Review: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

To discuss Brotherhood I must discuss the original FMA; however, I will do my best to do so without spoilers.

As with the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime, the story of FMA: Brotherhood begins with Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers skilled in alchemy, the art of breaking down and creating using the elements in the world around us. The Elric brothers are on a quest to recover their bodies after committing the alchemic sin of trying to bring back to life a human – their mother. In doing so they broke the immutable law of equivalent exchange, where for something gained something must also be lost. To bring back their mother Al lost his entire body and only remains because his brother Ed transmuted his sole to a body of armor. Ed lost a leg trying to bring back their mother, and then lost an arm saving his brother’s soul.

Three years later, equipped with an automail leg and arm, Ed joins his country’s military and becomes a State Alchemist. Even though the State Alchemist is known as the ‘dog of the military’, Ed joins to gain knowledge of alchemy and to one day hopefully find a philosopher’s stone. Philosopher’s stones are said to be above the law of equivalent exchange, and perhaps with one in their possession, the Elric brothers can regain their bodies. In their quest, the Elric brothers encounter more than they’d ever imagine, including state secrets, homunculi, and a dark history regarding the philosopher stone that they seek.  What begins as a search soon becomes a fight for survival as the Elric brothers find themselves right in the middle of the conflict.

I loved the story in the original FMA, and for me Brotherhood was as awesome if not more so. Before comparing and contrasting the two versions, and I don’t think this gets enough love, the setting and time period for the FMA world is in my opinion spectacular. Certainly Ed and Al’s country of residence, Amestris, is fantasy and non-existent; however, the tones of familiar with late 1800’s to early 1900’s style trains and architecture, along with the beautiful landscapes, always impressed me.  When I first heard about the show the world itself and alchemy was all I knew, but that was also I all I needed to know to gain an interest in the series. Once I watched the original though I soon realized that FMA, as with Brotherhood, is not primarily about alchemy. In fact, FMA as well as Brotherhood is really a wonderful story about humanity, friends, and hope when all hope seems lost. Alchemy is merely the tool that drives the story, and of course adds some pizzazz which I do love. So if you have never seen the original then at this point let me say I loved both Brotherhood and FMA and if what I just mentioned above sounds exciting to you then I think you will too. Of course having seen both, and knowing that many people have, I’d like to take some time and hammer out the general story differences.

First and foremost the Elric brothers’ search for their bodies is true to both versions, and during the whole show the audience is supposed to keep this quest in the back of their mind. However, in Brotherhood more so than FMA, this search takes a back seat as the fight against the homunculi, and a hidden enemy not present in FMA, controls the action for majority of the show. In addition to that change I also felt like Brotherhood spent more time on side character subplots. Perhaps because Brotherhood removed much of FMA’s filler (best filler ever), which usually focused on Ed’s missions for the state, there was more time to highlight the activities of Mustang, a Colonel and fellow State Alchemist, Scar, an anti-government fighter seeking restitution and revenge, Ling, a character only in Brotherhood and the manga, and the other main characters. I certainly had no issue with this at all though, since these side journeys helped me love so many of the characters old and new. FMA has always had a rich set of characters, and Brotherhood seems to just improve upon the character development of the original FMA. In addition highlighting the many subplots was probably the only way to inform the audience of all that occurred, especially in the combustible climax of Brotherhood.

My favorite change was the inclusion of Xing, a neighboring country, and the residents who come from Xing to Amestris. As with Ed and Al, the visitors from Xing have dual roles for the story, providing many scenes of comedy and tragedy. Perhaps more importantly their position as outsiders provides a unique perspective lacking in the original FMA, which becomes even more apparent as they are brought into Amestris’s conflict. Ultimately if I were to recommend Brotherhood over FMA, these visitors and their storyline would be one clear reason for me personally to do so.

The most significant changes from FMA to FMA: Brotherhood all include the homunculi. From their origins, to their purpose, to their names, and even to who is which homunculus, there are surprisingly few similarities between the two shows. For those of you who have seen both series and disagree with me, you may at least consider that especially as Brotherhood continues the differences seem to expand. For those who haven’t seen either show I’ll just say that I still really loved the homunculi in the original FMA, even though I think their inclusion becomes significantly more epic in Brotherhood.

Stepping away from the story and characters for a moment, one constant I have found in both FMA and Brotherhood is the wonderful opening and ending songs. In contrast to many early anime shows especially FMA was one of the first shows I watched that avoided the cliché J-Pop tracks, the bubbly ones that obviously were made to be anime openings and endings. Instead FMA for the original and Brotherhood used a blend of quality J-Rock and J-Pop songs, and in doing so has helped introduce many great bands to American anime fans, such as Asian Kung-Fu Generation (FMA), NICO Touches the Walls (Brotherhood), and L’arc-en-Ciel (FMA) for many. Of course due to the popularity in Japan too FMA has also helped promote these bands in Japan too, and since many of these are ‘indie’ bands (independent labels) the tie-in has helped substantially with record sales. While I know that post-90’s and post-FMA using these types of songs have become more the norm, or so it seems, FMA was one of the first to do it right and awesomely so.

The world of FMA, and especially FMA: Brotherhood is so richly complex and developed that I know I cannot speak to all its qualities in one review. Certainly of those I mentioned thus far some may disagree with me about my opinions, and perhaps they could highlight some faults that I have not. However, I will leave any further in-depth critiques for the comment section below, where we can continue the discussion. In the meantime I will merely end with one final thought. For many FMA’s arrival on to the anime scene was profound, perhaps even revolutionary not solely because of the shows merits, but also because of the great acceptance and appreciation of FMA, dub and all, in the US. Whenever this occurs there is simultaneously significant backlash due to the innate popularity, crazed fans, and often time hype surrounding such a popular show. Well if you missed the original FMA due to this backlash let me just ask that you try to resist the negative feelings you may have built up and give Brotherhood a try. I think if you give Brotherhood a chance you’ll see the FMA world at its best.

Score: 5 out of 5

(Credit for Brotherhood screen caps goes to the blog A Product of Wasted Time)

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