There are just a handful of times when an animated television series lives up to what the medium can do. Cowboy Bebop did it. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex did it. Macross did it. And though there are more, suffice it to say that another title should be added to these ranks: Fullmetal Alchemist. In its 51 episodes, we get humor, drama, horror, and pathos packaged together in a lovely combination that, while not for children despite its look, is among the best anime series ever created.
Edward and Alphonse Elric aren't exactly your typical brothers. The older Ed, a short fellow who's constantly picked on for his height, is missing an arm and a leg; the younger Al appears for all the world to be a suit of armor. On top of their odd appearance, they are alchemists par excellence. In their world, the law of equivalent exchange rules, and alchemists can use the materials around them to manipulate their environment. There's only one rule to alchemy: the dead cannot be brought back to life.
In a desperate attempt to break that rule, the brothers lost body and limbs to the void, and they are determined to get them back. How? They seek the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary gem that can supposedly get around the truth of equivalent exchange and could restore their original forms. But to find the stone, they will have to become a part of the military establishment...something that Edward takes as a necessary evil. As they take on strange homunculi and other alchemists determined to have the stone for themselves, they will discover the dark secrets of alchemy that will forever alter their lives and the lives of those they love.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a tasty package from start to finish. Though it is not as gorgeous, perhaps, as the very cream of the televised crop of anime, it always looks perfect for what it is supposed to be. Because the character designs are not hyper-realistic and the humor often exaggerates those designs, expecting it to look like Ghost in the Shell misses the point. The opening songs are loud and boisterous rock tunes that set the show's tone; I can't say the closing songs ever impressed me, but I'm not a fan of girly J-Pop. Though the score is not a standout, it effectively underscores the proceedings.
But what makes Fullmetal Alchemist a dramatic powerhouse is its ability to run the gambit of emotions in a single episode. There are often a few goofy moments in each segment, but they never feel out of place. When the time is right, though, the story can turn serious in an instant. The fact that Fullmetal Alchemist can pull off hysterical comedy and tragic pathos in a half-hour is astounding. Although it's often funny, this is not a program for children. Despite the cheerful tone, this sucker has dark, dark themes throughout, and it has some graphic violence that, when used for effect, hits like a prizefighter. Though the kids will have to wait for it, the concepts discussed are deeply moral and ethical, which makes the show even more powerful. Not only does Fullmetal Alchemist raise personal questions - for example, what lengths you would go to in order that a loved one might return from the dead - but it covers topics ranging from familial loyalty and military principles to religion, racism, and genocide. The humorous bits actually work to make the philosophical underpinnings palatable: I came in for a good story, laughed often, and got a lot more besides.
Fullmetal Alchemist starts out deceptively simple. At first, it appears that the audience is in for a simple journeyman show. However, over the course of the two seasons, the complexity of the whole becomes apparent. There are few chance meetings in this world; indeed, characters who show up in early episodes as part of episodic adventures often reappear in the concluding third of the series. At first, this seems confusing as characters the audience met twenty episodes back suddenly return; however, it adds a huge dimension of rewatchability as the pieces fit into place upon review. The layered nuances of Fullmetal Alchemist make it a joy to watch.
But you know what I like best about the show? The interplay between Edward and Al. The dub is absolutely superb, even better than the Japanese track, and through it I genuinely felt for these two throughout the show. In casting 12-year-old Aaron Dismuke for the role of Al, the crew made a brilliant choice. He brings the perfect feel of someone on the cusp of adolescence to the role, and he's utterly believable as a boy trapped in a suit of armor wanting just to be a happy youngster again. Meanwhile, veteran Vic Mignogna as Ed captures the fire of the determined yet hardened young man who has seen too much for his years. Although the original animation goes a long way to establishing the relationship between the two brothers, the English voice actors take it up a notch. And when things slow down a little after episode 26, which is the start of the second season of episodes, it's these two that kept me interested.
I also have to admit that the ending of the show is amazing. Over the course of three busy days, I watched the last 14 episodes, it was just that good. Although there is that little blip I mentioned that wasn't quite as engaging, the last section is rock solid. The only problem I would mention, and it's minor, is that the show does not end with episode 51. Although some plot threads are complete, the show finishes on what I can only call an interlude cliffhanger - no one is in real danger, but there are HUGE things to be resolved. The Fullmetal Alchemist movie, due out in the fall of 2006 in the U.S., will hopefully conclude things well. (Although it's available now illegally via Bit Torrent sources, I am showing restraint and willpower and waiting for FUNimation to get this film out...NOW.)
There's little else I can say about Fullmetal Alchemist other than wow. Though it is a cliché to say, it is an instant classic you will not regret adding to your collection if you appreciate great storytelling, compelling characters, and rich ethical discussion put together in an entertaining package.
Fullmetal Alchemist -- violence (some graphic), profanity, adult situations and concepts (but little to no sexuality) - A+