Zachary's 5 Favorite Anime Pt.4

Before I begin, we’ll pause to reflect on my mission statement and the three entries prior (which you can find here, here and here.)

Anyway, let’s do a quick recap: a subversive take on the magical girls genre is number 5. A subversive take on a toy marketing vehicle is number 4. And, lastly, an atmospheric space western is number 3. You ready for number 2? Good, because it’s Fullmetal Alchemist.

I should be clear that this is the 2003 show, not Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Qualms aside, I hate having to make the distinction; after all, one has the word “Brotherhood” attached to it! Isn’t that enough? I guess not, since fans still don’t get that they’re differently titled and, therefore, not the same.

Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, and their attempt to revive their dead mother using alchemy. Unfortunately, it backfires and nearly kills Alphonse. Edward attaches his brother’s soul to a suit of armour, but he loses an arm and a leg in the process. Desperate to reclaim their bodies, the two join the military in hopes of finding the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. But all isn’t what seems in the military, as the higher ups are harbouring dark secrets that are upsetting the delicate balance of the world.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the show looks great. It has those jerky limitations of early-2000 anime, and the budget isn’t as high as some of Studio BONES’s later endeavours. That much I won’t deny. But so much passion and detail went into the show that it overcomes that. Besides, if we don’t criticize the original Star Wars films for their limitations, then we shouldn’t fault Fullmetal Alchemist.

Perhaps one of the best aspects is its directing. Like Cowboy Bebop in the previous entry, Seiji Mizushima is an auteur, and the show looks unbelievably cinematic for a Shonen series. I’ll admit that some of the shots border on pretence, like the panorama swerve during Episode 49 that doesn’t serve any other point than showing off the mansion it takes place in, but it’s clear that he really cared and wanted everything to resonate. This is also prevalent in the show’s mood lighting and shading, such that everything about it is as polished as the camera shots. There’s no other way of saying it: Fullmetal Alchemist is really pretty.

That level of finesse extends to the score, composed by Michiru Ōshima. If Kanno is a more varied, experimental composer, than Ōshima is the more conventional one, although that’s not to slight her. Everything about Fullmetal Alchemist’s soundtrack, right down to its recurrence of the tune “Brothers”, is unique, varied ear candy. True, a lot of tunes are overused, but when a track is that good…does it really matter?

I also love how this show uses its cast. Fullmetal Alchemist has a ginormous roster of recurring characters, major and minor, such that it theoretically shouldn’t function. And, to be fair, it wouldn’t in a lesser series. But it does, so much that it’s actually amazing. Every character of relevance gets exactly the amount of screen time deserved, and absolutely none are wasted. You can argue if some aren’t given the end-fates that are warranted (see Colonel Archer), but that’s so minor that it’s almost nitpicking.

What’s even more impressive? Ed and Al never once feel shafted. The show frequently puts them on the back burner, but it never once forgets that this is their story. Additionally, every plot thread comes back to their journey to fix what they lost. In that sense, there’s a “big story, small story” feel to the 51 episodes that makes this subtle, heartfelt tale stand out from more conventional Shonen.

The fight scenes are also pretty great. They’re not mind-blowing, with one or two exceptions, but they’re weighty. You feel each strike, punch and attack as it happens, which, again, is uncommon for a standard Shonen. And, thanks to some clever direction, music and dialogue, they resonate. I can’t rank a list of favourites, but that doesn’t make them any less special.

I’ve heard complaints from die-hard fans of the Manga about this show departing from the source material, which can be rationalized with context. For one, Hiromu Arakawa gave the show her blessing, so the deviation complaint doesn’t hold weight outside of personal preference. And two, anime isn’t Manga. Adaptations should do what works for them, and if it means changing certain details, then by all means they should do so. Besides, the new content, right down to open-ended finale, works. I don’t care if you disagree, it makes sense.

Which isn’t to say this beautifully-written and executed series is flawless. For one, its use of Manga Iconography is distracting. It frequently clashes with the more refined animation of serious scenes, making it awkward. And besides, why must comedic animation be so over-stylized? Slapstick has limits before it becomes ugly, and Manga Iconography is often that limit. It doesn’t look good at all, essentially.

