Background: In recent years, few anime titles have stood out as being well ahead of the pack; far too many shows offering derivative crud that dedicated websites often praise endlessly in an attempt to curry favor with the production companies. The end result is truly good shows, even those getting similar praise, can be lost in the shuffle by consumers wanting to find the better shows to enjoy. . If you've been reading the anime reviews here, I'm sure you've seen the multitude of titles covered by Anime Talk legend Todd Douglass, one of his favorite shows being Fullmetal Alchemist. The series over, FUNimation, the best anime company in Texas these days, has decided to release boxed sets at a reduced price but will all the cool extras fans want. Here's a look at the second volume of the series, with some background from my previous review for those just joining in: Most people, at some time in their lives, try to get something for nothing; either stealing, cheating, or otherwise attempting to circumvent the laws of nature and man to get more than they give. Generally, we call such people Congressmen or felons, differentiating between the two based on whether they were actually convicted or not. Seriously though, how often have most of us tried to take the easy route to doing anything only to find it involved a lot more work in the end thanks to the balance of life and karmic debt coming back to haunt us? Well, lottery winners aside, there are few examples of successfully cheating the system and getting away with it, leading me to the basis for a neat little anime boxed set I watched this weekend called Fullmetal Alchemist: Season One, Part Two, a three disc set that provides fans with the second half of the first season of the lengthy series with all the extras they came with when originally released a few years back , so I'll keep my comments brief as something of a second look at the titles in question:
Series: Fullmetal Alchemist: details the lengthy adventure of two young brothers who were on the wrong side of the something called Equivalent Exchange: "Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost." This exchange does not have to be voluntary but it must, and will, occur nonetheless. The brothers are Edward and Alphonse Elric, kids born of a loving mother and powerful alchemist father in an alternative world where technology is stifled at about the late 1800's level of USA. Travel is largely by train and most people live in rustic squalor trying to make it during economically depressed times.
As the older brother, Edward is very protective towards Al, as much a result of their father having left them years prior. The initial disc detailed their interesting circumstance of Al being trapped bodiless inside a large suit of armor with Ed sporting a shiny metal arm and leg, the result of an attempt to violate the law of equivalent exchange. Their mother had died and grief-stricken, the boys tried their best to resurrect her from the dead using alchemy. Having the natural talents of their long lost father and having experimented on smaller projects as their competency increased, Ed worked it all out in terms of equations, the needed minerals, and everything else he could think of; the secret project ending in as massive a failure as the science of alchemy had ever seen. The near lifeless blob they conjured was nothing like their mother and Ed was forced to project Al's body into the suit of armor to save him from death.
The show uses flashbacks to tell this tale, the bloody stumps Ed is left with after the initial accident replaced with functioning metal limbs that he learns to use nearly as well as the real thing. Still, Al cannot taste, touch, or experience any of the normal things a boy should be able to enjoy; prompting Ed to join the military as a means of gaining access to the knowledge he seeks to make things right. Much of this portion of the story takes place in the second volume of the boxed set, Ed ultimately winning a coveted spot in the State Alchemist organization. Of more than passing note is the sentiment that the military has routinely let the people down in times of need, serving as the police at times, in a world where civil rights are few & far between. Also worth taking into consideration is that the military as a whole is full of corrupt, self serving idiots that treat the people as serfs, using the philosophy that "might makes right". This contempt for all things military makes Ed's decision all the more distasteful, his reasoning to the appointing committing for wanting to become the youngest state alchemist being that he made a promise.
Were this the only dynamic going on, the show would be over in a flash but there was a lot more going on too. Ed is something of a hothead that rushes into things without thinking them through, using his superior ability to conjure using alchemy as his saving grace all too readily. His temper over his height (Ed's quite short) and perceived slights to it get him into trouble early on, the kid learning to better deal with it as time progressed. His youthful zeal aside, his understanding of alchemy as a prodigy of the science/art is quite good and his ability to adapt to circumstances in a pinch prove useful tools as he is sent on a series of missions for the military. See, Ed can transform ordinary objects into other objects; useful when needing food, shelter, to repair broken items, or when attacked by similarly gifted individuals. His weapon of choice is to convert his arm into a sword and as the series progresses, it is learned that Ed has a special gift for performing alchemy not only on a vaster than average scale but without a transmutation circle to focus his energies as others must use. That makes him a powerful ally or a dangerous foe as those he encounters soon figure out.
This opening boxed set had 16 episodes, serving to set up the universe, the Elric Brother's place in it, and their ultimate goal of restoring each other to their full human status. Their original goal of bringing back their beloved mother from the dead cast aside as undoable, the rest of the series shows them taking steps in the direction of their goals while facing against enemies of the people, of the state, and of the natural order of alchemy; typically manipulated by a powerful officer, Co. Mustang, that was the one who they first met after the incident that left them crippled. A master strategist, he sends Ed on a series of missions that all serve a larger purpose, be it to route out corrupt military governors, topple religious scammers, or merely to save innocent lives; the boy as jaded as can be but headstrong and dumb enough to refuse to accept his limits. As the series progresses, he becomes a hero of the people, even to the point where another set of brothers steal his identity and a set of very special enemies arises to challenge him. Al comes in handy as well, few knowing his secret as a incorporeal body trapped in a suit of armor, not a real human in one (especially helpful when someone shoots him and finds it has no effect).
