Fullmetal Alchemist makes no sense. This might be a bold claim in a genre where enormous multicoloured explosions and spiritual laser beam fights happen almost every episode, but it’s true. Calling whatever the hell is going on in this series ‘alchemy’ is like saying Aquaman has the power of homeopathy, in that it might sort of work in a way if you pinch it a bit and squint. It was only when a bloke with a Waluigi moustache made chains, steel blocks with rivets in and fully functioning medieval cannons appear from the paving slabs on the floor by high fiving the ground did I give up trying to work out the rules and just attribute everything to Japanese writing.
This is the main issue I have with the series; it tries to explain in detail far too much of what happens without ever properly explaining it. This always seems to be an issue in shonen anime, where the ridiculous powers and fight scenes are the showpiece and everything else is window dressing, but most of the time it’s all so stupid they don’t even try. Everything in Bleach is half arsed away with ‘spiritual pressure’, Naruto uses what amounts to ninja demon magic and One Piece has the random power lottery of bullshit fruit that turned the main character into a rubber band Sagat with a stupid hat.
It doesn’t help when this already questionable pseudo-science is polished up with anime glitter and mixed with definitely fictional things like souls and Gateways of Truth, whatever those are. It’s like if Harry Potter decided to try and explain its spells using the periodic table and chemical reactions, then realised they couldn’t qualify some of the more wacky moments and just ignored them. It’s commendable and the series is certainly an awful lot more grounded than its peers, but when a liquid eggplant man with googly eye portals turns up unannounced it just seems like wasted effort.
It gets especially odd with the main villains, who are named after the seven deadly sins and have sort of equivalent personalities. I say sort of, as Envy never envies anything, Lust never desires anything and Pride has no real personality at all other than just being generically evil.
Similarly, their standard crazy anime powers don’t match up with their names and are only partially explained at best. Why does Greed have an unbreakable skin? Why does Lust have extendo fingers? And why can Pride attack using shadows with eyes and grins on them as if they’re blades, but only when there is specifically both light and shadow at the same time? Alchemy is desperately rationalised throughout while this stuff sort of just happens with nobody questioning it, with explanations notable by their absence. It’s inconsistent at best and distracting at worst.
However, if you can put all of that to one side, Fullmetal Alchemist is also completely brilliant. There is a massive world here filled to the brim with memorable characters, making the inevitable world ending anime apocalypse that bit more meaningful, even if does eventually devolve into Monsters Inc with a giant psychotic Mr Blobby by the end. Ignoring the weird nightmare fuel, the story touches on deep themes like humanity, sacrifice and morality, and every character is dripping with personality, even if that personality is akin to a toddler Hitler as with Pride.
The plot of Brotherhood begins with a catastrophic alchemical faux pas committed by two young brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, leaving one without a body and another with two limbs missing. The delimbed brother, Ed, transmutes his younger brothers soul into a suit of armour and together they set off on a journey to ‘get their bodies back’, despite one still having over 3/5s of his remaining. The story then expands rapidly into a country wide conspiracy centuries in the planning, with a group of seemingly immortal beings pulling the strings.
As you can imagine, it gets messy pretty quickly. The main beats of the story work well until the fever dream climax, but with so many flashbacks and subplots going on at once it’s surprising that it manages to keep it all together. Haphazard foreshadowing can be an issue, as one early episode shows the moral and practical difficulties of creating an intelligent chimera, an artificially created being that can understand and respond to humans. Despite the general message of this episode, intelligent chimeras are thrown in almost immediately after, including some fairly major characters. This is a fairly sizeable leap in logic to have to make, and being required to have almost full knowledge of an interpretation of half a sentence some thirty episodes ago to know what’s going on isn’t very helpful.
The characters in the story are genuinely brilliant, however. Brotherhood has one of the most believable set of characters in any TV series, let alone anime, and relationships such as those between Mustang and Hawkeye or Ed and Winry are as mature as it gets. There are an unnecessary amount of pointless side characters, like the afore mentioned chimera, but even they get time to develop personalities.
The characters also visibly age during the series, with a tiny Ed growing into CR7 in a Legolas wig towards the end while the female characters have time to, well, develop. When you’re sat alone in a darkened room watching an anime and find yourself saying out loud ‘Jesus Love, those have grown since you were last here’, it’s probably a good time to start re-evaluating your life.
So the story’s slightly wonky and the characters amazing, but what about the rest of it? Well the art’s pretty good. Everything is distinguishable, the animation is ridiculously fluid and the backgrounds are quite pretty in an abstract canvas kind of way, which makes for some really well done fight scenes. Some characters are notably overdesigned, such as those with pin-sharp strands of hair falling right down the middle of their face to their chin, but everyone else is relatively simple and recognisable.
The music’s pretty decent; the score being fully orchestrated and not terrible quality midi loops gives the strived-for epicness slightly more weight instead of feeling like Lord of the Rings playing through an Atari. The opening themes start with a bang and get steadily worse and worse for some reason, with the final one being some soft acoustic ballad. For a climax that involves omniscient entities, miniature suns and a giant purple morphsuit creature, it’s oddly out of place.
The English dub isn’t bad either. One scene in particular where a woman screams in agony while being burned alive is a standout moment, although reading that back I do sound like a complete sociopath.
Overall, Fullmetal Alchemist is absolutely nothing like what it initially tells you it’s about. It goes overboard trying to legitimise alchemy but seems to constantly break its own well reinforced rules without telling you. In trying to make sense it ends up making none at all. It is also absolutely one of the best character dramas I’ve ever seen, and has some of the most thrilling fights in the genre. If you plan on watching it, either switch off your brain from the start and go with anything they tell you or read the Wiki after it’s done. It’s epic, emotional, violent and leaves one hell of a lasting impression.