FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
For a very long time, anime has been enamored with telling the same story different ways. It's embodied in the "choose your own adventure" games that are wildly popular among Japanese otaku -- what choices result in you getting your dream girl, and what choices end with you getting one across the chops? The history of alternate timelines goes back at least as far as Space Battleship Yamato, where just because the titular vessel gets annihilated doesn't mean it won't come back for a repeat voyage next movie. Whether it's comedies like Tenchi Muyo, fantasies like Lodoss Wars, or sci-fi like Gundam, if you don't quite like the incarnation you're watching, wait long enough and somebody might just make a different one.
When an anime diverges from its beloved manga source material, often fans are left with nothing more than complaints...unless both the manga and anime are wildly successful, in which case sometimes you get a do-over. That's what happened with FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The original anime version of FullMetal Alchemist was incredibly popular, but since the manga was not finished during its run, the animation team had to come up with their own second half...and they did amazingly well, even though one could argue that it never reached a full-bodied conclusion. (It's one of the only animated television series I've ever given an A+, so that should tell you something.) But diehards really wanted to see mangaka Hiromu Arakawa's original vision come to life...and with such a popular franchise, I imagine it was a no-brainer. More FullMetal Alchemist is just like printing money...so who would object?
Unfortunately, FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is good, but woefully underwhelming in comparison to the original. I have no bone to pick with those who love it; I remember when I read a lot of manga, there were times I was disappointed at the anime versions of my own favorites. There is extra depth at times in this version, and I am truly happy to have a genuinely satisfying ending to the franchise, but I can't say I had anywhere near as much fun this time around.
In all its variations, FullMetal Alchemist stars with the Elric brothers. Edward and Alphonse are alchemists who attempted to do the one thing that is utterly verboten: human transmutation. In their attempt to resurrect their dead mother, Ed loses an arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, finding his soul attached to a suit of armor. While Ed is able to get auto-mail replacements for his missing limbs, Al's loss appears more permanent. Eventually, Ed becomes a state alchemist to further his search for a philosopher's stone, a legendary power source that could regain the boys their bodies.
But as they soon learn, finding a philosopher's stone will be the least of their worries. There are homunculi on the loose, strange and immensely powerful creatures that take human form. Not only are they incredibly dangerous, they have established themselves into the highest levels of government...and their plans may destroy the entire country of Amestris. If they weren't bad enough, Ed and Al also have to deal with the deadly Scar, a survivor of Amestris' war with nearby Ishval, and strangers from the distant land of Xing. With loyalties divided and uncertain who they can trust, Ed and Al can only rely on their long-time friend and auto-mail specialist Winry...and each other.
Brotherhood continues the high quality levels of the original FMA's production. While never at film or OVA levels, it reflects about the best you can expect from a long-running television series. There are no animation issues to draw you out of the show, and there's even a little creativity here and there where long fights include bits that look like animated manga. The music is uniformly good, though there's not a breakout hit like the original's OP theme "Ready Steady Go." I was concerned about the dub cast, especially since Aaron Dismuke, who did a bang-up job as Alphonse, grew up and no longer had the right voice for the part. However, after getting her sea legs, Maxey Whitehead acquits herself nicely in the role. The pieces for a great anime are all here.
[SPOILER ALERT: As comparisons are inevitable, those who want to go into either version unawares should skip to the END SPOILERS tag near the bottom.]
Some of those pieces are put to good use, and there were many facets of Brotherhood I really liked. First, many secondary characters have better dramatic arcs. This is most true of Winry, who was a glorified mechanic in a bra the first go-around. Here, she's fully realized, and her love for Edward is further developed (though not given the time it deserves). Other players such as Scar, Hohenheim and the homunculi get the same treatment. Add in the new characters that didn't even make an appearance in the first anime adaptation, and you've got a vastly different experience just wrapped up in the new faces and roles. If the first series was epic, this one is epic-plus, with stronger storylines for a variety of its participants.
