Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode 1: Envoy from the East – ***
Part One: Backspositionbuilding
Here we get into the key advantage Brotherhood has over the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime: extended backstory and greater world-building. The start of this “season” (see my previous review) diverges strongly from the main plot of the other anime, fleshing out this series and its unique constraints. Of particular interest are the new characters May and Ling, and through them, expansion on the geography of the fantasy world.
I won’t say the exposition is especially fluid within the story, but Ed and Al’s talks with Ling reveal some of the lands around Amestris and foreshadows their influence on the plot. It isn’t particularly complex; Amestris is an analogue of central Europe, probably Germany, while Xing is a broad analogue for Southeast Asia (mainly China), separated from the west by a vast Middle Eastern-style desert where the ruins of an ancient civilization called Xerxes lie. Amestris is described as a military power intent on expanding outward into neighboring countries, bordered in the north by the massive country of Russia – er, Drachma.
We’re not told much about the international affairs in Xing, but Ling and May independently explain that it’s governed by an emperor currently in poor health. The emperor has many living children, each of whom controls a different extended family. The emperor delegates power to certain families, meaning they’re constantly infighting and looking to get into his good graces, now more than ever with him likely to pass on the title soon. Ling and May come from separate family branches and have both arrived in Amestris to look for a Philosopher’s Stone to give the emperor.
Aside from establishing the goals of these two new characters, each also introduces a new combat element. Ling has ninja body guards and May knows a magical counterpart to alchemy called alkehestry that’s based in healing.
Part Two: Ma Asian Peeps!
Most of the episode revolves around the new characters, who will become major players in the plot, more or less.
We start with May Chang and her obligatory cutesy animal companion, who meets (to some comic effect) Scar and Yoki. May explains alkehestry, noting that the tattoo Scar got from his brother that allows him to destroy things uses alkehestry as well. How alkehestry actually works is a little unclear, but it seems to be based on chi-based concepts, like acupuncture. A key difference between this new magic system and alchemy, aside from its medicinal function, is that it can be used at a distance with throwing knives. We don’t see a lot of alkehestry in this episode, and May is a fairly minor addition to the lineup, especially at this point in the story. Her immediate interest in Ed as a celebrity, while understandable, is also a bit weird. However, alkehestry and May’s familiarity with it is fairly significant for the base story.
While visiting Winry in Resembool, Ed and Al stumble upon another traveler from Xing — Ling Yao, and his body guards, Lan Fan and Fu. Ling and Ed exchange information about their respective countries, but when Ed feigns ignorance about the Philosopher’s Stone, Ling sics his bodyguards on them and two parallel fights ensue. The Elrics test and are tested by the ninjas’ strength and we witness a few cool alchemy scenes (Alphonse, thanks to the sudden revelation in the last episode, can now use alchemy without a transmutation circle). Ling eventually makes peace with the Elrics, explaining why he wants the Philosopher’s Stone, before peacing out and deciding to keep tabs on them.
As far as characters go, these two aren’t bad, though like the worldbuilding, they’re pretty simple. May is almost a chibi, designed to look adorable and child-like, and she has the high voice and tiny panda to complete this look. That’s fine. The panda’s a bit much and I’ve always found the trope of very young girls being obsessed with teenage or adult celebrities a bit unsettling, but the show introduces May as a reasonably complex character with her own independent motivations and personality. While her skill at alkehestry is her main asset for the other characters, it’s not the only thing that defines her.
Ling is played more for comedy, and I’m really torn on him because I can’t quite decide if he’s annoying in a fun way or just sort of an annoying way. It varies from scene to scene. Part of the problem with the moments where Ling is depicted as a freeloader and imbecile is that other scenes go out of their way to make this look like a facade. Ling schemes and has a delightful spooky voice that he brings out when things get serious, and that works quite well. I like the idea of Ling being untrustworthy and downplaying his skills so that he can use them to stab someone in the back if necessary. However, as the series goes on, it tries to make Ling sympathetic, disciplined, talented, charming, clever, and otherwise important, while still maintaining his duplicitous and lightly comic nature. That’s a lot to throw at one character, and I feel he becomes less well-defined as the series goes on. Lan Fan being smitten with him (because, I guess, she’s a girl) doesn’t help. But if it’s any consolation, I do really like Ling in this particular episode.
Part Three: Everyone Knows the Best Way to Make a Woman Angry is to Insult Her Boy
The plot of this episode is kind of all over the place. While the focus is mainly on introducing May and Ling, I’m not sure the episode quite knew how to most effectively go about doing that. May just kind of appears out of nowhere, and the coincidence of her and Ling arriving in Amestris, at the same time, with the same goal, completely independent of one another, is never addressed. Given that the series wasn’t split into seasons, I honestly have no idea why one of them wasn’t introduced sooner so that their introductions could be staggered.
Because of the exposition dumps necessary to explain why these characters are here and what alkehestry is, we need breaks for some more exciting things to happen. There is almost no transition between the exposition dumps and the action. Lan Fan and Fu fight the Elrics for almost no narrative reason, and then the fight ends just as quickly. Ling sneaking away mid-conversation like Batman is also odd, though I would argue Ed and Al deciding immediately afterward to go back to Central is even odder. Like, they’re not even going to look for him?
There are some contrivances here to get characters where they need to be.
The main fights — Ed versus Lan Fan and Alphonse versus Fu — are decently choreographed and animated, but they’re forgettable (ironic considering a rather significant part of one of them comes back later). As much as I like the little anime graphic of Ed realizing he’s lost his edge over Alphonse, Al learning to transmute without a circle comes effortlessly and makes him a bit overpowered. It’s not that this plot point couldn’t work, it’s that it’s too casual to feel as important as it should be. Ed discovering that he can transmute without a circle is a significant moment for him (more in the original anime, but still significant to his story here). The boys discovering Izumi can do the same is likewise important. But Alphonse? He just figures it out when some ninja attacks him. Honestly, I kind of wonder if the ninjas attacking the Elrics was mainly an excuse to show Al using circle-less transmutation. I’m sure they could have saved it as a turning point in a later battle, but instant gratification is nice too.
That said, Ed’s fight is the more tedious of the two. He pulls a few moves that are framed as clever, but I’m not entirely sure why. Ed’s fight with Greed was reasonably clever. Ed discovering that he can goad Lan Fan by insulting her boy crush is not clever, it’s just bad writing. She’s a trained ninja; her job is to be unflinching. Even if the story wants to present her as a trainee who has yet to manage her impulses, the way it goes about doing so is frankly a little sexist and cliched to boot.
That said, Winry’s moments in this episode are pure joy. Why couldn’t they have kept her relationship with the Elrics platonic?
Oh and there’s also a section where, back in Central, Mustang’s team finds, captures, and holds captive our dear old friend Barry the Butcher. The cinematography and buildup in this part is nice, but it’s too brief to go into detail in this review.