- Genre: Action, supernatural, drama
- Episodes: 64
- Studio: Bones
Amestries is on the brink of revolution. Still licking its wounds from the bloody Ishval war, the nation maintains an unsteady peace with the neighbouring countries and the wide empire of Xing beyond the desert. At every turn, violence risks erupting, threatening once more the citizen of Central but the State Military is there to protect the people. At least, it should be. This is a story of power gone unchecked, of nations torn asunder, of unforgivable transgression. It’s a story of a brutal war, political manipulations and ancient magics. This is a story about two little boys trying to figure out how to live without their mother and forgive their father, and themselves. At times it can be almost painfully pretty.
You know how when everybody, everywhere tells you to watch something because it’s amazing and you’ll love it, a little part of you just wants to rebel and go meh, it was ok… You’re almost angry at yourself when you realize that 1 – everybody was right and you should have listened to them earlier and 2 – you’re super predictable and you just like what everybody else likes (it’s silly but don’t play, you’ve thought that!) Well what can I tell you: I’m basic, I really liked Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and I’m not even mad about it!
If you’re wondering why this post is titled Finally, it’s because it’s been sitting around in my drafts folder for years. I just had too much to say and could quite figure out how to say it. I eventually did a character study on Van Hohenheim which remains one of my favourite posts. If you’re interested you can read it here: Van Hohenheim and the beauty of the ordinary life. And I figured that’s what would be my review. Unfortunately, the completionist side of me really wants to get and actual series review on this site so I finally decided to get back to it. This might turn out to be a weird post. There are months and literal years between some of these paragraphs…
I’m sure that like me, you’ve all seen images of this show and have a pretty solid idea of what it looks like. I’m just going to add that the blunt crayon-like backgrounds where a fantastic touch that really added interesting visual elements.
It should be noted that FMA:B is not exactly a new show but despite this the animation is solid. There are some odd angles and very obvious loss in detail with distance and movement in the first half but a very noticeable animation boost at about the midway mark solves these issues, and a sustained if slower improvement in animation quality overall, makes the final confrontations a delight to look at. Personally, I found the first confrontation between Bradley and Greed(Ling), in Bradley’s home, to be downright breathtaking.
I even noticed touches of CG here and there but only barely because they were so perfectly integrated within the rest of the show. Something most contemporary offerings have yet to master. It may not be the most traditionally beautiful show visually but it’s quite striking and very interesting. The only real downside I could gripe about, if I had to, was that the colour range was repetitive and rather dull. They do play a bit with a recurring black, white and red palette, but that’s hardly innovative and quite frankly unlikely to be something you remember or even notice about this series.
We each have certain things we latch onto when it comes to production values. It took me a little while to realize it but sound design was truly wonderful. Not only in the way atmospheric sounds are carefully integrated to breathe life into scenes but also in the powerful way silence is used. The hustle and bustle of the big city are brought down to a hum in rural villages allowing the sounds of birds and wind to break through, then reduced even further in dessert scenes where you can actually hear the sand shift. When all sound is suddenly taken away in a few climactic moments, the impact is shattering. I actually let out a sigh when the silence was finally broken.
I’ve often heard the dub for FMA:B is fantastic. That may be so, I haven’t seen it. All I can say for sure is that the Japanese performances were phenomenal. Romi Park cannot get enough praise for her portrayal of Edward, and I have always been partial to casual delivery such as Mustang’s but as the show progressed it moved from a collection of great individual performances (and really all of them are very good) to an actual ensemble cast. The chemistry and interaction can clearly be heard when characters talk to each other. Emotional moments feel entirely real without the need to ham it up or raise voices. By far the best part of the production and one of the best ensemble performances I have seen.
Well look at that…we’re almost at 1000 words and I haven’t actually started the review proper. I’m sitting here wondering if I should split it up. If you guys are anything like me, you want to read a billion words on the subject but not necessarily in one sitting. Let’s just see how much I end up rambling on…
On the surface, FMA:B is a well-made action shonen type show. Our heroes have a clear quest, meet a number of allies along the way and have calculatingly more powerful enemies to defeat in order to reach their goal. Except…well except for a lot of things.
For one, the Elrich brothers, Edward and Alphonse, the above-mentioned heroes, are far from alone in their universe and everyone has their own problems and goals. The brothers’ story is just one thread in the tapestry, and their adventures often take a backseat to Mustang’s political Machinations, Ling’s ambitious quest, Scar’s hunt for revenge or even the overall schemes of the homunculi that don,t always have anything to do with them. Promotional art may have lead you to believe that this is a one protagonist story but it’s actually difficult to single out the main character.
For another, I’ve often heard Hunter x Hunter referred to as a deconstruction or a subversion of the genre namely for its surprisingly violent depictions. I’m not here to argue whether this is valid or not but if any of you have ever read about Hunter x Hunter, you’ve certainly come across this point. Well, why isn’t FMA:B treated the same? I mean this show is bloody and merciless. The amount of “innocent” bystanders that get mowed down during the course of this series is simply staggering. I’m not even going to go into little girls and dogs…
I mean you really know what you sign up for when you join the Amestries military and it’s not the retirement plan. This show is brutal and often unflinching.
