Background: Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the more interesting cases of a series that started off as one thing and successfully evolved over two seasons into something else; combining humor and drama in equal parts while exploring the darker side of humanity far better than many mainstream efforts. I've watched the first season in the form of a couple of boxed sets so I was more than anxious to get Fullmetal Alchemist: Season Two, Part One, a three disc set that provides fans with the first half of the second season of the 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 the 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.
The 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. That 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 third set of episodes went from #29 to 40, spending a lot more time on revealing the past of the Elric brothers via their teacher Izumi Curtis; a woman with dark secrets of her own. Her disappointment in the brothers is apparent but she loves them deeply, leading to an encounter with a brand new homunculi with strange powers (one that Lt. Colonel Archer seems intent on controlling). The volume is heavy on deception and more encounters with the homunculi as the origin of the beings is finally uncovered. The laws of alchemy come into play here too; the questions raised bringing up the balance between creating and destroying as well the that of life itself. Their quest to restore themselves again takes many turns though as the philosopher's stone is needed by the homunculi to grant true life and the military wanting to gain the power of the stone almost as much as they want to cover up their involvement in the Ishbal cover up.
Strange alliances come into play and the sacrifices made by Izumi are revealed; showing why she was so adamant that the Elric brothers follow a different path. The relationship of the brothers with the military gets tossed around so much that it's hard to figure out consistently (Ed is an officer and accorded many privileges but they are alternately revoked and restored with increasing frequency). Lust plays a larger role as she attempts to pull the strings of all the players to achieve her goal and Greed is shown to be almost invulnerable (emphasis on "almost"). The revolt of Ishbal in the past led to the community paying the ultimate price to defeat their foes; the foolishness of war displayed before the volume came to a close with various elements drawing together to end the series with the last set of episodes to close things out. I really liked how the writing kept everything slightly off center but focused on the larger issues, so much not being what it seems at first glance that it lends a lot of replay value to the mix. I really look forward to seeing what finishes up the series and this volume was again worthy of a Highly Recommended rating.
Picture: Fullmetal Alchemist: Season Two, Part One 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, and character profiles. 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 Two, Part One 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. The willingness to take chances with the series was interesting (the episode starring Colonel Mustang was classic!) and the anti-war/military aspects were something a lot of people should find appealing (at least as much as the anti-revenge aspects) and the use of characters like Scar and Marta in larger roles seemed fitting; even if this set ended on a negative note that revealed a dangerous foe in a very high place. Check this one out!
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.