Fullmetal Alchemist is such a ubiquitous presence that near any anime fan is familiar with the premise. Two upstart alchemists perform the forbidden act of human transmutation to revive their mother. It goes wildly wrong, one brother losing a leg, and the other his entire body. In desperation, the older sibling sacrifices his arm to bind his brother’s soul to a nearby suit of armour. And so begins their journey to discover the coveted Philosopher’s Stone, to recover their lost flesh and bring their dead mother back.
These two brothers – Edward, the titular “Fullmetal Alchemist”, and the younger, albeit much larger, Alphonse Elric – stand defiantly apart from almost every other shonen hero. Where mangaka Hiromu Arakawa really split from the formula favoured by her contemporaries was in making her leads disabled. To replace his missing limbs, Ed was given Automail, and while they connect directly into the nervous system, arguably making him stronger than before, they are still prosthetics and he still hungers for his imperfectly human extremities. On multiple occasions in this collection, we see his arm malfunction or destroyed, poor Ed enduring the pain of having it rewired to his living tissue.
Al, on the other hand, is a literal ghost in the shell, struggling with his humanity when he is, by very definition, inhuman. It’s testament to Rie Kugimiya’s acting to be able to imbue such pathos into the character, with a little help from sight gags. Aaron Dismuke, then just 12 years old, pulls off a similar feat in the English dub. Vic Mignogna, however, winds up making everything Ed says sound smarmy, entitled or downright irritating. Ed, with his perpetual anger and short stature, requires a voice with plenty of bite. The venerable Romi Park is spot on, at once able to convey all the shades of his rage, the physical strain of combat and his vulnerability.
As with Hunter x Hunter, this first anime loosely adapts Arakawa’s manga, the more recent Brotherhood sticking closer to the source material. Both have their chest-beating fan bases, but there’s no denying the almost universal acclaim for the latter. As well as playing with certain events’ placement in the timeline, and using others as an extended prologue over the first nine episodes, the plotting and pace is easily on par with its successor, if not ahead, at this stage in the story. One example is the passing of a certain character occurring much later in this series than in Brotherhood, giving viewers a better chance at forming a connection and making the eventual death that much more poignant. But where the latter series is much more streamlined and focused, this one can be more tangential, though rarely to the point of disruption.
The Western Europe inspired setting is immediately inviting, with Bones’ animation holding up over a decade later, and yet it’s the intricate political landscape that is most compelling. Ed is called a “dog of the military” for becoming a state alchemist, which gives some indication as to how the common people view the military and the governing powers that be. Nowhere is this more potent than the Ishbalan rebellion. Said to have started when one of the soldiers stationed there ‘inadvertently’ shot and killed a child, the alchemists’ might devastated their culture and left its people in disarray. Now forced to live in refugee camps, their predicament parallels what we see in newsfeeds now. One need only look to Aleppo for comparison.
A religious zealot has formed himself into an instrument of retribution, one of the few remaining Ishbalans. Nicknamed “Scar” for the criss-cross of damaged skin across his eyes, he has vowed to wipe out all State Alchemists. His fate is inextricably linked with that of the Elric brothers. Discoveries of alchemical pseudo-humans operating behind the scenes, and the dark cost of the Philosopher’s Stone, only bind their paths closer together.
With its unconventional leads and Franco-Italian backdrops, Fullmetal Alchemist is already in a class of its own. In whichever form the series is experienced, the overarching existential tragedy remains the same. It’s a study in loss; the all-consuming pain of losing a loved one, and the lengths two boys would go to if only to see their mother again. Human transmutation, a black art if ever the sciences had one, is to defy the cardinal laws of nature, and to reverse death is to defy a god Ed has already turned his back on.
Check out our review of Part 2.
Extras: English dub; marathon play; episode 19 & 25 commentary