Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Five: Rain of Sorrows – *
Part One: Scar in the Sewers
There isn’t much to say about this one, really. The serial killer from the last episode is rampaging around Central, picking off state alchemists with his own gruesome form of alchemy, and Colonel Hughes is tasked with tracking down the killer. Much of the episode focuses on Scar and tries to incorporate him more prominently into the plot.
Meanwhile in Liore, a character named Envy is using his shapeshifting abilities to assume the form of the late Father Cornello, teaming up with Lust and Gluttony to send the city into chaos. These are the homunculi — three of seven, as their names suggest, all of them named for the Seven Deadly Sins. We won’t learn what they’re called or anything much else about them until the end of the season, but we can recognize them as background villains pulling a lot of strings. They each seem to have unique abilities and tattoos of a winged ouroboros, which, along with their names, makes them easy to identify. Also of note, their abilities are distinct from alchemy, and make them out to be more like monsters than magic-users.
Ed and Alphonse, still grieving over the loss of Nina, encounter Scar in an ally and a fight ensues. This takes up a good chink of the episode, and while it’s designed to feel significant for the characters and exciting on its own, the fight doesn’t hold up especially well on subsequent viewings. It’s full of monologues and one-liners, and you can kind of tell that the budget was directed at more intense scenes in the season. Ed and Al have no real connection to Scar other than that he killed Nina and Tucker at the end of the previous episode. The story treats this as reason enough for a bitter encounter, but it doesn’t really follow either the personalities of the characters or the melodramatic sorrow of the previous episode. Ed and Al were angry at Tucker for his abusing Nina; Scar’s self-spouted worldview seems to be more of a drive for them to attack him than his actions or their vague relationship to him. And Scar handles them the way an action hero might deal with laundry, so I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t really care about stopping them either.
The episode culminates in Ed and Al’s armor being partially destroyed, preventing them from fighting back before they’re saved at the last minute by Colonel Mustang. The brothers have a moment that I suppose is meant to be emotional, but doesn’t really land for me, and then they head home for repairs.
Part Two: The Writing Is… Bad
The whole episode is pretty much the one fight, which itself isn’t new or interesting aside from perhaps Scar’s ruthlessness. He basically has one attack — he uses a tattooed arm that seems to have alchemical inscriptions, and anything he touches is destroyed. He’s something of a godless zealot, hell-bent on destroying alchemy, which he sees as an abomination, but without much in the way of guiding principles outside of guiltless murder. There’s the potential for more of a character with him, at least as far as action anime of this ilk is concerned, but it’s weak and heavily buried. For the most part, what you see with Scar is what you get.
I may sound like I’m being harsh on the story — which, yeah, I kind of am. This is a necessary scene in the short-run because the protagonists need to encounter Scar as a personal villain before he becomes redeemed. Establishing stakes — namely, Scar poses a real threat to Ed and Al — and laying the groundwork for him to become a sympathetic character make sense within the plot of the story. They’re just not delivered very effectively.
The dialogue is noticeably bad in this episode. Almost none of the characters speak like real humans, instead opting for overwriten lines about not being ready and needing to fight back. The story wants to present Ed in particular as apathetic in the wake of losing someone close to him. This fails on multiple fronts: first, because the boys barely got two scenes with Nina before she was turned into a chimera; second, because the episode doesn’t actually develop Ed’s feelings beyond him being sad one moment and more or less fixed the next; and third, because the prose is so fucking purple, even Roman emperors would think it gaudy.
There’s a rather long scene where Ed sits in the rain lamenting the cruelness of life to his brother, and the rain is mentioned as a direct metaphor for his sadness within the story. That isn’t deep. That’s what a teenage edgelord comes up with when they’ve read too much Poe.
The confrontation between the brothers and Scar has a similar quality to it. Little happens in the fight itself aside from general destruction, as that’s really Scar’s only attack ability, so to compensate, the episode runs a conversation through the whole piece. The text is riddled with literary cliches and remains largely unsubstantial. Scar doesn’t say anything that we couldn’t figure out in fewer lines, nor do Ed or Al. In fact, they often pause to reiterate what their actions say already. It’s this sort of condescending writing that tends to put people off of anime in general. To some extent, overexposition is a touchstone of the genre, but it doesn’t have to be this redundant or uninformative.
