Welcome back everyone! Hope your week has treated you well. As you all know I’m no stranger to writing about anime, nor am I stranger to writing about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (FMAB) for that matter. Even before this series I’ve had a lot of time to discuss why I enjoy the shows I do and what goes into some of my favorite scenes. However rarely do I undertake something like I’m doing here, which is an entire article dedicated to a single anime that takes a deep look at all the things that come together to make it into the amazingly complete package it is. However it only seems right I do it here, as if I tried to cram it into a few paragraphs you wouldn’t get the full picture. It’s what made me decide to break the series up the way I did so that I’d have an entire article to discuss my number one. With that in mind I hope I do a great job convincing you to watch it and help explain why it’s regarded by so many as a masterpiece. Obviously beware spoilers if you don’t want that.
#1: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
When one thinks about what makes this show great, a few things come to mind immediately. The incredible story full of twists and turns and impossibly insurmountable odds, the amzingly portrayed cast of over fifty named and invested in characters that all add something new to the show, a fleshed out and interesting world filled with major events that have tangible consequences and ripples on the world and its inhabitants, quite arguably the best Dub of any anime done ever, and the amazing power system the show introduces in its ‘Alchemy’. These are the major things I’ll be discussing here, with smaller details coming up as we go, but in general these were things I thought up within 30 seconds of asking myself why this show is so good.
It’s easy to say a story has great characters, but it’s hard for us to quantify what makes a character good and/or grade exactly how good any one character is. I can say “I like this character” and no one can dispute that because it’s entirely personal bias, but for me to say “This show has amazing characters” means I need to be able to prove it.
Edward Elric, the Fullmetal Alchemist, the tempestuous pipsqueak, the heart made full metal. As one of the two main protagonists this show is told through as the lens (the other being his brother Alfonse), Edward Elric is a perfect example of what to do to create an interesting main character. As a child he and his brother committed the ultimate taboo and tried to bring their dead mother back to life using alchemy. The cost of that was Ed losing an arm and a leg and Alfonse losing his entire body, with Ed only able to save him by bonding his soul to a suit of armor. Edward is a well crafted yet flawed individual with many strengths, however they are carefully and reasonably balanced against the plot and the world. He is incredibly intelligent and clever enough to come up with solutions to difficult problems, but is not capable of solving the plot alone and often relies on the help of others in his plans. He is a skilled and scrappy fighter capable of holding his own in a fight against many powerful foes, yet is clearly outmatched by many of the antagonists throughout the series and never becomes ‘overpowered’. He is optimistic and uncompromising on his ideals and goals, yet naïve on his views of the world and severely unprepared for some of its harsher truths. For all of his strengths there are clear limitations or accompanying weaknesses that keep the character truly balanced in regards to how he can affect the world on his own. While their is some minor plot armor in that he is considered a ‘sacrifice’ and thus the villains don’t want to kill him, it never feels like he escapes tricky situations or succeeds at his plans because of ‘plot’. Every victory he gets we see him methodically earn, be it over an opponent or uncovering some of the mysteries the story is swimming in.
One of the things that makes these characters so compelling is that their greatest sources of conflict or weakness tend to be connected with one of their great strengths. For example Ed’s unwavering ideals and refusal to compromise are considered one of his greatest attributes but also one of the biggest causes for many of his conflicts. Ed refuses to kill, even when his opponents aren’t human like several of the homunculi he faces, various chimera and some animated suits of armor. He also refuses to use the ‘Philosophers Stone’ (powerful Macguffin) that could solve many of his problems immediately when he finds out they’re made using human souls. Lastly he refuses to let the acts he takes to solve his problems inconvenience or harm others. These are all admirable traits, yet his adherence to them has causes several difficulties to arise that repeatedly set him back and force him to challenge whether he should be holding onto these ideals, with his answer always being yes. A foe he thought he disarmed nearly kills him, he choses not to restore his and Alfonse’s bodies at several junctures he could have, and many times forces himself to find different solutions than the easy ones because of his beliefs. All of this makes for conflicts that feel genuine and tailor-crafted to the individual character, and Ed is hardly the only character we see this done for. Both protagonists and antagonists have this core idea imbued within their characterizations.
