Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the most (if not the most) popular manga/anime franchises of all time. Spanning across a successful manga, two TV series, and two movies, it has been watched by millions of people around the world and its name can be found in every must-watch anime list around the web. In this review, we’ll be having a look at the 2003 adaptation of the manga, a show that introduced many of us to the very fundamentals of anime culture.
Fullmetal Alchemist closely follows the adventures of the Elric brothers, Alphonse and Edward. As children and after their father’s inexplicable departure from their lives and their mother’s untimely death, being brilliant alchemy students, they attempt to bring their mother back from the dead by performing human transmutation, an alchemy taboo. Their unsuccessful attempt costs them Edward’s arm and leg, and all of Alphonse’s body, whose soul Edward manages to fixate in a piece of armour. The two of them decide to travel in order to acquire the philosopher’s stone, an amplifier that allows alchemists to break the most fundamental rule of alchemy: the rule of equivalent exchange, according to which, in order to acquire something, you need to sacrifice something of equal value. To aid their quest, Edward decides to join the military as a State Alchemist.
Plot & Story
Those who watched Fullmetal Alchemist as children have probably been exposed to some pretty messed-up scenes that take place in the show, involving the disturbing results of human potential when used without any ethics. A good example of that is Shou Tucker’s side story, possibly one of the most scarring moments in the history of anime. Yet, despite the very dark subject matter of the show, humour is a very crucial part of the story’s and the characters’ development, and one that helps not only balance the tone but also build empathy, rather than pity, with what the characters are going through. Edward, first and foremost, being the leading protagonist of the show, has a significantly flawed persona: he’s irritable, insecure, cheeky, and arrogant, with little regard to people’s view of him (apart from when they’re referring to his height, in which case he loses his mind). He has, however, a brilliant mind and a very strict moral code he abides by, and is willing to sacrifice himself for the ones he cares for. As the story progresses, he is constantly coming across challenges that make him doubt himself, but always overcomes them thanks to his skill and passion. The rest of the characters are following Edward’s behavioural patterns; even the most corrupt of them have something they believe in or someone they deeply care about. They do sometimes overreact to situations, which is of course directly related to the humorous side of the story, but also delays it and can be easily taken as filler time.
And speaking of fillers, yes there’s more than I’d like to see. They cannot possibly be compared to those of long-running anime shonen shows, but they do exist, and even if they are mostly side stories of characters that somehow communicate with the anime’s main theme, well, they’re still fillers. And fillers tend to suck. This is, I guess, an inevitable problem, since the writer of the original manga, Hiromu Arakawa, requested from Bones, the studio producing the anime, to create their own ending for the show, so that it won’t affect her working pace as she was progressing with the manga, and the writers had to come up with their own material to build the story.
Still, regardless of its small flaws, Fullmetal Alchemist has so much to offer to the anime community. Its quality of depth of characters, innovative entanglement of science and magic, and its themes of war, discrimination, political power, and death along with its cheerful disposition was (and still is!) a perfect introduction to the world of Japanese animation.
Art & Music
It is complex to objectively look at the quality of Fullmetal Alchemist’s animation in this day and age and carefully evaluate it without keeping in mind that the way anime is produced today is quite different to that of 2003. In spite of the slightly dull colors and mobility limitations the characters have, the animators still did a pretty great job: to be brutally frank, it’s even better than some contemporary animation out there. You can’t possibly expect the breathtaking action scenes of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood brought to the table six years later, but the production is still pretty good and can be watched even today without putting anyone off. Unless you’re ‘that type of person’, that is.
On the other hand, what I absolutely loved in Fullmetal Alchemist compared to its more recent counterpart, was the music. And I’m not talking about the opening and closing themes (I actually found all of them to be rather mediocre, something more relevant to Sonic the Hedgehog than to a story as extensive as this), but for the soundtrack playing throughout the episodes. Personal favourite –apart from the amazing ‘Bratja’- is ‘Butou’ (which by the way is a style of Japanese performative dance), that you will find in Episode 49, in the scene where Rose is dancing.
Oh, and Romi Park’s fucking great. Just putting this out there.
Themes & Trivia
Even though not clearly specified, the land where the Elric brothers exist is in a world similar to ours, where instead of science, alchemy has developed. The state in which they live in is very Germanic and probably influenced by pre-second World War Germany (very much like another anime that’s quite popular right now…). This is noticeable through the military form of the government, the large number of blonde characters and the overall architecture. Similar themes such as the genocide of the Ishbal people are also present. Even though somehow indirectly, Fullmetal Alchemist is a critique towards establishments such as totalitarian governments and religion (see the Lior story). As for the alchemy, Arakawa has mentioned she did some research on it but found it quite a complicated subject, yet it is somewhat loosely based on alchemists’ documentation thanks to that. She has also mentioned that she has been very influenced by the impact b-movies have on people and has attempted to incorporate that style in her work, in terms of giving it an ‘over the top flavour’, which could somehow explain how extravagant everything about Fullmetal Alchemist is.
In conclusion, I’d like to say it has been quite hard for me to rewatch Fullmetal Alchemist in order to write this review, which is proof that once you have watched Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it’s not that easy to appreciate its quite competent predecessor. There is more nostalgia to it than actual interest. The ending still feels a bit rushed (even though it’s continued in Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa). But I believe that it still has a lot to say, as a part of anime history. Last but not least: a bit of advice –even though you can probably read this all over the web- if you haven’t watched any of the shows, start with this one. Then it will only be a delight when you switch to the remake, and you would have watched as much Fullmetal Alchemist as possible without being biased.
- Good story even though it drifted away from the manga
- Hilarious moment balancing the tone
- Alex Louis Armstrong is <3
- Edward’s reactions when called small
- Envy’s overall bad-assery
- Hughes is also <3
- Superb music
- Winry. I’m sorry, I just can’t stand her. I usually love strong female characters, and she may be a great engineer but in this show she’s just an annoying sidekick to the Elrics. And the fanservice time she gets on both openings and closings just puts me off.
- Shou Tucker, just burn in hell.
- Strong reactions to unimportant things
Hope this review made you reminisce about your childhood, or even better, encouraged you to watch the ‘old’ Fullmetal Alchemist! If you already have, why not share your opinion with us in the comment section? See you soon for more reviews here on MANGA.TOKYO!
More otaku articles about Fullmetal Alchemist:
Fullmetal Alchemist: Differences Between the 1st Anime Season and the Manga
Introduction to Fullmetal Alchemist: A Manga With Two Different Anime Adaptations
Theo Anime Review