The 2nd Dimension

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Viewing Journal: Fullmetal Alchemist - Brotherhood (complete)

Series Overview
Watch It Now
DVD Info

Overall= A+
Story = A+
Video = A-
Audio = A-


Two brothers lose their mother to an incurable disease. With the power of "alchemy", they use taboo knowledge to resurrect her. The process fails, and as a toll for using this type of alchemy, the older brother, Edward Elric loses his left leg while the younger brother, Alphonse Elric loses his entire body. To save his brother, Edward sacrifices his right arm and is able to affix his brother's soul to a suit of armor. With the help of a family friend, Edward receives metal limbs - "automail" - to replace his lost ones. With that, Edward vows to search for the Philosopher's Stone to return the brothers to their original bodies, even if it means becoming a "State Alchemist", one who uses his/her alchemy for the military. (Source: ANN)

When I first heard that there was going to be a new Fullmetal Alchemist series I was extremely excited despite not knowing if it would be a sequel, a re-telling, or what. I liked the first series and expected this new one to be epic and awesome and one of the best anime of the year, if not of all time. And when I heard that Funimation would release each episode online only a week after it aired in Japan, I got even more pumped for its premiere. Needless to say that, with such high expectations, when I did finally watch the first episode I was thoroughly let down. I thought the story was silly, the animation wasn't as good as the original series, and overall it seemed trite and underwhelming. So for a while I didn't bother watching any additional episodes. Eventually I decided I would give the show another chance; and I'm glad I did because, as it turned out, my expectations were completely satisfied.

Now before I start the review, I want to go over how the episodes in this new series line up with the first series. Even if you have not seen the 2003/04 series, I think it's good to know because -- as I'll go into more detail about later -- the quality varies between the old and new material.

So episode one is a totally original story that does not show up in either the manga or the first anime series. Then episodes 2 through 13 are mostly comprised of material that was in the first anime, with some minor differences between the two (although it's been a while since I saw the first series so I'm fuzzy on exactly what parts were different). Then episode 14 is mostly new material, and all the episodes after that are completely new material -- with episode 27 being a recap episode. Altogether, the series has 64 episodes. Note that when I say "new material" I mean relative to the first anime. The "new material" actually sticks very closely to the story in the manga so it's not "original" material. Another interesting thing is that the manga was not complete when Studio BONES was animating the last part of the series. Hiromu Arakawa, the author of the manga, gave the animators her script for the manga's ending before it was published, and the animators based their storyboards off of that. So the last chapter of the manga and the last episodes of the anime were released at the same time. How cool is that?!

I mentioned that it's important to know how the episodes in this series match up with the first series because the biggest detriment to Brotherhood's success is the existence of that first FMA anime. The problem is that the story in the first thirteen episodes had already been told in the first series; so the writers have to get through that material as quickly as possible so people familiar with the story won't tune out, while keeping it comprehensible enough for viewers who are seeing it for the first time. In fact, a good amount of the criticism lobbed at Brotherhood is due to the fact that those episodes are basically a recap of the first series.

The problem is that, since it skims over the story so quickly for those 13 episodes, there is very little time to develop the characters and story for new audiences. It makes me wish that the first series didn't exist because maybe then maybe the animators would have given more time to building that first part of the series and the characters would have had more of a chance to grow on the audience giving the events that happen later more of an impact. The best example of this is with the death of a certain character (I won't say who, but if you are familiar with the story you know who I mean). That person's death ends up being a significant part of what motivates Col. Mustang to do some of the things he does. In this series, that certain character doesn't get nearly enough time to develop before dying, so Col. Mustang's reaction seems disproportionate. It's really a dilemma because the show is trying to find a happy medium for both old and new audiences, and as a result may disappoint both.

Of course, that raises the question, "If I have already seen the first series, do I even need to bother to watch those first 13 episodes." I'm not sure because I don't remember the first series all that much and don't remember if there were any significant differences. I guess the easy answer is to just watch them to at least get a refresher.

