Review: Fullmetal Alchemist- Without Equal

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Synopsis: Alchemy is the science of analyzing, deconstructing and reconstructing matter and the Alchemists who use it follow the principle of Equivalent Exchange: that in order to obtain something of equal value must be lost. However when two young Alchemists, Edward and Alphonse Elric lose their mother, they attempt to bend the laws of alchemy in order to bring her back and in exchange for their failure, Ed loses his arm and leg while Al loses his entire body with his soul trapped inside a suit of armor. Determined to get back the bodies they lost the boys decide to join the military and  seek out the mythical Philosopher’s Stone that has the ability to perform Alchemy without any price, but the journey they undertake proves there’s far more to both Equivalent Exchange and the stone than they realize.

Review

Waifus. Ramen. Fullmetal Alchemist. Outside of the stuff that’s been outright ingrained into pop-culture here like Dragonball Z and Naruto, there are very few anime that have left as big an impact as Fullmetal Alchemist. My own personal history with the show, however is a tad complicated. When I was in middle school this was the show everyone I knew talked about, but airing late Saturday nights, and my parents being strict about what I watched made me more or less miss the boat on it. By the time I actually got around to the series, I was in my 2nd or 3rd year of highschool, and since that was mainly thing to do back then, I checked out the manga first through a combination of old volumes my friends had and of course online scans. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and despite hearing that the anime version was incredibly different I was still pretty eager to check it out.

The result proved to me worth my while as I adored the anime’s storyline (the movie not so much) and found it just as compelling as the manga material I’d read. Of course, I had read the manga first, and so as time passed I became more and more invested in that version, and by the time the manga faithful anime reboot Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood came out, I’d almost completely lost myself to it. Still despite the heated debates on the internet over which version was better, I maintained some love for the first anime series and vowed I would get around to revisiting it eventually. Now years later with this version of the show out on Blu-Ray I finally got the chance, and the experience is just as powerful to me as it was then, if not more so.

While it’s inevitable to draw some level of comparison to the Brotherhood/manga storyline, personally I’ve never seen much point in it, and having revisited this version I feel more strongly about that than ever. Though it’s certainly true the two follow a somewhat similar storyline up to a certain point, it was evident from the get-go that the first anime had it’s own plans in mind, and both the director and writer have said as much. In fact, it began making some pretty significant deviations from the source material extremely early on in order to ease into it better and while similar events happen, it’s often for completely different reasons.. As such the overarching result ends in two very distinct shows, each with extremely different characterization, themes and concepts that make them unmistakably distinguishable from one another with the only real similarity between them being that they share the same title.

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So what exactly is it about this version of the story that makes it such a beloved classic? Well to sum it up quickly it would be that it’s an incredibly human drama as opposed to the ultra consistent action-adventure of the Brotherhood/manga story. Anime is well known for it’s use of dramatic elements, and even the original material has more than it’s fair share of it, but there’s something about the way it handles those portions of the story that make it really stand out. There’s always an understandable driving force behind the actions of every character, and even some of the monstrous people in the story carry a few shades of grey. It can be incredibly cynical in it’s view of human nature, but just as often it’s great at displaying an abundance of kindness and forgiveness in regards to the actions the characters face on their long journey. All of it staying relatively composed and keeping it’s drama grounded enough to carry a realistic sense of weight behind everything(well aside from the anomaly that is Robo-Archer but the less said about that the better).

Everyone from the military men like Roy Mustang and Armstrong to the villains like Greed and Dante prove to be compelling and it’s easy to get swept up in each of their stories. However while there’s a lot of great characters and relationships explored, none are as powerful as the bond between Ed and Al. The connection between them is one of constant self-sacrifice and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to save each other makes for a relationship than can be equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking as the struggles they endure in order to achieve that goal gradually becomes harsher. Edward’s cynical nature, and Al’s childlike optimism also help to further serve the great dynamic between them as both speak to how the show examines human nature as both points of view are given some level of validation and it makes the journey the two take all the more interesting as their outlooks are drastically changed. In the end, both are forced to realize that the world they live in is far more complicated than either was willing to give credit for, but while not everything equals out, there’s still some value to be had maintaining the belief that we can still get our share of value out of life, and it’s a message that speaks to the show as a whole.

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Of course while the human core of the show is what ultimately carries it, it’s drama is far from it’s only strength. The show also also encompasses a pretty strong fantasy setting, and though the route this version goes with it differs pretty significantly from the source material, it’s still pretty unique. Alchemy in this show is neat, and there’s a lot of careful detail put into it as the show uses it to encompass various ideas on religion and philosophy, all while using it to further strengthen the show’s human elements rather than deter from them, and it makes for lore that’s actually interesting rather than distracting. It’s also got more than it’s fair share of cool action and while it can’t really outdo the Brotherhood/manga material in that department, there’s still plenty enough to make it pretty solid on that front, and it’s the near perfect combination of all these elements that makes it such an incredible show.

It also certainly helps that the show is a great looking production. While it can’t quite compare to other high-profile Studio BONES productions, and especially Brotherhood, it’s still an incredibly polished looking series, and despite being an early digipaint series, the show still holds up well visually and the upscale for the Blu Rays is solid. It holds up just as well music-wise with Michiru Oshima’s soundtrack for the series delivering on a bevy of memorable tracks and most of the opening and ending themes chosen for the series are great too with songs like Kesenai Tsumi by Nana Kitade and Rewrite by Asian-Kung Fu Generation still sounding as fantastic as ever. 

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Can’t really talk about the show without also mentioning the dub too, as next to YuYu Hakusho it’s the one largely responsible for creating Funimation’s reputation as one of the best in the business. While I’ve rewatched certain portions of Brotherhood enough times to be used to the sound of that dub regarding the characters, this one still holds up extremely well and even the roles like Scott McNeal as Hohenheim and Dameon Clarke as Scar, whose Brotherhood replacements delivered on some pretty strong work, I found myself warming up to again very quickly and are still really great performances. Vic Mignonia’s Edward Elric still sounds as iconic as ever and Aaron Dismuke’s Alphonse still really manages to capture the essence of a little boy (and the fact that he was one at the time certainly helps) with the rest of the cast sounding nearly pitch-perfect all across the board aside from one or two minor characters. 

All in all, I can’t say I was too surprised at the fact that this version of Fullmetal Alchemist still held up for me, but I was taken aback at just how much it resonated with me. Everything from how the show handles it’s characters and themes, to it’s presentation are still remarkable and it’s the rare kind of package that delivers on a little bit of everything, with none of it being compromised. It’s easy to see why this show is still so highly regarded, and while it may get looked over by some fans in favor of it’s shiner and more manga friendly counterpart Brotherhood, it’s still more than worth taking a look at. Fullmetal Alchemist may not have given the same experience as the original story but in exchange we ended up with one of the strongest anime ever made, and for me that’s a more than equivalent.

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Overall: 10/10

Available for streaming on Funimation, Hulu and Netflix. Blu Rays available through Right Stuf and Amazon