Envy is a homunculus, an artificial human created by the big bad of the series ‘Father’. They have the ability to regenerate their bodies when destroyed and several strange and powerful abilities. ‘Father’ created each of them by casting out one of his sins, so each of them are governed by the sin they were created with. Envy’s unique powers are the ability to shapeshift into other creatures as well as a massive monster they can take on that makes them extremely dangerous, and they’re extremely fitting of such a character. It makes perfect sense that the character who wants what others have and is unsatisfied with their lives would be given the ability to assume the form of anyone they want. There is also the fact that their monstrous form is green (like the phrase ‘Green with Envy’) that also fits this. Throughout the series we see Envy commit and even revel in unforgivable acts of evil, including taking the form of a soldier and shooting a child in order to start a civil war.
However the crux of Envy’s weakness is, as you could imagine, their envy of humans. Jealousy can often manifest in really subtle ways. When someone is jealous of another it often manifests in the individual looking down on or thinking poorly of the other in an attempt to mask it. They might think ‘wow this person has it so easy, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that lucky’ or ‘how are you this successful yet still this bad’. These thoughts hide the true feeling of ‘I wish I had what they had’ and preserve our ego. Throughout the series Envy constantly mentions how weak humans are and how they can’t understand why humans act as foolishly as they do, but all of this was Envy’s attempts to hide how much they wanted to be just like us and have people care and love for us. In the end when this fact is called out, when Envy is forced to confront the truth, they are so embarrassed and ashamed that someone figured it out that they commit suicide. This isn’t said to excuse the horrendous acts Envy committed, it simply is meant to shine a light how even a character who on the surface is seemingly evil for the sake of evil has depth, and how connected to their major flaw the characterization is. Even some of the scarier villains like Wrath aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil, there is tangible reason for their actions that come from convictions or their nature.
I could write paragraphs and paragraphs about all the characters in FMAB, but there is more to cover here. As far as the presentation of the show is concerned it’s great, but not quite the 10/10 across the board that some of the other shows I’ve covered have. Visually the show is stunning, especially seeing as it came out in 2009. Fights look crisp and smooth, character designs are stellar, the sound effects are crisp and punchy, and the voice acting is absolutely god tier. The only thing keeping this below a 10/10 for me would be the music and some of the cheesy animated attempt to replicate manga panels. Many of the tracks in the show are great, however if you listen to the full OST you’ll find several tracks that are extremely forgettable or tracks that you never even noticed in the show. It’s still a good 7 or 8 out of 10 but that’s a noticeable enough difference in quality compared to the other parts of the show. I also find some of the cartoonish attempts to imitate whacky manga art styles don’t really translate well to the show that’s at its core is extremely deep and serious.
Discussing Narrative in this show is a tricky topic. So much happens in the show and with much of it being important, it’s hard to decide just how much I should go into detail here. If I were to discuss everything important I’d basically just be writing a plot summary at that point as there’s so much happening. So rather than discuss various important points of the narrative I’m instead going to focus on how it feels experiencing this story for the first time and how/why they manage to pull off that feeling.
The show is absolutely steeped in mystery and intrigue. Even the earliest point of intrigue for the show, that being the mystery of the ‘Philosophers Stone’, is given sufficient hype and time to build up the mystery without taking too long to finally uncover. This show does an amazing job giving you answers that lead to more questions, and it keeps you constantly wanting to watch more to figure out what all of it means. Ed and Al want to get their bodies back and believe using a Philosophers Stone is the way to do it. They figure out the Philosophers Stone is something people can make, but that it’s powered by the pure energy of human souls that are forged into the stone as a power source. A single stone contains the lives of dozens to thousands of human souls trapped inside. After that is revealed and the brothers vehemently refuse to have anything to do with or use Philosophers Stones, they then resolve to find a different method. The goals and motives of the villains are a mystery to uncover, what they mean when they refer to Ed and Al as ‘sacrifices’, what did Maes Hughes discover that lead to him being killed, who are the homunculi to Father, what is the ultimate goal of Father. There are so many mysteries that are layered into one another, and clues are spread out everywhere that you won’t pick up on until your second viewing of the show. It’s textbook master-craft in writing intrigue.
