While writing this review, Judge Joel Pearce learned how to transmute snapper cases into AOL CDs, which is a slight improvement.
Our reviews of Fullmetal Alchemist: Equivalent Exchange (Volume 3) (published July 28th, 2005) and Fullmetal Alchemist: Premium OVA Collection (published August 19th, 2009) are also available.
Humankind cannot gain anything without giving something in return.
Fullmetal Alchemist has gained a lot of attention in the anime world over the past few years, and with good reason. Although it's aimed squarely at the teen market, its dark Victorian themes and fascinating characters will draw in viewers of all ages.
Edward and Alphonse Elrick are the two sons of a highly skilled alchemist. Although their father is absent through most of their childhood, they discover his books and develop their own transmutation skills. They come to it naturally, showing great talent even at such a tender age. When their mother dies of a terrible illness, they decide to dive deep into taboo territory and attempt to bring her back to life: one of the few things that are forbidden by law and nature. The cost of their mistake is high. Edward loses one arm and leg during the ritual, and Alphonse's soul is trapped in a giant suit of armor. Now, the two brothers wander the earth in an attempt to discover artifacts that they can use to restore their original bodies.
Although the themes in Fullmetal Alchemist are hardly new, they are not what fans usually expect from this particular genre. Above all, this is a story of redemption and dangerous scientific aspirations. The two brothers, like doctor Frankenstein, decide to play God when they are unhappy with the fate that life has handed them. There is something greater to life than simply the correct physical elements, though, and there are consequences to be paid when humanity tries to manufacture life. Both of the boys are wise far beyond their years, and it does not take long for the audience to realize that they were only made this age to appeal to their young market audience. The series would have worked just as well if the brothers had been older, though there is some irony that alchemy prodigies would be the ones to make such a grave error.
The system of alchemy itself is interesting and well constructed. It is little more than magic, of course, but the implications of this system are different than most fantasy magic systems. In other series, magic is a gift that is offered to special characters. The danger of the magic comes with lack of control, whether it's an inability to control the magic or to be responsible with the power that has been offered. Here, the emphasis is different. The power that Ed and Al can wield is nearly limitless, but each bit of power needs to have an equivalent sacrifice. As in life, it's easy to make small sacrifices in order to gain what we want: consider our entire system of monetary exchange. For the brothers, however, this situation has become almost Faustian. Can they afford to pay the sacrifice for the power they have chosen? What if we choose to sacrifice something and then realize that we are unwilling to pay the price? The details of the alchemy don't make much sense at this stage in the series, but it doesn't matter. The overarching principles of alchemy are compelling enough to cover up a few logical flaws.
The story has also been designed well. We start this volume with a two episode adventure in a small desert town that has been revitalized through an alchemist posing as a minister from God. The fight between the Elrick brothers and the minister establishes the major themes while also jumping right into the action. Alchemy is science, after all, not magic or religion, even though it is often mistaken for both. Like any power, it can be used for good or evil, and can be offered truthfully or behind a veil of lies. Already, Fullmetal Alchemist is willing to grapple with issues of how we regard religion and science, which is a tall order for a Shounen series. Episodes three and four return to the beginning of the story, showing how the brothers came to be on their fateful quest. There are hints of the true villains already in the mysterious creatures named after the seven deadly sins, but their nature and intentions are still a mystery.
The animation lives up to the quality of the storytelling, with cinematic backdrops, smoothly detailed characters, and a broad color palette. The series inhabits a strange alternate universe, which is mostly modeled after Victorian Europe (especially the journey into the Dracula-like countryside in Episode Four) but contains elements of other times and places. Some of the weapons are contemporary, but other sections show a strong medieval element. This is appropriate, since alchemy existed in that strange era between magic and science. Each location has been attractive and unique, and it appears to be prepared to develop into a thoroughly unique globe-trotting adventure series.
My only major complaint with Fullmetal Alchemist is it's daffy sense of humor. In a series so dark and brooding, the use of super deformation in comedy scenes. Nothing quite breaks the series mood than having Edward screaming like a little girl and running around in strangely animated circles. I suppose this must be another way of keeping the series aimed at its target audience, but other viewers will find it distracting and annoying.
Funimation has assembled a fine disc to house this first volume of Fullmetal Alchemist. The video transfer has good color, a solid black level, and sharp lines. The series would have looked great with a more cinematic widescreen composition, but I have no real complaints with this transfer. The sound transfer is good as well, although this disc has the usual problem that only the inferior dub is given a 5.1 track. There aren't many extras on the disc, but it does include some character sketches, clean opening and closing animations as well as character dossiers. Also included are several Japanese commercials for the series.
No matter what kind of anime you normally like, Fullmetal Alchemist is a pretty safe bet. It has richly developed characters, dark and interesting themes as well as stunning animation. Finally a series that lives up to its hype, this first volume promises great things in the series to come. Check it out.
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