Full Series Review: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Introduction and Comparison with the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime series:
So, most people interested in anime are aware of the basic premise of the Fullmetal Alchemist story. Two little boys, brothers, are living in a world that resembles the early 20th century in Germany, but where "alchemy" is real magic and has replaced science in many aspects of life. Their father, a renowned alchemist, leaves one day and never comes back, which still ranks him as pretty high on the overall list of quality anime parents (yeah, just be glad your dad didn't get himself turned into a pig or isn't forcing you to pilot a giant robot, you ingrates). For a while, the two brothers, Ed and Al Elric, are perfectly content to stay in a quaint, picturesque country home with their mom. They study daddy's alchemy books in the hopes of one day being alchemists like him.
But things take a turn for the worse when their mother dies. Not only that, but their father doesn't even show up or send flowers... In their despair over their loss of the only parent they had left, they get the brilliant idea to try to bring her back to life with forbidden alchemy. (I'm almost old enough to use an EZ Bake oven, how much harder could transmuting a human being back from the dead be?)
Surprise surprise, doing such a thing, it turns out, has terrible consequences. The vaguely explained powers-that-be determined that Ed's punishment is to lose an arm and a leg, while Al loses his whole body, but his soul is attached by Ed's alchemy to a suit of armor. And they don't get mommy back.
Since that incident, Edward Elric becomes a "state alchemist", working for the military of his country in exchange for access to classified alchemical information and to the Central library. Edward retains the hope that he can study alchemy enough to learn how to get his mother back, along with of course his arm, leg, and brother's body.
The brothers travel around their country and have a lot of exciting adventures, as they get caught up both in political intrigues and conflicts with supernatural beings. They learn a lot about alchemy and more about the mysteries unique to their own lived experiences, but they also do a great deal of helping others in the process.
The anime was created first in 2003 then was basically redone in 2009. Similarly to Sailor Moon: Crystal, the 2009 version, called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in English, was created with a better animation quality, an overall more mature tone, and it was intended to be closer to the original manga. Unlike Sailor Moon: Crystal, however, Brotherhood has a plot that strays a bit further from the original. That's because when they were creating the first FMA anime, they outpaced the writing of the manga, so they created the story in a way that ended up being very different from the manga.
I didn't watch the ending of the Fullmetal Alchemist series, but some differences I did notice when I switched over from watching Fullmetal Alchemist to watching Brotherhood the following differences:
- The world in Brotherhood is bigger, encompassing the brothers' country of origin (Amestris), but taking into account the politics and international policies of neighboring countries, and including characters from outside of Amestris.
- The animation quality is better in Brotherhood, and the characters are more serious and less cartoony.
- Some of the homunculi have different identities in the two shows, and in both shows the back story of the homunculi and how one a homunculus gets created was a bit different. In the original 2003 anime, a homunculus is automatically created as an automatic effect of any attempt to perform human transmutation. Therefore, each homunculus resembles a human being who someone had attempted to bring back using forbidden alchemy. In Brotherhood, all of the homunculi were created as offshoots of the original "Dwarf in the Flask" homunculus, who gained god-like powers after destroying an entire civilization. I kind of liked the 2003 anime's version a bit more, since they had to essentially fight the monsters they created, not someone else's creation. But the homunculi in Brotherhood were still very cool.
- The movies: Sacred Star of Milos is more of a Brotherhood-universe movie, whereas Conqueror of Shamballa was made during the time of the original 2003 series. While I think they're both great films, I prefer Sacred Star of Milos for being smoother, having a plot that makes just a little more sense, and for being relevant to the contemporary politics of global poverty and imperialism. Shamballa is an interesting and entertaining film, but the "parallel worlds" thing makes the whole plot seem convoluted at times. Plus, Shamballa has a simple conflict of good and evil, whereas Milos has a more nuanced sense of morality for the characters involved.
- It might be tied to the differences in animation quality, but I felt like the Brotherhood battles were more epic and the fighting was more dramatically intense.
Analysis and Themes
In both series, the main recurring themes explored have to do with the limitations of mankind. In the annoying repeated line from the 2003 anime, "To obtain, something of equal value must be lost." In Brotherhood, alchemy is more explained as a process of breaking down and then reconstructing something physical. But in both, the concept driven home is that sacrifice must be made for every gain. In both, humanity is reminded through the story that it is small and limited, but that humanity has a special warmth to it when it chooses forgiveness and cooperation over hatred and greed.
Both series discuss the Western issue of the clash between religion and science. In this universe, alchemy is a true science, but in an early episode, a false prophet is using alchemy while telling people he is performing miracles. He is also using tricks to deceive people into thinking he can do what alchemy cannot; bring dead people back to life. When Edward Elric takes on his deceit, Ed mirrors the way atheists criticize religion, or at least religious scams that cheat people for money and power.
However, the show is clearly not as simple as "alchemy good", as we see later. The country of Amestris is also responsible for a near-genocide of a people who resemble middle-easterners, and their government is full of layers of dark secrets. Unethical human experimentation is also all too common under the surface of their "enlightened" and "modern" society, mirroring the way this was the case for the Western world in the earlier half of the 20th century.
While the people of Amestris are strong and innovative, they are often undone by their condescension towards or disdain for foreigners. Their sense of superiority to these foreigners is challenged in Brotherhood by people from Xing (a country resembling China), and by Ishvalans (the people they massacred under a series of misinformed screw-ups in intelligence, sound familiar, USA?), and characters of these two nationalities become very central to the plot. The story thusly criticizes Western imperialism, especially in terms of their historical attitude of cultural superiority to non-western cultures, which were seen as backwards and superstitious.
While I think that both series do a good job, and that the story itself is very moving, creatively innovative, and entertaining, I prefer Brotherhood to the 2003 anime for being a bit more serious and deep, but also for being more expansive and suspenseful.
In comparison with other anime of similar genres, I can say Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the better shows out there. I thought the ending to Brotherhood may not have satisfied me in terms of righting every injustice done by the antagonist, or in terms of making all that much logical sense, but it was still a beautiful and moving ending. I thought that the last 10 episodes or so seemed to kind of drag on the fighting leading up to the ending, but it was just because with such a big cast it was probably difficult for the writers to even try to come up with such a meaningful and satisfactory (for the most part) ending for all of their stories.
The story is an intense, emotionally beautiful work of art. Definitely check out Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. You can skip the original anime, or watch it afterwards for comparison purposes. I would also recommend the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.