Again, like many shows considered subversion of the genre, it offers very little in the way of more high ground. Pretty much all the characters here are deeply compromised, to the point that personifications of mortal sins become occasionally sympathetic.
And then of course there’s the symbolism. FMA:B is very well-paced. It moves swiftly and smoothly and really packs in the action. In fact, I might argue that it moves a bit too swiftly, gliding over some elements that deserved a bit more time. Everything is well explained and developed, it simply gets a little breathless at times. But despite all that action, you can’t really watch more than a couple of episodes without realizing that there’s much more than meets the eye. In a way, it’s something of a parable or really a collection of them.
Human beings are odd creatures. Our best qualities can often only be defined in the form of paradoxes /contradictions. It takes a lot of strength to admit and even embrace weakness, courage can only truly exist is the face of fear, conviction is meaningless unless questioned and tested and goodness can only be perceived when contrasted with evil. And this is what FMA tried to teach me.
Discovering the rest of these lessons, thinking them over for yourself. Taking those them and keeping them in your heart is probably one of the great joys of this show so I’m not going to ruin it all of it for you. I’m just going to ruin some!
Takes one to know one
The incredible women of FMA and Hiromu Arakawa’s impact
I remember instantly falling in love with Winry. Here was a girl who was a perfect foil and supporting character entirely her own person. Winry was never defined solely by her relationship with Edward and Alphonse. She’s an amazing mechanic whit her own ambitions and aspirations. The fact that she ends up waiting for the brothers to come home isn’t due to her helplessness but a tribute to her personal gentle strength.
Mustang is a layered and interesting character that brings a lot to this series, but of all his admirable accomplishments, the greatest one has to be securing the loyalty of a woman like Riza. A consummate professional and model soldier. She was able to retain her humanity through the horrors of war and come out the other end, a hero.
Izumi is a remarkable warrior and alchemist who happily identifies herself as a housewife and has chosen to make her husband her priority without ever losing herself. Even Lust manages to be a villainous personification of sexuality and yet manages to make her appearance the least interesting part of her character.
By the time Olivier Armstrong strode onto the screen I broke down, paused the episode and googled who exactly was this amazing author that was able to write strong women characters so well. You should probably know that I somehow went into FMA knowing pretty much nothing at all about the series beyond the title and character designs. And don,t get me started on madame Christmas.
It’s weird that I was both really surprised and not at all to find out the FMA was written by a woman. I mean we hear about this series all the time. Its enduring popularity is extensive, yet I almost never hear mention of the author and certainly never of her gender.
And that’s what’s perfect about it.
Riza, Winry, Oliver and Izumi aren’t fantastic female characters. They’re fantastic characters. They were written whit the idea that gender was simply another casual trait, like eye colour or height, rather than a defining one. None of them are at all interesting simply because they are women, no character in this show could ever be described as the girl. I really like that. Not necessarily on any huge feminist bandwagon or anything but because it makes for more interesting characters.
I could find very little about Arakawa’s personal life beyond the fact that she seems to work very very hard (going back to work days after giving birth) is fiercely guarded about her personal life (that going back to work story is the only one I know), went on to write Silver Spoons (great) and is currently working o The Heroic Legend of Arslan. From the way she writes, I’m going to assume she has her life pretty figured out.
Is Mustang from Xing?
Racial tension and politics in FMA
It no secret that diversity is rather sparse in anime. Hair colours vary way more than skin tones or general features and there’s little in the way of racial exploration beyond the occasional culture clash of throwing in a blonde westerner character for laughs or appeal.
I wouldn’t say FMA:B does that much better in way of highly visible representation but it does detail three very distinct races, each with their own cultures, histories and traits, without portraying anyone in particular as better or worse.
The citizens of Amestries all have a vaguely Germanic look to them (could be the uniforms..). They’re very Caucasian with varying hair colours but often blonde and wide-eyed. They seem to be what I will call of average height, with varying individuals of course. A country under the rule of a benevolent dictator, they are rebuilding after a hard-won military victory and looking to the future.
These are people who crave scientific and technological evolution. A civilization built on trade with a generally strong middle class and dwindling distinctions. Very reminiscent of post-war Europe. They are also heavily leaning to industrialization and taming their environments. Although the early scenes of Van Hohenheim place him in Xerxes which has a very different environment, he strangely still has the physical traits of the people of Amestries which is a little odd. Considering how careful the author is about a lot of details, this is not likely to be an oversight.
FMA features two other prominent nations that also happen to be very visually distinct. The Ishvalan are darker in complexion but with distinctive white hair and red eyes. By the time of the events of TMA, their nation has been decimated and the are a conquered ethnoreligious group the few remnants of which have either assimilated into Amestries’ society or are left bitterly awaiting ethnic extinction. From what we know, they were a deeply spiritual nation prone to adapt lifestyles allied with their natural environment instead of trying to change it. As a North American, this is an uncomfortably familiar image.
