[Anime] Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009) – Review


This post is the last in a series covering ‘Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’. Previous posts: 

This post contains spoilers for the entire series.

It has been a while since I posted a review so for anyone coming across this for the first time – or even to long time readers – this would be good time to outline how to form my opinions about what I consume. It is essential for a work – whether fiction or non-fiction – to either entertain me or inform me. I define ‘entertain’ very generously; tragedies, comedies, dramas, romances are all equally eligible. I am seeking a change in my emotional state, a vacation from my mundane life into some new more exciting reality that the creators have formed.

 

By all these metrics, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is an excellent show. The series executes some of the trickiest aspects of story-telling – emotional impact, character development, world building, thematic exploration – with effortless flourish. Yet, in each of these areas, it would not be hard to name stories – in various media – that have done each of these things better. Where Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood really shines over its peers is in how it is able to tell personal tales; Brotherhood is strongest when it zooms in on the stories of personal loss and hard-fought triumphs. Mangaka Hiromu Arakawa is incredibly deft in how she captures the nuances of loss and delivers well-placed, hard-hitting emotional punches to her readers. As an adaptation Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is both faithful and enthusiastic; it is easy to see that great effort was taken to retain the manga’s delicate balance of adventure, excitement and development.

One of the series’ big early victories is in its setting. Set in a world analogous to an early 20th century Germany, the story’s backdrop is familiar enough that not every single element of its society needs to be explained but yet foreign enough to keep the audience hungry to see more. Over the course of the series, the protagonists visit various locations – from harsh snowy mountains, to sandy deserts, to more urban landscapes – yet, it all very obviously feels like part of the same coherent setting. Beyond just the geographic locations, Arakawa has developed a fairly detailed history for her fictional lands – a bloody, violent history that, most importantly, continues to plague the characters in the current timeframe. That connection between past and present is essential to keeping the complex Brotherhood universe logical and coherent.

It would be a travesty to delay discussion Brotherhood’s characters any further; as robust as her development of the series’ setting is, it is in her characters that Arakawa’s brilliance really shines through. Brotherhood’s cast of characters is sizable; from the primary protagonists of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, and to a lesser degree Roy Mustang, Winry and Van Hohenheim, to the secondary cast of characters, the homunculus antagonists, and intriguing anti-heroes like Greed and Scar. Managing the stories of such varied characters in the space of a relatively short series is no mean feat but Arakawa is masterful is identifying which characters her readers want more of. The characters are the lynchpin of this series even more than the story itself is; early in the story, we are shown the protagonists’ personal tragedies and our heart bleeds for the innocence they lost. That early emotional investment is critical because throughout the story, as the plot gets more complicated and the stakes get ever higher, the audience’s focus is trained on the protagonists and their quest for closure to their traumatic pasts. It’s not just limited to the protagonists either – watching various primary and secondary characters (including the anti-heroes and antagonists!) gain insight about themselves, or come to terms with their past actions makes Brotherhood incredibly satisfying. All of the above points are especially well-delivered because of Arakawa’s ability to pack some truly gut-wrenching emotional punches; the tragedy of the Elric brothers, the Tucker family and Izumi are all some fairly early examples of this. This style of story telling is also useful in establishing stakes and reminding the audience of the pain of that loss.

I did not mention the visuals much throughout the series commentary posts, but the clean animation and sensible direction throughout some of the more complicated action sequences was certainly appreciated. I have to be honest here though; I wasn’t spellbound by the animation or anything. I thought visually, it was very solid and I was certainly impressed in some scenes, but compared to the impression that the story and the character development left on me, it’s not to make any praise of the visual elements of the series seem like an afterthought.

Brotherhood, despite its many successes, is not a flawless show. Like so many other shows in its genre – Naruto, Bleach, Fairy Tail – it starts out with incredible promise and while it doesn’t fall off in the same way of some of those other examples, there is definitely in a point in time when the story begins losing that personal impact in favour of larger, world-ending stakes and bigger battles. As someone who liked the focus on personal loss and the lessons they teach you, I can’t help but think of what Fullmetal Alchemist could have been had Arakawa not been as tightly bound by genre expectations as she was. Brotherhood also distinguishes itself from its shounen peers by eschewing the need to make its protagonists ridiculously powerful and capable of defeating the big enemy on their own. While that is a strength, there is something that is a little unsatisfying about never seeing either Edward or Alphonse truly outclass any serious opponent and win due to bits of luck or unplanned opportunity. Lastly, alchemy, which starts off as an almost scientific discipline basically becomes full-blown god-magic by the end, with few explanations for how transmutations are taking place any more.

I do not believe that any of the above is sufficient reason to avoid Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood at all – indeed, I admit that each of the three weaknesses I outlined are highly subjective opinions that one might entirely miss if not pointed out. At 64 episodes, Brotherhood is certainly on the longer side of an anime series, but it explores some interesting ideas about science, faith, love and the nature of humanity, which, in addition to its other strengths, makes it one of the most competent examples of story-telling in the anime medium.

Post-Review Notes

This is a new section in which I also take a look at some of the meta-commentary on the work I’ve just reviewed. For example, this means looking through others’ analysis and seeing what I missed out. To kick this new section off, there’s one particular video I’d like to share that I thought was particularly insightful.

I touched a little upon the importance of eyes and its connection to the Truth, or to God. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to fully formulate an in-depth, thorough analysis of how the visual theme of the eye of God compared with the homunculus’ eye and what it all meant. The video above does an absolutely fantastic breakdown.

There were also a number of videos comparing Fullmetal Alchemist the manga, with the first adaptation, to Brotherhood. Having not seen Fullmetal Alchemist, it’s obviously difficult for me to make the comparisons but assuming that I was able to hit the

If you have any suggestions on similar types of videos or reviews, please do let me know in the comment section.

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Till next time!

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