Secondly, the humour in the show is inconsistent. Some of the jokes, like when Gracia Hughes is giving birth, are fantastic and generate laughs every time. But, sadly, many don’t. This is especially true with the weird character quirks, all of which are forced attempts at levity. I don’t know about you, but Ed freaking out over his height was more embarrassing than funny!

Thirdly, Episode 10 is flat-out painful, as is Episode 37. Both are weird ideas meant to kill time, but each fails for a different reason. The former’s a dumb homage to the Lupin III franchise, introducing an unnecessary character and having its ending feel tacked on and pointless. And the latter, save one scene, is obnoxious and embarrassing, with pretty much all of its jokes falling flat. I get that the show needed slots to fill, but did it have to be these options?

Finally, one of the homunculi has a silly fate. I won’t say who it is, but every time I watch that part I’m left scratching my head. It’s the only part of the story that I actually consider inconclusive and ridiculous, as it achieves nothing and doesn’t even make sense. But I won’t ruin it, as you might end up disagreeing with me. Still, I would’ve chosen a different outcome.

That doesn’t change what Fullmetal Alchemist is: a fun, emotional and cleverly-written Shonen. It’s tight at 51 episodes, and it manages to do stuff with the genre I’d never thought possible. I give it a…

Join me next time as I reveal my all-time favourite anime series. Your key word this time is gravity. What does that mean? You’ll have to wait and see!


  1. Yeah, I kind of figured it'd be this one. I might not have seen it yet, but I know the premise and I've been learning your tastes over the past year.

    You know what, though? Between your editorials and the writing of the guy over at "The Anime Review", I think I've finally been convinced to try this one sooner rather than later. Not instantly [gotta finish "Last Exile" first] but a lot sooner than I'd originally intended.

    On a related note: I intend to watch it anyway regardless in order to make up my own mind, but would you be willing -without resorting to spoilers- to give your opinion on the follow-up movie, "Conqueror of Shamballa"?

    1. A lot of people hate it, but I enjoy it. It doesn't, however, need to be watched. The original show ended fine without it, it's simply ancillary material for if you're still itching for more...

    2. Okay, so its just one more little adventure with the characters after the end? I can roll with that. I'll go ahead and watch it after I've viewed the series. If Fullmetal Alchemist is truly as good as I've been given to understand, then an additional hundred plus minutes with the characters shouldn't be a bad thing.

    3. It is, and it isn't. In some respects, it's actually a continuation of the show set a few years after the ending. And while I definitely enjoyed it fine enough, I'm also in a minority. There's a reason the film's so polarizing amongst fans, just keep that in mind...

  2. Don't know if you're still checking comments here, but I may as well tell you that I've now seen all 51 episodes.

    This show isn't perfect. Its few attempts to address religion, for example, are a hotbed of misleading half-truths more often than not. Also, for all that they are well-crafted characters, I'm not at all certain how Lust and Sloth have much of anything to do with their respective vices. But there's a whole lot of good here, especially where the characters are concerned. Despite its occasional stumble or murky moment, and despite its occasional philosophical misstep, "Fullmetal Alchemist" managed to make me care about its characters from the beginning to the end. And not just the heroes, but the villains as well. You know a show has you hooked when you want to give an undead cannibal a big hug and tell him its going to be alright.

    Have I mentioned how great of a villain Pride is? Yeah. Pride is a great villain. Dante may be quite interesting on a thematic level, but Pride was so much fun to hate and root against.

    I'm not going to call myself an uncritical fan of this show. I think it did make some mistakes, a couple of them serious ones. But for all that I have my problems with it, I'm on the whole, a fan of this one. You didn't steer me wrong, Whitly. You didn't steer me wrong.

    Thank you so very much!

    P.S: Good or bad, I will watch the movie. I care enough about these characters that I'll gladly spend another couple of hours with them, no matter what I may wind up thinking of those two hours in the end.

    1. I'm glad you liked it. I too have problems with certain aspects of it, but the show's just too good. It's probably the best Shonen I've ever seen, and one that convinced that the genre doesn't always have to be the dumb, over-stuffed nonsense we so frequently see in the West.

      I'm glad you also liked Pride. He's really something...

    2. "I'm glad you also liked Pride. He's really something..."

