Friday, July 29, 2011

Anime review: "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood"

It turned out this was one more of my false predictions, but I am very satisfied with it, because this version of "Fullmetal Alchemist" is one of the best anime I have stumbled on so . Definitely among first ten, at least!

Original FMA was one of the first anime I watched. It was impossible to avoid it at that time. Wherever I looked for recommendations, it was somewhere at the top. Also, comments were full of people discussing whether it was the best or only good. So I of course had to watch it. I quite liked it but I was one the side of those who deemed it only very good. It had some nice premise, good characters and was quite fun, but at that time I was watching only the greatest hits of that time ("Ghost in the Shell", "Berserk", "Cowboy Bebop", "Elfen Lied", "Claymore"...), it some somehow drowned in the mass of other good or great anime. I watched it, marked it as fine and moved on to another stuff completely releasing it out of my mind.

So, when couple of years ago they started releasing FMA:B, which was some alternate version of the same anime (or better said, different adaptation of the same manga) I wasn't exactly thrilled. My thoughts were somewhere on this track: "Oh no, another attempt to suck money with unoriginal idea. They probably just remastered old episodes, added some fillers and now are trying to sell it to new kids who were too young to watch the original". You know, the arrogant mindset of self-proclaimed connoisseur. Normally, I immediately decided not to watch it, since there are better, original anime for me to "waste" my time on.

But then I saw it won a really big bunch of awards. Also, I noticed it has a quite good rating on AniDB. Information that finally tipped me over was when I read somewhere that what I though was original FMA, was actually made much before original manga ended, so they had to make up the ending. On the other hand, FMA:B was supposed to be much closer to manga, which is always a plus in my book.

After I started watching it I was a bit disappointed because first few episodes are identical in regard to plot. Sure, animation is a bit modern and prettier, and characters looked a bit more serious and deeper, but these are not reasons good enough for me to re-watch 64 episodes. Then, were surfaced few details that confused me and made me unsure of my memory. Then, they introduced a few characters that I was pretty sure weren't present in FMA. And then, they went in completely different direction... Of course, by that time I was already hooked up and JUST COULDN'T STOP WATCHING... I think I watched some 30 episodes in two days; the rest I was forced to schedule more evenly on several more days.

"Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" features a very nicely setting. It is mostly based on first years of 20th century, somewhere around or after the First World War: guns are predominant, but soldiers still carry and use swords; there are many horses, but there are also cars. There are two distinguishing differences. The important one is the use of alchemy. It is in results similar to magic, but it is also based on science, it has many restrictions and it is not so widespread. The rules are not very strictly said and one could find inconsistencies if one would like, but it is nevertheless imagined so good that you don't feel the need to dismantle it; a perfectly guessed balance. The other thing is the use of automails, artificial metal prosthetic limbs, based on steampunk or something like that. Even though the anime could work perfectly without it, and I believe a reason for introducing it were either author personal preferences or desire to comply to bigger audience, it is also very nicely imagined and fits in plot and characters quite tightly. Setting is concentrated in land of Amestris, remotely based on that time Germany: led by Fuhrer President, militaristic and expansionistic.

The story is centered on two young alchemist, brothers Edward and Alphonse (15 and 13 years old, or something like that). After death of their mother from illness, being already abandoned by their father (who is at the beginning shown only as alchemist) they perform one of the greatest taboos of alchemy (also one of the hardest feats) and try to resurrect their mother. For that, they fail and meet the Truth; they are also punished, Edward with taking of his right arm, and Alphonse by taking of his whole body. Edward manages to bring back his brothers soul and affix to an empty armor suit, but they both suffer tremendously. When army learns about their exploits, it offers Edward to become a State Alchemist. Different to regular ones, they immediately receive a rank in army equal to colonel (I think), and more importantly, they have access to funds and extensive data for research; drawback is that they can be called to duty and forced to become human weapons during the war. Because of this they are called "dogs of military".

We join the Elric brothers during they search for Philosopher stone, a mythical substance that supposedly can help alchemist to ignore the laws of alchemy (like that one against raising of the dead or one that states they you can get something only for equal amount of matter/energy). It is only expected that not everybody would use this only for good purposes. And of course, it is an old maxim that power spoils the people... Through their adventure we are introduced to the army, which plays a bit part in politics of Amestris, to other alchemist, to the big enemy and so on. Plot is not a typical one-level, straightforward shounen story. The main story-line is from Edward's and Alphone's POV, but we have a large portions told from members of the army (Roy Mustang, Armstrong siblings, King Bradley...) and even from the "evil" side. There is of course lots of action and fighting, but this is not primary an action anime. I think that equal or even more importance was given to mystery, strategy and politics. I think that FMA had much more focus on action that it is the case for FMA:B. As I said, alchemy plays a great role, but more so on highest level, as plot device (ultimate ritual, sacrifice, etc.) that in everyday happenings. I think that there are lots of episode where alchemy doesn't even happen, or has no influence. It can be definitely said that I liked the plot: it was complex, consistent and quite surprising. This last statement is especially true if you watched FMA before; FMA:B takes you to a completely different direction and does it so in such a great way.

Third thing why this series is so good (other being the setting and plot) are the characters. There is quite large cast, but you won't have any troubles remembering who is who (although I must admit that I didn't even tried to remember the army ranking). Every character has depth and is very believable. I must especially emphasize the fact that even though the Elric brothers are main characters, not everything revolves around them. Other characters interact with them, but they also have their own agendas and don't wait for them at all. Also, not every other character's action is caused by them. For example, Roy Mustang (who is let's say in charge of Elric Brothers) actually interact with them only minimally in the run of show; he has its own plans and even though is willing to use them when they are available, you get the feeling that he would do thing even without them. All characters grow during the running of the show, which is always great. Especial compliments should go to the bad guys. They are pictured as regular flat bad-guys early at the beginning, but we spend much time with them and realize there is much more to them than only bluster and "evil". The destiny of Envy (one of most important bad guys) was one of the most emotional parts of whole series. They are also quite well and originally designed.

I could continue with complimenting it much longer, but I've been trying to give everything an objective review, so I should always mention flaws. Thankfully, there are no major ones, only a few minor. In my opinion, second part of the anime is a bit rushed. I haven't read manga so I don't know how closely did anime follow it (I read somewhere that it is very close), but I believe that additional 10 episodes would even more increase its quality. This is indirect praise, because it is not often that some anime can keep the same level of intrigue and interest for 64 episodes! Also, although I noticed it only later, in some episodes that ending song didn't mean that episode was finished so I missed some material (not much, but sometimes important). I also noticed that the author made all his female characters pretty and well endowed. It is not a real objection, just a remark that even with such a good anime the author or production staff felt they need additional (cheap) tricks to win audience.

Since I recently watched last episode of Harry Potter, I noticed several similar between these two. They are both pieces intended primary for younger audience, but enjoyable by adults with no problems. Harry Potter has magic, Fullmetal Alchemist has alchemy. Both have a large cast, and so on. Privately, I think that FMA:B is better that HP and I hope it will be at least as successful in anime as HP was in movies and books.

Well, to finish this review, I can only say that you should watch this great anime. Sure, there will be those who won't like it. There was an interesting poll on AniDB page for "Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood" with question "Best anime ever?". Although I don't believe that everybody would say yes (neither would I), but I think that majority of people would answer "No, but should be in top ten!". So watch it!

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