant transmutation circle out of ice in order to freeze the whole city. Ed and Al confront the man again, where he discovers that two of Ed’s limbs are mechanical and the metal armor Al wears is actually his body. The villain declares that they’ve committed the sin of human transmutation, then the three of them fight. Eventually, the leader of the country, Fuhrer King Bradley, intervenes and kills the episode’s villain himself.
By my count, there are eight protagonists and four antagonists introduced in this episode alone, all of whom need their basic personalities and roles set up so the audience can keep track of them. Only one of them is non-recurring. That’s a lot to ask of a twenty-minute episode. As a result, most of the characters only get a few moments, and to someone completely new to the series, only the main characters, the villain, and Fuhrer King Bradley are likely to stick out much. Colonel Mustang might be memorable, as he’s set up as the main character’s boss. The important elements are clear, though: Ed and Al are child prodigies with a dark past, and Fuhrer King Bradley is probably not as gentle and carefree as he seems.
Aside from characters, the show naturally wants to demonstrate its main gimmick — alchemy — and get straight to its (relatively) high-budget animation. It does a decent job of setting up the magic system’s requirements and general functions, with the idea that alchemy not only requires transmutation circles, but also changes the elements within those circles to re-shape or re-form them as the user pleases. It bears only a superficial similarity to the pseudo-science of historical alchemists whose quest for centuries was mainly to get gold from lead, but it’s a clean magic system overall. The magic system is trussed up to allow for more action, but the restriction of characters having to draw specific transmutation circles to accomplish specific tasks is a nice restriction. Many of the characters use tattoos or clothing with printed transmutation circles so that they can cast spells on the fly. Ed’s exception doesn’t seem to make him overpowered, but rather makes him versatile. The episodes to come will prove whether Ed’s backstory is sufficient to overcome the potential risk of making him impervious to one of the main rules of the magic system.
Part Two: Origins
The episode ends up feeling a bit rushed because it has to backfill context while the characters are engaged in the high-stakes focus of the episode. Overall, I think it manages its task pretty well, getting to the action and intrigue quickly so that it can slow down and divulge the protagonists’ backstory and the other characters’ roles in the next few episodes. It strikes me as a series that’s kind of relying on its audience knowing something about the characters and world prior to going in, either because they’ve seen the older series or read the manga, or they’ve been told about it by their friends. The short length of anime episodes means that misunderstanding the first episode isn’t a big deal. Anything that’s confusing now will be explained later.
However, I think this attitude poses a bit of a problem to newcomers. As I mentioned, I initially thought this was a sequel series and that I ought to watch the original anime first. Looking back, I don’t think that’s an oversight on my part; the episode is very dense and treats its characters with immediate familiarity more befitting a sequel than a pilot. Several of the upcoming villains get ominous introductions, and the protagonists get a lovely establishing shot to emphasize them as important, but all of the other characters are just sort of thrown into the story like they’re picking up from a previous season. Framing is important, especially if you have a lot of other series you’d like to get to and are just trying out the first episode to see where it goes.
The density of information in the episode means that some things are bound to be lost in the shuffle. The side characters being handled with all the delicacy of a brick isn’t ruinous, but it does make it difficult to assess which characters will become important later. The over-exposited and vague backstories of the protagonists that falls in the middle of the episode is less forgivable. The other series didn’t really handle the mid-action reveal of the protagonists’ missing body parts all that well either, but it didn’t matter as much there because the series opened with a brief snippet of a flashback to that event. We see the lead-in to them committing human transmutation, and something going horribly wrong, and that’s enough to make us wonder how they got from Point A to Point B. When the revelation does come around, it has setup. In Brotherhood, the backstory fumbles in this first episode, and that has ramifications for the backstory later.
Part Three: The Good and the Bad
Overall, it’s not a bad episode. It struggles a bit as an opening, but it does establish the tone and focus of the series rather quickly. It’s colorful and light-hearted at times, but it isn’t afraid to show a little blood where appropriate. Literally; there’s one scene where a character uses his own blood as a projectile, an eerie but clever bit of animation that works well, and very much sets the way the series approaches gore: use it sparingly, and if possible, as a weapon!
While the events of this episode aren’t really important, I do like how the show uses them to foreshadow the main plot of the series. If retooled, it could easily have been an early action episode. I don’t know whether it was invented for Brotherhood in particular, but I get the feeling it may have originally been intended as an early independent adventure episode like the next few to follow.
The characters all feel appropriate to their personalities portrayed over the course of the rest of the series. Presenting Bradley so early as a suspicious figure was probably not the smartest move, but I like the introductions to the other upcoming antagonists, especially Kimbley. On the protagonists’ side, Mustang is great – he gets to flaunt his skills and shows some amusing interactions with the other officers. Armstrong is a bit confusing, to be honest, mainly for his tendency to remove his shirt without explanation, but as we will soon realize, that’s just Armstrong. Ed and Alphonse are well-defined, charismatic, and interact like brothers, though they do feel a bit flat on the whole.
I could stand fewer bad jokes about Ed’s height (considering this is only the first episode), and there are plenty of other moments that are too repetitive for my liking. Popular animes aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, and this episode has plenty of anime-isms that will either delight or grate. The military talk is both vague and overused, and contributes to the expositional problems throughout the episode. However, these issues do diminish as the series progresses, so that’s something at least. I mean, not the short jokes. Those will die after the sun itself goes out. But the series can manage subtlety at times. Honest.
As an aside, I’d also like to note how effective the opening sequence is, even though it’s not technically a part of the episode. It tells the story in just a few seconds, with fitting music and gorgeous animation that paints the somber but active tone of the story. It isn’t too melodramatic or chaotic, as many opening sequences in animes tend to be, and manages to introduce the characters and backstory almost more efficiently than the series itself. This show has a surprising number of good opening sequences.