In Fullmetal Alchemist we have the immutable law of the alchemical arts, the fundamental architecture of the universe – equivalent exchange. The second half of the series transmutes the first, subverting the binary beliefs of the Elric brothers. As the duo inch closer to returning their bodies back to normal, quick fire revelations unstitch almost everything they thought they knew (or hoped) to be true.
Everything is in echoes, from the collection kicking off with the brothers revisiting the island that had so dramatically begun their training with Izumi Curtis (this writer’s favourite character, as it happens). Here we have the discovery of a new homunculus reflecting as much Edward’s sin as his sensei’s. Though Ed had turned his back on god, embracing instead the cold scientific comfort of alchemy, his future is guided more by fate than his own actions. The homunculi want the brothers to create a philosopher’s stone so they too might become human. As walking transgressions, they themselves can’t perform alchemy, but make the world their game board.
As the series really goes off on a tangent from the original manga, the homunculi are a shadow of how fans of the source material or its more faithful adaptation might remember them. Where in this original series, they are aborted human transmutations, in the manga they are created as aspects of the antagonist’s personality. No one option is inherently ‘better’, but Lust is especially gripping in the backstory she’s given. And who’d have thought that Gluttony, the perpetually hungry butterball, could generate so much empathy in the last few episodes? Sloth as we know her was also a character unique to this series, and while her role and interaction with the Elric brothers might not have always hit the mark, it did achieve some emotion highs.
Then we get to the ending, which still sparks heated debates among fans of each respective series. Mangaka Hiromu Arakawa specifically requested an original ending, so that the same conclusion wouldn’t be repeated in both formats. It also allowed her to keep writing the manga which, at the time, was still unfinished. She’s since expressed her surprise by how different the homunculi wound up being, as well as Studio Bones’ staff pontificating on the villain’s backstory. It was a smart move on her part as we’ve wound up with two wildly different shows to enjoy, with the flaws of one balancing the other – the emotionally strong but narratively weak ending in 2003 props up the powerful conclusion to its successor.
From the first half, the allusions to real world warfare and poverty were easy to see with the treatment of the Ishbalan people and the political cover-ups that followed. Though that thread continued throughout the 51-episode run, the series’ fondness for ethical dilemmas came forward centre stage. It asks moral questions over the flawed and conceptual practice of alchemy, but also real tangible science like creating human chimaeras. As we go through the gate and see what’s on the other side it’s more a discourse between science and religion and latterly technology and alchemy. And the use of Beethoven’s Fifth to drive home the differences between the two sides was a stroke of genius.
Though Brotherhood’s ending is so much more potent and powerful, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, as they say. And Ed and Al’s journey in this outing, with its own original and audacious ideas, has Brotherhood beat. Every culture has its myths and one of the most prevailing stories among anime fans is Fullmetal Alchemist, a story of dark, tragic and hilarious proportions.
English dub; marathon play; clean opening/closing animation.
Note: The Ultimate Edition contains ‘The Transmutation of a Phenomenon: An Inside Look’; episode 51 commentary; commercials & trailers.