Beginner's Guide: Fullmetal Alchemist

Welcome to the Beginner's Guide, where I help you people new to this strange and terrifying old one known as anime find your way and avoid the more convoluted stuff. Last time, I talked about a recently airing mystery series, but I realize some of you out there don't feel like reading subtitles and could use something more fantastical then a show about people planning grisly murders with a mixture of bad jokes revolving around the main character being lazy and sleazy. I have just the thing for you, a modern classic most every anime fan I've ever met agrees is worthy of your attention. Well, depending which version you pick. Let me tell you about Fullmetal Alchemist...

Fullmetal Alchemist is the first major hit of the insanely talented manga writer and artist Hiromu Arakawa. Fun fact; she gave birth listening to the Pacific Rim soundtrack. I just thought that was important. She only has two widely known works to her name so far, but both of them are so insanely good that she's already considered one of the best modern talents in her given industry. Her first major work, Fullmetal Alchemist, was also one of the biggest western hits in anime and remains a huge fan favorite among all kinds of people and circles. The series was so good that it got two anime adaptations, because Studio Bones likes money and this series prints it.

As I mentioned earlier, FMA has multiple versions. There's the original manga, the first anime (commonly referred to as FMA 2003 for the year of release), and a second anime called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, made several years after the first anime. I know this sounds a bit confusing, but it's actually quite simple to understand. But before we get there, let me explain the common premise all these versions share.

The series follows Edward and Alphonse Elric, a short guy in a red coat and a big guy in a giant suit of armor. Or, at least that's what it seems at first. In truth, the two are alchemists who tried to resurrect their mother as children through the scientific arts, only for the process to backfire horrifically. The thing Ed and Al made was some sort of monstrosity so vile that every version avoids showing it in full, and it costs Al's body. However, Ed managed to attach Al's soul to a suit of armor, but it cost him an arm and a leg. Literally. Ed's missing limbs are replaced with automail replicas, and he wears gloves to hide this from people. Ed is a state alchemist now, a government man who does work for the central office, all in order to do further research to try and get his limbs and Al's body back. It's all about correcting a mistake for these two, but things are significantly more complicated than that. The two end up stumbling into government conspiracies, meet powerful fake humans called homunculus, and suffer countless hardships together as Ed's talent and Al's condition draw the attention of less than kind eyes.

The world of FMA is a sort of mix between steampunk fantasy and early-mid 1900s Europe. Technology allows trains, firearms, tanks and other such convinces, but the use of alchemy is widespread. Alchemy is treated as more of a science than magic here, with people able to turn certain things into new things, as long as they follow the rules of equivalent exchange, which states you can only get something worth the value of what you give. It's the mantra the Elric brothers live by, and the main thematic center of the franchise. After all, what exactly is the equal of a soul? What can you give to make a living being?

Each version also focuses heavily on the politics of this world. In particular, they focus on Mustang, Ed's superior, and Fuhrer King Bradley (yes, his first name really is King), the leader of Ed and Al's home country of Amestris. Mustang is a far more fascinating character than he initially appears, as he's a survivor of a horrible war, one where he committed some gut churning atrocities he's constantly trying to make right. Bradley ...well, he's practically a human shaped statue of spoilers, but he's always central to the series. You can probably tell by his title that the series is not exactly going to portray a good government, but each version makes things a bit more complicated than that. There's also the presence of Scar, a serial killer trying to hunt down any state alchemist he can find for their role in the near extinction of his people. The minute he appears in any version, it's a sign that things are about to get very, very grim.

Those homunculus I mentioned earlier are a group of seven working for their creator and the major villain, named after the seven deadly sins. The first three are Envy, Lust and Gluttony, a shapeshifter of unknown gender, a beautiful woman with the ability to shred most things apart with her bizarre growing nails, and a chubby looking round guy who eats anything. I really do mean anything. As in buildings. And people. They exist mostly to torment the Elrics and move along some sort of agenda by manipulating various other states in the series world and try to find powerful alchemists to work on the philosopher's stone. It's the ultimate goal of Ed and Al, the most powerful known item of alchemist lore, and it's always at the center of everything in every version.