Second, a legitimate, unambiguous ending is becoming a rarity in the anime world, and it's nice to get one on this version of the journey. I don't know anybody who was genuinely pleased with the wrap-up found in the first FMA movie, The Conqueror of Shamballa. Another film would make it possible to tie up the loose ends, but sadly, I don't think that particular timeline is going to get the conclusion it deserves. Here, almost everyone gets their final moment in the sun. It works, and the far future shown in the credits of the final episode made me smile.
And yet Brotherhood doesn't manage to pull it all together in the end. I believe that in their attempt to keep from being a retread, the production team on Brotherhood missed the key focus that made the first anime outing so meaningful and appealing to me. Simply put, the first time around, no matter how far afield the story got, it always came back to Ed and Al. Their love and dedication for each other was evident throughout. It was the emotional element of their story that enamored me. This time around, Ed and Al are important, but they get lost in the shuffle. Entire episodes occur without their appearance. In the ending salvo, there's a huge chunk where Al doesn't show up at all. And Ed's hotheadness, which factors into both versions, was tempered by his undying devotion to his brother in the first series. Here, Ed seems harsher, more of a jerk, more self-interested and altogether less interesting.
That last bit leads me into another frustration with Brotherhood...it is far darker, in my opinion. This normally doesn't bother me; I enjoy complex shows like Monster that are by no means sunny. But Brotherhood has (at least in the dub) considerably more profanity, mostly from the "good guys." Scenes with the homunculi at their worst are downright disturbing. The on-screen violence is far more gory, and near the conclusion, there are fountains of blood that seem from the school of Hokuto No Ken. But with all that said, the moral dilemmas seemed far stronger in the original. Here, the ethics involved play much less a role, taking a backseat to each individual's own story.
Ultimately, the show is missing a great deal of its source's heart. A key way that this can be seen is in the death of Maes Hughes. His murder was hugely important, a gamechanger, hitting at virtually the centerpoint of the first anime. In Brotherhood, his death is in episode 10, and it has little emotional impact. It diminishes the consequences of losing him. It seems that for every character who gets more of an arc in this version, a compelling character from the first version loses theirs.
But perhaps the thing that bothered me most was the pacing. The first 16 or so episodes cover the material that both series shared. I know the intent was to get moving quickly so that the carryover between the two would be over as quickly as possible. Yet these episodes are a gigantic slog to get through, which is surprising given their breakneck speed. I think a first-time viewer without any knowledge of FullMetal Alchemist would be totally lost or totally disinterested by the first fourth of the program.
Most viewers have given a pass to the first fourth to get to the new material, and I can appreciate that. But I also found the final third to be ridiculously bloated. The last 20 or so episodes literally all occur in the same day. It's virtually real-time, as if we were in a season of 24. And as those installments are almost all battle-oriented, the slugfest goes from exciting to meandering to "do we really have to watch them kill more zombies?" to "OK, now we're almost done." I got bored enough with the last section that I found myself not watching any other anime as I waited for each episode to be broadcast on Adult Swim. That's a real problem for an anime reviewer! And while I thought the new ending was nigh perfect, can you justify spending thirty hours of your life to get there?
With these issues, you might think I wouldn't recommend Brotherhood, yet that's not the case. Manga fans will eat this up, and most of the other reviews on the Internet suggest I'm in the minority in my view. Yet with that said, I don't suggest a newcomer start with this series; there's a very real possibility you won't like it, and you'd miss the original FMA, which I consider to be among the top television anime ever created. Instead, I suggest going into Brotherhood having watched the first adaptation, realizing that this is more of a companion, a "what if?" series that takes the show in new directions, adding certain layers and gives it a worthy finale, even though it skips blithely over some of the best parts of the first incarnation. Of course, most of my readers have probably devoured every last shred of FMA they could find, and I don't blame them. It is a fascinating concept, and I'll always be fond of the Elrics. I just wish that Brotherhood had been as dramatically compelling -- and fun -- as its previous counterpart.
FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood -- graphic violence, profanity, adult situations -- B-