Sunday, May 24, 2009

TV Time: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

When I first heard about the new animated adaptation (watch it here) of Fullmetal Alchemist, I naturally hoped it would follow the events of the movie, Conqueror of Shamballa. When I learned that it would in fact be a clean reboot, and that furthermore, it would strictly follow the plot of the original comic book, I was a little concerned. Although the first animated series and the comic eventually diverged quite widely (the events of Shamballa would be impossible in the comic), most of the key plot points in the beginning were basically the same. I'm sure I wasn't alone in foreseeing scripting difficulties.

I originally intended to wait until the English dub came out before watching this new show, titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but when I learned of its easy availability on Hulu, I could not restrain myself. I thought the original English cast was excellent, and I hope everyone takes up their respective roles again, but of course the soul of the show was not in the dub. Having seen the first five (subtitled) episodes thus far, I thought I might write down some of my impressions (spoilers will be minor).

The show's basic premise is the same as before; the setting is a world, parallel to our own, where alchemy and the transmutation of elements is the dominant form of science, capable of producing dramatic changes in physical objects. Child prodigy Edward Elric (The "Fullmetal Alchemist") and his younger brother Alphonse are on a quest to discover the Philosopher's Stone, an alchemical artifact that can boost the power of their transmutations. They need it to restore their bodies to their original states: Edward's right arm and left leg are advanced mechanical prosthetics, while Alphonse has no body at all, his soul bonded to a hulking suit of armor. This is all the result of a failed attempt at a dangerous experiment; the brothers attempted to use alchemy to raise their mother from the dead. Partly as atonement, and partly to aid in the search for the stone, Edward has enlisted in the State Military as a certified alchemist, despite his young age (he receives his certification at the age of twelve; the bulk of the story takes place three years later).

The show surprised me in a number of ways from the beginning. Oddly, for a show that's supposed to follow the source material closely, the premiere episode is entirely invented. It's essentially a character introduction piece; we meet not only the Elric Brothers, but also various supporting characters (members of the State Military). The episode is heavily action-oriented, featuring a new villain (who finds himself dead before the credits roll) whose methods and motivation foreshadow one of the series' most important plot lines.

Like the first animated series (and again, unlike the original comic), this initial exposition is followed by an account of the death of the brothers' mother, and their tragic effort to restore her to life. Episode two might be called the Elrics' origin story, recounting the accident, Edward's recovery from the painful prosthetic surgery, and his certification as a State Alchemist. All of these events are depicted much the same way as in the comic, just much earlier on.

After this, the series changes gears, following the plot of the comic extremely faithfully. Excising two non-essential early chapters that did little to advance the plot, the show seems to be marching forward on an almost one-to-one basis with the comic. If that's indeed the case, then we've got a series with almost a hundred episodes on our hands (probably more).

While they're both quite entertaining, I found episodes one and two of Brotherhood to fit awkwardly in the show's narrative structure. The events of episode three, where Ed and Al depose a religious charlatan who deceives his followers with alchemy disguised as "miracles," are the first events of both the comic and the first animated series. The original story included the dramatic revelation of Edward's mechanical arm, as well as the brothers' troubled past. It's a very powerful scene, and it's preserved in Brotherhood. However, its emotional impact is greatly diluted by the first two episodes; even if Brotherhood is the viewer's first experience with the story, they will already know all about the arm and its origin. Starting the new series off with the same story as the other two might have seemed boring or predictable to the production team, but if you ask me, it would have made more sense in the larger scheme.

That said, episodes three, four, and five are fantastic adaptations. Brotherhood will likely dispense with the filler that plagued the first series' initial run; story wise, it's covered more plot in five episodes than the first series did in ten. There might be filler episodes in the future, but I think it would be a mistake to add them, given the wealth of material already available.

One thing that I think has improved from the first series is the visuals. The character designs have been simplified slightly, and seem to resemble the original comic book drawings more, although the resemblance to the first series is still very strong. What really impressed me, however, were the backgrounds, which oftentimes look almost like chalk drawings. Still, they manage to project a sense of realism.

I'm quite excited about the new series, but I have a strong sentimental attachment to the old one, and I'm a little concerned that it may be forgotten once Brotherhood has established itself. The comic book was always the superior version of the story (and I highly recommend it, even as companion reading with Brotherhood), balancing a dramatic story and memorable characters with exhilarating action and a (somewhat corny) sense of humor. But the first Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation was special too, subtly altering the original material and placing it (or perhaps transmuting it?) into a new context. The first Fullmetal series ran for 51 episodes, and while some of the changes made in the first half seemed arbitrary and pointless, they culminated in a significant alternative perspective by the series' end.

All three incarnations of Fullmetal Alchemist have a high degree of intelligence and heart. Brotherhood is an excellent adaptation, but it's a little disappointing to think that it won't be charting a new course, like its predecessor. However, there's still a great story to be told, and I can't wait to hear it again.


  1. Nice piece. I didn't know this was on Hulu, and I havn't read the manga. I think I'll buy the manga as I start to watch this.

  2. Just watched the first episode. I can't see a big difference between the character models between the two shows, although I did just re-watch the first season of the original series.

    Good stuff, I guess, and I'll be interested to watch the next few episodes. Good commentary--FMA is my favorite anime series precisely because it has so much soul.