REVIEW: DVD Release: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood: Part One - Episodes 1-13

Series: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood: Part One - Episodes 1-13
Release date: 23rd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 325 mins
Director: Yasuhiro Irie
Starring: Rie Kugimiya, Romi Park, Iemasa Kayumi, Megumi Takamoto, Shinichiro Miki
Genre: Anime
Studio: Manga
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: Japan

The original Fullmetal Alchemist series was based on the characters and concepts of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga, but its divergence from the manga’s plot displeased some of fans. Despite this, the quality of FMA’s characters and animation earned it a wide fanbase and great popular success. The Brotherhood storyline goes back to the manga for its plot, so will its faithfulness to the original win it greater acclaim amongst FMA’s fans? This initial release, containing the first 13 episodes from a series of 64, gives us a chance to find out.

The story is set in a city state at war with itself, fret by civil discord, genocide and the sinister influence of a shadowy conspiracy. The predominant philosophy and science of the society is alchemy, the power to transmute matter into an alternative form.

Edward (the fullmetal alchemist of the title) and Alphonse Elric are two brothers, skilled in alchemy, who try to use their powers for forbidden ends – to restore human life following the death of their mother. The failed attempt has horrific consequences, causing Edward to lose two of his limbs, which are later replaced by prosthetic metal replicas, a form of technology known as automail. Even more catastrophically, Alphonse’s soul becomes detached from his body during the experiment and he’s only able to carry on any form of existence due to Edward’s skill in bonding Alphonse’s soul to a hollow suit of armour.

The story follows the brothers’ quest to track down the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which they believe will enable them to restore their human bodies. They are persuaded by a senior military officer, Colonel Mustang, to join the State Alchemist programme, which they hope will grant them access to privileged information that may help them succeed in their quest. However, all is not as it seems in the military ranks – destructive forces always seem one step ahead of the soldiers, and infiltration of the army by sinister forces seems the only rational explanation.

Edward and Alphonse need all the assistance they can get in this hostile and untrustworthy world. They travel to the city of Dublith, the home of their former teacher, Izumi Curtis, to ask her for guidance in their quest. But she is under watch by shadowy creatures from the underworld; a self-professed homunculus (artificially created human) named Greed, and his chimera cohorts, creatures created by synthesising human and animal forms. They capture Alphonse and demand to know the secrets of the process whereby his soul was bonded to his armour. Can Alphonse and Edward defeat their enemies and achieve their quest, without compromising their own integrity?

The series takes a somewhat headlong crash into the storyline in the initial episodes, presenting numerous characters without much back-story, who reiterate their catchphrases as if for a highlights show from the first series. This isn’t going to appeal much to anyone coming straight into the anime without knowledge of FMA, but the pace settles down after a few episodes.

One of the aspects that draws you into the anime is the strong characterisation. The different characters are defined by their own distinct personality traits, rather than just by physical appearance, and the high quality of the voice acting helps to bring this across. The personalities of Edward and Alphonse are fleshed out (in the metaphorical sense), and the gradual revelation of their tragic past gives depth to the portrayal of their relationship and their motives. While Edward displays, to some extent, the stock anime characteristic of being quick tempered and reactive, he is also wracked by guilt that he is responsible for Alphonse’s loss of his body, and is fiercely protective of him. Alphonse is more sensitive and vulnerable than Edward, so there is a touching discrepancy between his formidable physical appearance as a seven foot metal humanoid, and his inner childlike nature. The dangers of this unstable and divided society is mitigated for the brothers by their friendships with Winry Rockbell, a close childhood friend who is responsible for the manufacture and repair of Edward’s automail limbs, and with Maes Hughes, a garrulous but goodhearted military officer - a man whose loyalty and integrity place him in jeopardy. Edward has to learn that he can place his trust in these friendships, and that the world is not entirely hostile and treacherous.

The philosophy of alchemy lends the series its underlying values. Alchemy is governed by the law of equivalent exchange, which states that something cannot be created out of nothing, so something of equal value must be given in order to achieve transmutation. All gains have their consequent price. This is the reason that the brothers’ attempt to bring their mother back to life nearly results in their own destruction. You’re therefore aware, while wanting the brothers to achieve their quest, that any success may have unforeseen and darker consequences. This gives FMA: Brotherhood a more complex and ambiguous moral landscape than the standard good/evil dichotomy of other anime.

Despite the sombre underlying theme, and the occasional tinge of horror, the anime’s other very positive feature is its humour. Particularly prominent in later episodes, there is a witty use of mini animations or script appearing round a character’s head to depict thoughts or emotions. When Edward tells Winry that a pregnant lady is in labour, she mishears his “Baby’s coming!” as “Bay’s coming!”, and says, “but that’s a horse,” as a tiny chestnut pony canters over her head. When Edward’s teacher hugs her husband, tiny hearts emanate from their embrace and repeatedly hit Edward on the head. These unexpected, laugh out loud moments also serve as shorthand for explaining more about each character, and provide light relief from the more serious story arc

The fast-paced plotline, satisfyingly complete characterisation, clean animation and witty humour make viewing an enjoyably addictive experience, although viewers will gain more if they have either read the original manga or seen the preceding series. It should please the diehard FMA fanbase, and win over new fans who are prepared to persevere beyond the first few, slightly chaotic episodes. The recent announcement that approval has been given to develop Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood into a feature film will be further good news for fans. KR

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