The one thing I will say though is that you can skip the first episode altogether whether you have seen the first series or not. That first episode really has no impact on the rest of the story and the events that take place are referenced maybe two times in passing during the rest of the show. I think that first episode was written for people who have already seen that first series because it throws you into the story without explaining the show's general premise and doesn't do anything in way of introducing characters . Plus the story in that episode is pretty lame and I would not want newcomers basing their impression of the whole series on that one episode. So, yeah, you can skip that first one and no harm will be done.

So if it's not obvious by now, I really like this series; but what exactly is it that makes it so good? That's hard to narrow down; but basically it has lot of great elements that all mesh together to make it compelling, exciting, and just plain fun to watch.

First of all, the story is based on an interesting concept: alchemy. The thing about alchemy that sets Brotherhood apart from other shows that have a similar idea is that alchemy looks a lot like magic, but it is actually -- according to the show -- based on science. So you have these characters doing these cool things like throwing fire or pulling spears out of the ground or made a concrete fist form out of a wall to punch the enemy and it all has a slight air of legitimacy because, hey, it's based on sound scientific principles. The other thing that distinguishes alchemy from magic is that it has limits. With magic you can pretty much do anything and your explanation is "it's magic". But much of what makes alchemy interesting is that, because it is based on certain principles, it has certain limitations; namely that nothing can be created without first giving something else up. So you can't do something like bring the dead back to life, at least not without drastic consequences. And this is what gives the show a large amount of it's drama because the characters WANT to do certain things, believing that alchemy and science are the answer; and when they can't do it or when they learn of the repercussions, they go through severe emotional stress.

The other thing about alchemy that makes it such an original piece of the story is conflict between the science of alchemy and religion. First, you have Ed, who is an athiest and believes that science can answer everything. Then there is the character Scar who is part of a religious race (a pretty blantant reference to Muslims) who -- against his religious principles -- uses the science of Alchemy to enact revenge for the eradication of his people. But getting back to Ed, what makes it really fascinating is that, despite not believing in God, he must achnowledge the existence of the soul. I like when shows develope the concept of the science of the soul (Evangelion was the other one) because it gives the show an epic feel. I said before that the science gives the fantastic events an element of legitimacy, and the same is true for the metaphysical elements. There is somewhere beyond the world where souls go, and that is exactly why Ed was able to save his brother Al in the beginning of the story. So this melding of science and religion give the show drama but also give it a larger-than-life feel and a supernatural mystery to it. It all comes together really well.

Of course, a good concept won't do you much good without following through with a good story. First of all, the mixture of action, drama, and humor balance each other out, without the sudden and awkward shifts in tone that were in the first series. But the one thing that this show has over the first series -- and most other anime for that matter -- is that it never deviates from its story. Other than than the first episode and one re-cap episode, there is no filler. Each episode builds upon the last through all 64 episodes in an epic storyline that ends in a satisfactory and well planned out conclusion. All the plot threads wrap up so nothing is left hanging. And throughout the entire story there are plot twists and revelations that keep the series unpredictable and full of dramatic surprises. Characters plot and strategize against each other, so you never quite know if the advantage someone has one minute will hold up the next minute. And the story moves at a very steady pace, without feeling either too rushed or too slow. A big way to see this is in the fact that the story doesn't just start killing off its characters in the last few episodes. Characters actually start getting knocked off relatively early in the series, and for a few of them you never know if they are truly dead.

And it really is the characters which catapult this show to the top of my fav list. Just about every character is worth watching and adds a new dimension to the story. What makes them worth watching is the fact that each one is complex and multi-layered to the point where even the bad guys have some respectable characteristics. For some characters, it's that they are one way on the outside, but another way at heart. The best example would be Major Armstrong from Fort Briggs who seems like a cold-hearted tough-as-nails military leader, but is also intensely devoted to protecting her men. But the characters tend to play their cards close to their chest and never fully reveal their intentions until the last minute meaning that the characters are all full of surprises. The homunculi in particular may not be hiding much in terms of personality -- except for maybe Wrath and Pride (and Pride is the best homunculus in my opinion) -- but are hiding some of their physical abilities and powers.

