Saturday, January 21, 2012

Exfanding Review: Fullmetal Alchemist

A fair warning: Here be spoilers.

A few times this month I've referenced Fullmetal Alchemist, the anime series about two young boys in search of the Philosopher's Stone, the fabled red rock that will allow an alchemist to ignore the law of equivalent exchange: that you can only get as much as you put in. Ed and Al (whose names together form a clever anagram for "lead," the substance historical alchemists sought to transform into gold) aren't even tall enough to ride Space Mountain at Disney World when their mother dies, and with their father long gone, they do what any grade-school kids would do: use the sophisticated and forbidden alchemy practice of human transmutation to resurrect their dead mother.

There's only one catch: equivalent exchange. What's a fair trade for a human life? Ed finds out the hard way that it costs an arm and a leg, quite literally. Al loses his entire body, but is saved from total annihilation when, in desperation, his brother's alchemy anchors Al's soul to a nearby suit of armor. What do their sacrifices gain them? A horrific imitation of their mother that dies shortly after its creation.

Fast forward several years. The boys have realized their mistake; now they just want their real bodies back. Al remains a huge walking suit of armor. Ed now has mechanical replacement limbs, and still isn't tall enough to ride Space Mountain. So they set off on a quest for the mythical stone that can undo the damage without requiring two more limbs and another body to do it.

Along the way, they encounter others who have experimented with human transmutation, and others in search of the Philosopher's Stone. The interplay of motives and actions between characters makes for an intriguing series with plenty of plot twists, the characters are intriguing and memorable, and there's enough humor to keep the heavy subject matter from becoming too overwhelming. Still, with less than ten episodes to go until the end of the series, my enthusiasm for the show is gradually giving way to a sort of mild depression that I'm ready to shake off.

Characters continually go to disturbing lengths to achieve their goals, and unhappy events (and flashbacks to unhappy events) are commonplace--yet these aren't responsible for the gloom that's been setting in. I can appreciate that these characters and these situations make the story as engaging as it is; we could still have a good story without anyone ever blending their dog with their innocent daughter to create a new creature, but the psychological impact that anyone would ever do such a thing gives an incredible amount of depth to the story and the characters.

I think that's just it: I can handle the plot, but what's weighing on me most is what the plot is saying about the characters.

Look at any character who's after the Philosopher's Stone. Look at any character who's tried to bring back the dead. Though there are still a number of motives to be uncovered in these last few episodes, there's a recurring theme: these people cannot let go of the past.

I will be the first to admit that I live happily in the past--I play retro video games, I hold off on new technology until it's old, and I wax nostalgic about the joy and simplicity of days gone by. Yet I embrace the present, look forward to the future, and am not so firmly rooted in the past that I let it consume my every thought and action. The characters in Fullmetal Alchemist are driven to reclaim what was lost or what should have been, reliving the past until things turn out right.

The boy seeking the restoration of his lost limbs, despite being told repeatedly how beneficial his mechanical ones are...

The man who has devoted his life to avenging his dead brother and fallen people...

The husband who creates living puppets to remind him of his late wife...

The military officer whose ambition to move up in the ranks is fueled by his fear of being ordered to repeat his mistakes...

Even here, the principle of equivalent exchange applies: instead of building a future, these characters are using the present to fix the past. They're giving up one to focus on the other. It's sad to see the tragedy that has befallen these characters; it's depressing to see them dragging themselves backward when the only way for their wounds to truly heal is by moving forward.

I dig that I'm invested enough in these characters and their world for this to be making an impact on me. But it's time to move on. For as much as I enjoy the animation style, the action sequences, the characters, and the thought-provoking and humorous dialogue, it's time for someone to get what they want. No matter the resolution--happy, sad, or none at all--I'll take it. There's a handful of episodes left and plenty more anime out there I want to experience; gotta move out from under this cloud if I'm going to see it all.


Mr. E [PostApocolyptica] said...

The ending is... well... an ending.

I've occasionally voiced my displeasure at certain aspects of the first Fullmetal Alchemist animé, but I know that the ultimate conclusion, that 51st episode, is for you to enjoy on your own. No spoilers. Just patience.

I'll be sure to post something on TDR soon, recommending Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but that can wait.

Flashman85 said...

Mr. E: Just finished watching the series about two hours ago!

The ending was fairly satisfying to me, as there was resolution for pretty much all the characters who needed a resolution, though there are, of course, a few big questions still open. Though the plot twist about the gate was one that I could live without, but at least it was developed well enough that it wasn't some random WHAT!? moment that wrecked the ending.

Looking forward to Brotherhood at some point, though I think I'll be dabbling in some shorter, happier series for a while first.

Stephanie said...

Yeah, if you are depressed after the first FMA series, I would suggest holding off on Brotherhood for awhile. Brotherhood is definitely darker, but closer to the manga. Further, because the manga wasn't finished for the end of the first series, they had to make up some shit at the end there to compensate. My general opinion on Brotherhood so far (Alec and I are on episode 18 of 64) is that while it does compress some of the events of the first series into fewer episodes (because they are covering more ground in the whole of Brotherhood, while the first series added a lot more to fill space), the world is bigger and the relationships between some of the characters emphasized more. A good set of comparison reviews are available at The Escapist, since the first review (only of Part One of Brotherhood) is from someone who loved the first series, and the second is from someone who hasn't seen the first series but was slightly turned against it by media context. Anyway, I suggest you check both out here:

But, in the end, most definitely give Brotherhood a shot at some point.

Xan said...

As Steph said, we're working on Brotherhood which so far I like, to my surprise. I'll admit that my first impression of it was the merchandising which definitely made me think I wouldn't like it. The whole girl/dog thing skeeved me out so bad I had to take a week or so off from watching. My biggest complaint about the series so far is the same complaint that I have about a lot of anime and Japanese games, that being that the characters are so *&%$ing young! In this case I pretend that the brothers are actually around 18 or 19 because otherwise it breaks any sense of realism for me. Shao May I pretend doesn't even exist.

Mr. E [PostApocolyptica] said...

Xan: Yeah, the characters are pretty young. It makes sense, though: it deals with how people can overcome problems at any age, right?

Also, Shao/Xiao May/Mei is actually a panda. May/Mei Chang is the one you mean. I think.

I'm using alternative spellings as they differ from the Viz translation of the manga and the spellings from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Flashman85 said...

Whoa, comments!

Stephanie: I'm usually pretty anti-spoiler, but because I (presumably) already know a lot of what's going to happen in Brotherhood, I might just need to check that out. I enjoyed the series enough that I'd give Brotherhood a shot regardless of what the critics have said, though.

Xan: "To my surprise"? Is that because you didn't have high hopes for Brotherhood, or because of your reaction to the first series?

I do recall conversations about character age; what struck me about FMA was how drastically different Ed and Al seemed to be in terms of maturity, despite being only a year apart. Not that any one of the two was necessarily more mature--I think they both had their moments--but they really felt like they fluctuated about acting their age.

Mr. E: I agree that, under the right circumstances, you can overcome certain problems at any age (within reason; I'm not talking about Sir Babythar the Infant Dragonslayer). In an everyday context, though, any two kids pulled out of middle school and thrust into battle against trained alchemists and nightmare-inducing monsters wouldn't last past the opening credits.