The show also does a great job of balancing triumph and hopelessness. We see the side of good triumph over their enemies many times, and we also see them lose or fail to save people like with Shou Tucker and Nina. They create countless allies along the way, make breakthroughs in uncovering the mysteries of the show and eliminate well established threats to the side of the heroes like Lust and Envy. The show constantly puts characters in problems that have no easy or clear solution and sometimes seem insurmountable. About halfway through the show Ed and Al end up meeting with the big bad of the story. They find out he is powerful enough to do alchemy without moving or thinking, is completely impervious to any attacks they try (including Scars previously established deadly attacks), and even show him having the capability to turn off alchemy for the entire Country. On top of that one of Father’s homunculi is the Fuhrer King of the country with access to the military and knowledge of all the important people in the brothers lives that he openly threatens to kill if they try to oppose Father. It makes the enemy seem utterly impossible to defeat and had me wondering ‘how the hell are they gonna be able to do anything to these guys?’, and that’s an amazing feeling to invoke in your audience because it sucks them in and keeps them watching more and more.
The story is also brimming with potent emotions. You feel sorrow for characters and pure hatred for the despicable entities, you feel hopeful and triumphant alongside the victories of the heroes, you feel uncertain with many of the characters and circumstances with morally gray and questionable circumstances surrounding them as well. Because of how well this show establishes its characters and the stakes they all have on the plot, you feel emotionally invested in them and find it much easier to share the emotions they do throughout the story. You want to see Mustang annihilate Envy just as badly as Mustang wants to, you want to see Ed and Al get their bodies back and succeed without compromising on their beliefs. It’s really beautiful and poetic stuff that’s only possible due to the diligence they had in establishing the heart of the show.
Strength mostly refers to the fights for this series, and the fights in this show are great; often striking a really healthy balance of being just long enough to satiate our hype without lasting so long that they feel like they drag on or lose tension. Ling and Lan Fan battling Wrath and Gluttony has you terrified for the fate of the characters because of how quickly things in the fight escalate. If the fight lasted a long time it would have diminished the threat and menace of the villains. Ling has to find a way to escape within moments or else he and Lan Fan were doomed. Edward vs. Greed benefits from its brevity as well as defeating Greed was a puzzle that Ed had to figure out. Greed’s flesh was impervious to all harm, and we see Ed failing to damage him with some quick attacks until he deduces its weakness and forces Greed to retreat. Even the longer fights like Pride vs. Ed naturally escalates the fight as things go on to keep both sides from totally outclassing one another. Ed uses the trick he learned about Greed’s impenetrable skin to defend against Pride’s onslaught, and Pride devours Gluttony in order to gain enhanced senses and battle them even as they try to hide. I also absolutely adore Hohenheim’s scene in that fight.
This show is an interesting package all around. While I’m not as attached to it currently as I am to say My Hero Academia, it’s a show that has been greatly impactful on my creativity. As a long time Dungeons and Dragons player I often get inspiration from the way this anime presents it’s plots, conflicts and characters and try to incorporate them into the games I play. I think linking a characters strength to its weakness leads for great characterization and roleplay opportunity and try to use it whenever applicable. It has also become a show I’ve made a habit of rewatching at least once sometimes twice per year, and every time I do I pick up on at least one detail or interesting part of the story I didn’t realize before. It’s absolutely littered with foreshadowing, symbolism and subtlety that is impossible to fully understand in just your initial viewing. Part of why this isn’t quite as meaningful to me currently as MHA though is just how old it is. It has completely run its course and due to that there’s never anything new coming out to reinvest me in it, and there’s extremely little in terms of media for FMAB outside of the show. MHA, Naruto, Attack on Titan and AtLA all have movies, games, and/or spin offs that re-invest me in them again and re-hype me up for it. However I think that also speaks volumes of the fact that I’m still this invested all these years later, and have rewatched it close to a dozen times now and STILL enjoy it every time. Normally this would be where I begin my typical ‘outro’ for my articles, but this time I want to do something different. I’m going to close this article off the same way the show does.
There’s no such thing as a painless lesson, they just don’t exist. Sacrifices are necessary; you can’t gain anything without losing something first. Although, if you can endure that pain and walk away from it, you’ll find that you now have a heart strong enough to overcome any obstacle. Yeah… a heart made fullmetal.– Edward Elric