In addition to the multi-layered personalities is the fact that characters can change and mature over time. Ed and Al are the best example of this, and Al in particular. One big criticism of the first series was that Al never seemed much more than a motivation for his brother Ed. Al never seemed to do a lot on his own. He was always in awe of his brother but never became very independent. In this series, however, Al spends a good amount of time on his own, and as a result we not only get to see Al have a significant impact on the story, but we also see him mature and become strong and independent in his own right.

Even more than the characters themselves, it's their relationships that really give this show its dramatic kick. The characters' devotion to one another and their drive to follow through with that devotion makes for some of the most memorable scenes in the show. A lot of anime tries to pull off this same "value of friendship" theme, but FMA takes it greater, unexpected lengths giving it a hit-you-in-the-gut kind of impact and makes for some of seriously spine tingling and tear jerking moments. It pulls this off by staying true the the dramatic moments and maintaining the emotional intensity, but keeping a certain amount of the drama unspoken, subtle, and implicit. So the drama is intense, without being melodramatic. And when a scene is getting overly melodramatic, that's when the characters will recognize it with some sort of comedic reaction. So the comedy doesn't break the genuine drama, but does so with the melodrama.

So, the story and characters are great, but what about the animation? The funny thing about this show is that, in the beginning, the animation is okay, but I don't think it's as good as the first series. However, once you get past episode 14, the animation takes a giant leap. Maybe that's because up until then the animators were just trying to rush through it, or maybe it's because some of the scenes in those episodes demand great animation. The dynamics of the character movements and the shifting camera angles during the fight scenes really add to the excitement because it helps to maintain the pacing and flow of the action. But more than the fight scenes, I think the animation helps with dramatic scenes as well. That's because truly great animation will be able to capture the subtle shifts in facial expression and body posture that contain implicit emotions. And there are a few scenes that come to mind in FMA where this kind of dramatic animation really packs a punch. Whatever the case, the artwork and movement in the "new" episodes are solid, detailed, and fluid.

And much like the animation enhances the action and drama in each scene, the same is true for the music. The show does recycle the same score throughout the show, but that doesn't do anything to dull its impact. It really adds to the flow of the series and does a great job of pulling you into the moment. It all really comes together nicely.

I know that I've done nothing but praise this show, and I'm sure that there are plenty of flaws or things about it that won't be attractive to all audiences; but personally every episode -- especially after the first 14 -- were so satisfying and affecting that it's hard for me to look back and pick out those flaws. I think part of that is due to the fact that I was so let down by the first episode that my expectations went from extremely high to extremely low for all the later episodes. That combined with the fact that I had no idea what to expect in terms of the story made this show constantly surprising and defying my expectations. So given that, this glowing review may end up ruining the show for some people (assuming anyone reads it) since it will heighten their expectations. And I think that when people assume great things about something, they are more easily able to pick out the bad things -- even if they are not trying. But even so I'm just calling it like I see it. This is really the first show since I started watching anime where I was constantly anticipating and excited for new episodes week-to-week. And although the ending was completely satisfying, I was a little disappointed that I'd wouldn't have it to look forward to each week. And that's about the best review I can give: that it affected me enough for me to miss it when it was gone. Hopefully other people will have the same reaction, despite my rose-colored review.


A few final things to note that I think some people might be interested in. For one, there is going to be a movie version of Brotherhood. I assume (hope) that it is going to be a re-telling of the series but I'm not sure.

The other thing is that -- even though I've seen the entire show subtitled through Funimation's website, I'm also watching the dub on Adult Swim. And I noticed that Adult Swim does edit the show somewhat for time reasons I assume more than for content. In the original version of the later episodes (maybe like 16 and up?) there is an extra scene added between the end credits and the next-week-preview. But that extra scene is removed entirely from the Adult Swim version. That's disappointing because, while you can figure out what happened eventually, the scene did actually add something to the story. But anyway, just thought you'd like to know.


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