Part Three: An Introduction to the Central Characters (Not Those Ones, the Other Central Characters)
They don’t come up much in this episode, but because I may not have much time to discuss the military characters in the upcoming episodes, I’ll do so now. Amestris, the country in which Fullmetal Alchemist takes place, is a military state vaguely based on central-eastern Europe. It’s ruled by a Fuhrer King and has an extensive military presence in all areas of its governance, including the State Alchemists. State Alchemists have considerable free reign within the country, but still report to a commanding officer and can be drafted at a moment’s notice. We haven’t seen many of the state’s actions, but the show implies that Bradley is up to something. In this episode, we get a brief glimpse of that.
Ten years or so ago, a military officer shot a child in the eastern (read: Middle Eastern) state of Ishval, sparking a civil war. State Alchemists were brought in to exterminate the Ishvalans living there as a brutal move to end the war. As it turns out, Scar is an Ishvalan refugee, so his anger directed toward the State Alchemists is rooted in this genocide.
The person who relays this information is Ed’s commanding officer, Colonel Mustang, who specializes in, as his nickname (The Flame Alchemist) suggests, burning things. To some extent, Mustang is kind of just a strong man fan-pleaser (this is much more apparent in later episodes where he ends up shirtless in combat). However, as a character meant to please fans, he does his job, so end up one of the more fully-realized characters in the series. He seeks to eventually take over Bradley’s place as Fuhrer King, but has morals that keep him from cheating his way to the top. In later episodes, Mustang will be presented as keen and crafty. In this and most of the previous episodes, he’s presented as skilled and dangerous, but opt to overestimate his standing. There’s actually one pretty good joke in this episode where Mustang tries to engage with Scar, but the rain dampens his spark gloves, leaving him unable to use his main ability — a fact he pointedly forgets as he’s charging to meet Scar.
The one character who keeps him from getting killed in his second-in-command, Lieutenant Hawkeye. She’s not an alchemist, but she’s likewise capable and clever. Hawkeye is one of the more well-written female characters in the series, able to balance compassion, intuition, and discipline effectively based on the situation at hand. However, I don’t get the sense that the story really wants to have much to do with her. It tends to sexualize her, hold her ransom for the male characters to rescue, and tie all of her actions to her man in some way. She’s mainly there to be Mustang’s love interest and supporting not-wife, so she gets very little of her own story. When I think of the “strong female character” archetype — a woman who, on the surface looks independent, but doesn’t ever demonstrate that within the plot — I tend to think of characters like Hawkeye. I’m sure she could be an interesting character if the story gave her more leeway (her moments with her dog in this and the 2003 series give you a glimpse of what that might resemble), but as written, she falls into a lot of common pitfalls for hamstrung female characters.
Two other military characters of note are Major Armstrong and Lieutenant Colonel Hughes. Armstrong is a comic relief character who’s mainly there to flex his opulent muscles and occasionally participate in the battles. Everything about his affect is weird in some capacity, from his lack of a mouth and his one curl of hair to his way of speech and propensity to just muscle-burst out of his shirt. He’s fun. Not very relevant to the plot, but fun.
Hughes is slightly more involved in the plot. Like Hawkeye, he’s not an alchemist of any sort, but he does work for the military. He’s essentially Mustang’s other friend, but unlike Hawkeye, has little to no respect for Mustang. Hughes is also a comic relief character, apt to completely deteriorate into baby talk in adoration of his own child. He constantly pesters Mustang with baby photos and the like. Hughes has a more serious side as well, of course. He’s able to put two and two together and often comes across information before even Mustang and his crew get to it. However, despite the potential for this character, I find it kind of remarkable how little his character has come into the story by this point. He’s mainly defined by his incessant remarks about how cute his daughter is, which isn’t a bad trait for a comic relief character, but even that running joke comes in less frequently than tiffs about how short Ed is. We’ll talk a bit more about Hughes later.