And then we have Xing. We never see the nation itself but the few characters from there all have the same typical eastern characteristics and even names. They are fair-skinned but with very dark hair and eyes. They have an emperor that governs over loosely allied clans which makes for a very culturally diverse nation. However, we do get the impression that they are not usually prone to travel as they seem more isolated than the other nations. Although they also have an interest in technology, especially explosives, they do seem to also blend in a lot of ritual and spiritual elements with their more technological innovations.
All of this is important because the wider backstory of Fullmetal Alchemist evolves all the political tension and personal strife between the nations as well as the in individuals. These differences in culture and tradition both serve as obstacles constantly tearing the characters apart and points of interest bringing them together. Even though people are highly fearful and in some cases very reasonably resentful of those who are not like them, it becomes quickly obvious that each is enriched by learning more about the other.
But the fact that the nations are not only different in ideology, politics and beliefs but also so clearly identifiable through physical features, matters a lot in this show. Quiet but deeply ingrained prejudice is a running theme that colours both the events and the characters. And this is why Mustang’s character design was always really interesting to me. A lot of his features are similar to those of citizens of Xing. The dark straight hair and dark narrow pointed eyes. He certainly isn’t the only character from Amestries with that general coloration but when you combine all the features, it does give the impression of a mix of the aesthetics. Now that has to be on purpose but it’s never addressed. And I found that just fascinating!
Sins of the Father
FMA’s unique interpretation of the 7 deadly sins and how casting them away removed Father from humanity
As far as allegories go, Father and the Homunculi are pretty on the nose. Not everything has to be subtle though. And that’s simply not where Fullmetal Alchemist’s strength lies. It’s a blunt series with obvious metaphors. What’s interesting is how those complex and deeply developed characters navigate this clearly established universe.
The antagonists are overwhelming! They are just grossly overpowered and almost incomprehensibly evil. It’s as if an ideological divide renders any type of true communication almost impossible. They exist to subjugate humanity. And yet, they are all deeply human characters.
I always found it odd that even though the homunculi are named after the deadly sins, they don’t particularly embody them. That’s very different from pretty much every other representation I’ve seen. Certainly, Lust is a beautiful woman how uses her power of seducti9on to get her way, but she really doesn’t seem more wanton than any other beautiful woman out there. Wrath is rather calm and understanding, he seems to hold no personal ill will towards anyone. He simply has a job to do. Envy is ultimately mostly lonely, and Pride is just scary. The only one I would have associated with their sin removed from context is Gluttony and that’s only because they made him literally eat everything.
That’s not to say that they don’t represent those sins in more subtle and insidious ways. In many regards, they inspire those emotions in others rather than experience it themselves. Greed offers power to unsuspecting victims whose bodies he takes up. Lust is aloof and noncommittal, she never really opens up about herself as such any relationship she has stayed surface level, ensuring her partners can only really care about one thing. Wrath is a military commander, guiding men into battle. I’m not entirely sure how to work for Pride in…
But the most intriguing of the bunch is Father himself. Or itself… We don’t see the actual evolution but the Dwarf in the Flask had a very different personality, didn’t… I’m just gonna say he. He was very much not human but he had a lot of human characteristics. He joked around, he longed from freedom, he seemed to crave companionship and formed an actual bond with Hohenheim. He was very human adjacent. Father is a hollow sort of evil. It’s difficult to tell if he even has any true desires left. It’s almost impossible to tell that the two entities are one and the same and we don’t know what led him to this evolution. Certainly, his lack of respect for life was always present but the dwarf had a connection with humanity that no longer exists. And I think it’s the personification of those sins that made the difference.
In a very symbolic way, you could see Father’s creation of the homunculi as shedding of his sins. Removing those base flaws of the flesh from himself. And yet, it also removed him from humanity in the process. It’s almost as if humanity is more about balance than perfection. About smoothing out our flaws with our graces, or turning them into positives. Using Lust as a stepping stone for Love and Greed as a tool for the benefit of others. It’s not about ridding ourselves of base instincts but taming them and salvaging them.
Yeah, it’s another pretty obvious message but Fullmetal Alchemist managed to weave through the story in a myriad of very subtle ways. In the background of events, through the evolution of minor characters, in the passing tragedies or victories of people dead before the start of the story.
Ok, so this isn’t really a review anymore. It’s a mish-mash of random impressions about a series I watched years ago. But what can I say, this story sticks with you! I could have written another 3k words about it.
Favourite character: Alphonse, I just found myself saying, wow Al is really awesome more and more…. also Oivierr cause the heart wants what it wants
What this anime taught me: The best of us grow from our sins
” You bring the alcohol, you bring the bad decisions”
Suggested drink: The Alchemist
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my original drinking game for this one because some of my old notebooks got destroyed. Fortunately, FMA is such a popular show that others have already created drinking games for it so I will redirect you to the one on TV Tropes!
There are several OPs and EDs throughout the series and everyone has their favourites. There’s certainly a case to be made for all of them and if you have a second, I suggest you google them. My favourite is the second ED. I caught myself singing it out loud in the hallway at work without realizing it. I still hum it now it then. It makes me feel a little fragile and very strong at the same time.