Every now and again, a series comes along so highly anticipated it can’t possibly live up to its own hype, and reviewing it is an exercise in disappointment. Happy to say that in this case, that would be some other review of some other series, and not this one, because this series is fully capable of living up to expectations. In fact, Fullmetal Alchemist is a series fully capable of exceeding them.
Based on a still-running manga by Hiromu Arakawa (in English by Viz), Fullmetal Alchemist has a standard mix of comedy and drama. For the first half a dozen episodes or so. However, there’s a point (and believe me you’ll know it when you see it) after which the comedy starts to become a respite from the drama instead of a counterpoint to it, and it’s from that point on that this series starts to show you what it’s really made of.
Almost immediately, Fullmetal Alchemist establishes its parameters. The opening scene — that of the Elric brothers’ tragic foray into a forbidden alchemy at a tender age — is both horrifying and heartbreaking. And crucial. It’s this act, and the motivations behind it, that provides the impetus for the entire series. Whether that’s obvious from episode to episode or not, it remains regardless and to think about it, about its implications and repercussions not just to the main characters but to the entire cast, make a strong argument for anime as capable of deeper social commentary. Knowledge is dangerous without discipline to regulate it and no act comes without some responsibility for it. Edward and Alphonse Elric make a mistake, informed by ignorance and a limited grasp on the world, but rather than learning to live with the consequences, they actively deny them. It’s a hero’s journey the like of which is not new in anime series; in the end, everything always works out.
But as more secrets about the boys and their mistake are revealed, as they work towards their goal and cross the paths of others, something else starts to develop, a sense of fear and of sad inevitability. At some point along the way you start to realise: Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t afraid to hurt you. Yes the boys’ quest to get back what they so foolishly lost is a true and noble sentiment, but introduce a little actual reality into that — like the fact that sometimes, in real life, things don’t work out — and suddenly the outcome of the series is no longer as sure a thing. It is this realisation that is the spine of tension for the series, pushing and pulling between an adult’s growing understanding of what is bound to happen and a child’s hope that somehow it won’t.
Think this is too deep for an anime series? Well, yes, maybe to talk about it, if you want to dig that far down. Wars, broken homes, questions of loyalty, family, humanity and the repercussions of choice and duty are some of the themes Fullmetal Alchemist has to offer, but it is also seriously kick-ass, damn funny and often unexpectedly delightful. It has a cast of amazingly likeable characters (and not just the good guys!) and still manages to be well-rounded and hugely entertaining. By the time you actually start to realise the dangers, it’s pretty much too late. You are hooked and you will stay hooked until the end.
Because, you see, Fullmetal Alchemist is a series that has something a lot of other series don’t — strategy. It deals out its cards with careful, deliberate measure and, hand after hand, nothing is wasted. Everything that happens, happens for a reason. And I do mean everything. Whether it’s throwing in a surprise twist that knocks the wind out of you or quietly establishing the traits of characters so that later conflict is that much more comprehensible, this show illustrates with spectacular subtlety and an unbelievably entertaining narrative, what can be done when there is vision, purpose and reason. It wants you to invest, and it won’t take no for an answer, because if there’s one universal truth out there it’s this:
What you get out is equivalent trade for what you put in.