The righteousness of his cause propels Ed (and Al for that matter) to do the right thing, for the right reasons, and with the right touch of irony, sometimes crossing their superiors as in the final volume of the set where Ed fights the powerful colonel to a draw; leaving massive carnage in their wake or when Ed lets go a lawbreaker who is violating the written law in order to assist people in great need that have been under served by the ruling elite. The spirit of the law being much more appealing to the compassionate lad, his humanity grows as the show moves forward, making it one of the best I've seen all year, leading to my take on the second set that polished off the rest of the first season. This time, episodes 17 through 28 were offered up and the previously light series took a substantially darker thematic turn. As Ed and Al soon find out, the concerns about the military from the general population prove to be all too real, the idea that wars spawn all sorts of bad decisions from those in power needing expedient methods to achieve their goals.
Thanks to some of the encounters the Elric Brothers partook in, Winfrey's skills are needed to repair their metallic parts. That leads to some reminiscing of their youthful exploits and a painful truth regarding Al's sense that he is losing his identity. Not having a real body, he is particularly sensitive to the possibility that the tenuous link he has to this mortal coil is fading away, precious memories being all he really has unless Ed can come up with a way to restore his body; perhaps sooner than they planned on. The bittersweet past impacts their journey a lot too with another attempt by Scar to prevent their figuring out the means to create the one device they believe may help them in their quest, the Philosopher's Stone by means of destroying a vast source of knowledge in the form of a library containing the notes of a preeminent researcher in the field, a man acknowledged to be far ahead of the curve. Needless to say, this disappointing turn of events results in Ed plunging into a state of despair until a former employee pops up that may well hold the knowledge they seek.
As with previous events, this seemingly fortunate bit of luck is a two edged sword in some ways as it forces the hand of a group dedicating themselves to a similar quest, the homunculus responsible for a series of ills plaguing the populace over the course of the series. Essentially being sentient beings created by the darker side of alchemy, their goal is to become human but they are faced with the same constraints the Elric's face, the law of equivalent exchange. For their part though, they have no moral issues getting in their way and as the playing field gets crowded with competing factions, the brothers learn of illegal experiments conducted on prisoners by rogue elements of the military. The moral dilemmas facing them aside, the fight for survival results in the brothers splitting up after a minor squabble; Scar actually proving to be a decent guy driven by his need to protect his friends with the resulting fallout causing substantial problems for all involved. By the end of the episodes, Al is left with the uneasy choice of using the resources at hand to achieve his goals using the very arts he so opposes, succumbing to the resulting darkness, or to try and stop his opponents at great personal sacrifice. I won't spoil what happened but the series continued with a few less characters and a lot more questions about some major players whose motivations were unearthed. The conspiracies and corruption uncovered make for a lot of turmoil, the depth of the series one of the best reasons for fans to jump in and get the boxed sets, the individual volumes, or to at least watch the show on the Cartoon Network given all it has to offer so I rated this volume of the boxed set as Highly Recommended too; albeit wishing some new extras had been included to offset the lower disc count.
Picture: Fullmetal Alchemist: Season One, Part Two was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as shot by director Seiji Mizushima for airing in Japan on broadcast television. The transfer was decent and the bitrate enough to minimize the issues present, though there were a few times when the compression artifacts were noticeable. The animation wasn't always fluid, it pretty much never is these days outside of expensive movies that take a long time to make, with some stills dragged to simulate movement but typically staying well within the norm for a recent show all the same. It wasn't on the same scale as some of the other releases by FUNimation, but it looked better than what has been shown on cable this year, the mastering appearing to be the same used on the original DVD release.
Sound: The audio was presented with the standard choices of the original 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese, a corresponding English language dub by FUNimation, or a superior 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track; all with optional English language subtitles. This being a "reworked" story according to the credits, I detected small variances between the dub and subtitles but nothing substantial to merit closer examination. Whatever changes have been made by FUNimation were probably larger in scale than just some loose translations but I have to admit that I enjoyed both primary audio tracks a lot. The Japanese track had some fine vocal work by the actors but the 5.1 version had superior sound effects, separation, and headspace to the original track; with deeper bass and more attention to detail too. The dub voice acting was surprisingly good too, with all of the primary characters coming across as well selected and fitting in their respective roles.
Extras: Like the original releases, this set had all the same extras, including three booklets that gave character details, artwork, text information, and even episode breakdowns of the show. There were clean openings and closings, trailers, character profiles, a couple of audio commentaries by the voice actors (that really weren't all that great but offered some insight to them if not their characters played in the series), and Japanese commercials. My favorite extra on FUNimation projects was also included in the form of the Mr. Junk On Stain Alley episodes, though I had already seen them in previous titles. The 3D CGI shorts always draw a smile from me and I wish someone would have picked up the show for additional episodes when it was coming out. The box set had a fold out case with a set of overlapping hubs for the discs themselves, with more artwork in the book shaped offering.
Final Thoughts: Fullmetal Alchemist: Season One, Part Two makes me wish it had been released sooner, one of the issues I have long had with anime being the piecemeal manner in which anime is marketed compared to other TV on DVD titles these days (where season sets are the most common method of sale these days). The writing makes the show this time and the premise, while a bit shakily explained at times, was such that the wealth of characters contained within the series made it a lot more fun each time I watched it. Yeah, there were portions that came across as needing some polishing up and the need for such a young character as the lead in Edward Elric is all too typical of anime these days but I found it to be a superior experience best enjoyed in batches of episodes at a time, making my double dose sitting all the better. In short, Fullmetal Alchemist: Season One, Part Two is everything my pal Todd has been describing it as over the last few years, an anime series worthy of making new fans of the genre if you give it a chance. Until the anime production companies start regularly releasing full season sets, this form of splitting a season is preferred, especially as it keeps the extras intact, but adding in a few new ones (maybe a short clip of animating the fight sequences between Alphonse and #66/Barry the Chopper or Edward against #48 would have really gotten some industry attention) would have been a nice touch too.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.