The 2003 anime is interesting because of how much it divulges from the source material. Small plot points are changed from the manga, and by the halfway point, the series goes into a completely new story, helped planned out by Arakawa herself. Brotherhood, on the other hand, is a more faithful adaptation that tries too cram the events of the first half of the original anime within thirteen episodes so it can properly get to the manga material the first anime ignored in the favor of an original story. It's also significantly prettier and filled with more action and comedy. You really can't go wrong with any of the anime, but they each have their own flavors.

The 2003 version is my personal favorite. It has a lot more filler in it, but it's enjoyable filler that helps develop a few of the cast members. The pacing is much slower but also much more effective for the dramatic scenes. The show really lets major revelations stick there and breathe a little to let the full impact come out, and the turns it takes are much more thematically interesting. The new story introduces a new villain far more slimy than the regular "Father," causing the origins of the homunculus to change. It gives them far more of their own personality and a sense of complexity missing in the manga and Brotherhood, especially in Lust. Envy is the only character possibly simplified, but his/hers/its/???? back story has more impact in the story. The series is also INCREDIBLY dark here, especially when Ed returns to the town from the series' first arc. The series handling of the normally minor character Rose is downright amazing here. The ending revelations are also much more interesting, leaving a lot of thematic stuff there for the viewer to figure out instead of give a definite answer to the debate of equivalent exchange. However, all this comes at the cost of Mustang's role in the series made significantly smaller. Rose does balance this out a little, however, but to explain why spoils some major developments.

Brotherhood is a much better choice if you want something faster and more exciting. It has a much richer world then the 2003 series, introducing two other counties and a much more grand back story for the major villain. The tragic maturity and bleak but beautiful tone of 2003 is replaced with more adventure and dramatic setpieces. The homunculus are far less interesting here, except for Envy and this version of Wrath and Pride (Wrath, Pride and Sloth are all radically different characters in the 2003 anime), but they all make for powerful threats. Mustang's arc is given far more attention, as is everyone connected to him, and has a really fantastic payoff. There's also Kimblee, a minor villain who's treated as a creepy psychopath in the 2003 series. While he's effective there, the Brotherhood and manga version is much more interesting with his views on life and violence. He even gets a grand farewell by giving a huge screw you to another character. Louder is definitely the best way to describe this version, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Each version also got a movie. Conquer of Shamballa is a direct sequel to 2003's series, where the very premise is a massive spoiler. I really enjoyed it myself, but it does hand wave a few things to reach the points it wants to reach. It's gotten a strange amount of backlash from fans, but I'd recommend it. Brotherhood instead got The Sacred Star of Milos, which is more like a normal film based on a long running anime. It's essentially a filler plot that introduces a new country and a new conflict for Ed and Al to get wrapped up in, and it's solid for what it is.

All of the anime and films have been released in English, and the dubs are all fantastic. Brotherhood replaces a few actors, but it doesn't make a notable difference in quality. The one instantly noticeable constant is Vic Mignogna as Ed. His personality aside, Vic is a great voice actor who just nails Ed in every scene he's given. I honestly can't imagine another actor playing this character, the performance is just that iconic now. Travis Willingham also stands out as Mustang in both versions, especially in Brotherhood's final arc. So, not only is the English option out there, it's the preferred option. You can find the series from Funimation, and I highly recommend you buy a box set. Funi sells a few of their shows at discount prices at times, so look out for that.

If you're still interested in the series after all this, good news! There are several light novels and videogames based on the series out there, and it's actually pretty good stuff (for the most part). Seven light novels have been produced that tell side stories in the series, five available in English. I happen to have three of them and can give a solid thumbs up. They're very blunt pieces of literature, but entertaining. The first one, Land of Sand, strangely has a near identical plot to one of the 2003 series' arcs, removing the homunculus and working in a new criminal mastermind. It's definitely worth the read, despite it being a story you've heard once before. There are also a few videogames based on the series, most not particularly memorable or without proper translation, but two made by Square-Enix stand out. Titled The Broken Angel and Curse of the Crimson Elixir, these two games have their own original stories and use an action/RPG system. Broken Angel received average scores on release, and it's a bit clunky, but Crimson Elixir worked out a lot of the kinks. Consider these if you really get into the series.

FMA is a series you just can't go wrong with, no matter which version you pick. It's brilliantly written with complex characters and fascinating ideas, mixed together with a good sense of humor and excitement. With two different versions out there to try in terms of anime, there's a version for everyone. I can't recommend this one enough for just about any possible audience.


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