      Dante makes sense on a narrative and thematic level, but I didn't find her especially interesting outside of what she represents. Like Colonel Muska in "Laputa", she serves her function and that's about it. The homunculi, on the other hand, are fascinating as characters in their own right, and not just for their role in the plot and themes. Its hard to pick favorites, but Pride and Gluttony arguably stand out in my mind. Gluttony is bizarrely adorable [dare I say "kawaii"? :p ]despite being so terrifying, and his breakdown over Lust's demise really did want to make me give him a hug. Pride, meanwhile- well, Dante may have been the one who set the agenda, but Pride was pulling a lot of the weight when it came to implementing it. I want to know more about this guy- especially what induced him to start a family. [Come to think of it, how much did his wife know?]

      "the dumb, over-stuffed nonsense we so frequently see in the West."

      I'm not necessarily against "dumb, overstuffed nonsense", keep in mind. I've been able to enjoy such things before. I simply recognize it as such when I watch it.

      Speaking of dumb, though...

      I just finished "The Conqueror of Shamballa". Alas, I fear I'll have to count myself in with the crowd of people who don't like it. I don't hate it outright, mind you. There are some good things in it. But its simply too flawed and unsatisfactory as a story conclusion. The fates of Honhenheim and the remaining homunculi are rushed and unsatisfactory, and feel as though they belong in an entirely different story. The plot is somewhat overstuffed, with the main villain ultimately being rather lifeless and hollow. And the ending is the most contrived and unconvincing "tragic separation" I've seen since the finale of "Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End". Seriously, how *would* Ed and Al close the gate on the other side if they didn't have any access to alchemy? I'm just not buying it at all.

      To be sure, I did get a kick out of the use of Nazis as the villains, if only because they're so much fun to root against on account of their being nothing remotely sympathetic about their ideology. [Seriously, almost any movie with Nazis as the bad guys is probably going to get a look from me, no matter how outrageous or far-fetched.] Insofar as they are involved so as to have their buts kicked by the heroes, the movie does manage to provide a measure of dumb fun.

      But on the whole, I just don't consider "The Conqueror of Shamballa" to be the conclusion/continuation that Fullmetal Alchemist either needed or deserved. I'm content to bracket it off as a "what if?" and come up with my own conclusions to the show's loose ends within my head.

    3. I definitely think Dante deserves more credit than she's given by fans (her human motivations tend to fly over the heads of most of her complainers), but I digress. The women in the show aren't as well fleshed-out as the men, that much is for sure.

      As for the movie? I did warn you that you might not like it, don't forget that. But while it's not necessary, I still enjoyed it for what it was: a chance to see Ed and Al again. It also gave fuller closure to Wrath, so there's that (though, admittedly, his ambiguous fate in the show was fine as is.) And while I don't entirely agree on your claim about making the villains Nazis alone is enough to root for their demise (if there's anything Inglourious Basterds taught me, it's that simply dressing people up as the enemy is meaningless when they don't act like it,) in this case it was a nice little parallel...

    4. "her human motivations tend to fly over the heads of most of her complainers"
      That's what was interesting about her. She just didn't strike me as being especially interesting outside of her goals is all. Which is not a problem in this case; she was a perfectly adequate villain for the show.

      "I did warn you that you might not like it, don't forget that. "
      Key word being "might". I wouldn't have known if I hadn't given it a fair chance. I wanted to give it a fair chance, and I did.

      "The women in the show aren't as well fleshed-out as the men, that much is for sure."
      True, but they weren't bad characters. Winry and Izumi stand out in particular.

      "I don't entirely agree on your claim about making the villains Nazis alone is enough to root for their demise"
      For the record, its primarily where B-movies and their ilk are concerned, as well as more high-end adventure tales a la Indiana Jones, that I find this to be the case. In something more ambitious, I expect more well-rounded, realistic characterization, Nazis or no.

      On that note, I do want to give "Conqueror of Shamballa credit for showcasing the Nazi party in the time period before they had become the ruling party which -to my knowledge- isn't often done in film. Between that and highlighting some of the post-WWI concerns that brought them popularity in the first place, the film did a decent job in its portrayal of them. Still doesn't make the finale with Nazi zombies [or whatever it was they turned into] any less pulpy, though.

    5. I guess. I haven't seen the movie in a while, I just remember enjoying it more than most "based on a show" anime films...


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