As with movies, there are a few anime series that get a lot of buzz and popular acclaim. More times than not however, the reality doesn't live up to the buzz. Sure, these over-hyped shows are often good, but not as spectacular and groundbreaking as one would hope. It was with that mindset that I started watching Fullmetal Alchemist. I was expecting a good show, one that was definitely above average, but I wasn't prepared for the all around excellent show that I saw. Filled with exciting stories, heart-felt moments, and surprising twists as well as being set in a unique universe that's complex and interesting, Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the better anime series out there. If you've managed to miss it so far, FUNimation has released the first season in an attractive package that's well worth picking up.
Edward and Alphonse Elric are two brothers who live in a quite village with their mother, their father having left them years before. The two brothers, especially diminutive Edward, excel at the science of alchemy, and are able to change the shape and function of objects using this ancient art. When their mother takes ill and dies before either of the boys reach their teens, Ed makes a disastrous decision: although it is forbidden, they'll use alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead.
Gathering the elemental components that will form their mother's body and adding a drop of their own blood to make her soul, the two boys perform the ritual they've worked out only to have it backfire horribly. The thing that they make, a zombie that bears little relation to their beloved mother isn't human and soon dies, but what's worse is that Al's body is disintegrated along with one of Edward's legs. Thinking quickly, Ed uses his own blood to draw a binding circle onto a suit of armor and links his brother's soul to the metal form. Something has to be given for the spell to work and Edward gives up the only thing he has available: his right arm.
The binding spell works however, and the giant suit of armor carries the wounded alchemist to the village healer who is able to save his life. Not only that, she crafts a metal leg and arm for him, but while his body is healed, his mind has not. Edward is wracked with guilt over imprisoning his younger brother into a suit of armor and vows to one day give him his real body back.
Edward knows the only way he can possibly get his brother back into a real body is to have access to the great alchemy library in the capital, but only State Alchemists, scientists who are deemed worthy to join the military, are able to access this great source of knowledge. So Edward trains and at the age of 12 becomes the youngest State Alchemist ever. With every step forward he takes one back. Edward soon discovers that the only way he can achieve his goal off restoring his brother is with the possibly mythical 'philosopher's stone' and object that increases an alchemist's power greatly. So in between doing jobs for the government Ed and Al search for the elusive stone and hopefully their salvation.
This show has an interesting premise but there are a lot of anime programs that with solid foundations that end up being run of the mill. There are several things that set this series apart. One of the strongest aspects of the show are the well developed characters and the fully realized personalities. Al and Ed act like true brothers, they fight and bicker at times, but their bond is extremely strong due to the tragedies they've experienced. Even the supporting characters are more than just stereotypes. People like Maes Hughes, the military officer who constantly brags about his daughter, starts off as a cliché but slowly develops a personality over the course of this first season. Mustang, Ed's immediate superior is the same way. He seems to be a subdued officer who enjoys putting Ed in dangerous situations but as the story unfolds its becomes clear that he has hopes and aspirations and that there is a reason for everything that he does.
The story is fairly complex to, and like the best anime shows this one starts off rather simple. Though it opens as a program about a couple of kids with unique powers on a quest, the series slowly evolves as time goes on and turns into much more than that. The viewpoint widens and it becomes clear that the philosopher's stone can affect more than just the two main leads. The fact they are searching for it sets things in motion that will affect not only Ed and Al, but the military and possibly the fate of the country as a whole. Some of the story lines can get quite tense too, and as unexpected atrocities come to light the show takes on a certain weight that it didn't have in the early episodes.
Fullmetal Alchemist isn't a dark and depressing show however. There's a good amount of humor and most of it works very well. There are a couple of running gags that are always good for at least a smile, such as when people met the Elric brothers for the first time they always assume that the armor clad Alphonse is the Fullmetal Alchemist (Ed's military label.) Just when things start to get too down or emotionally dark, like after the serial killer story, the creative team throws in a couple of lighter shows to lift the mood, and it works quite well.
The one thing that really sets this show apart from most others however is the philosophical undercurrent that it has. The program looks at power and how it corrupts, but that's a fairly common theme. The more unique aspect is that of equivalent exchange. At the beginning of every episode Al states the first law of alchemy, that you have to give something to get something, and that's a theme for the show. Not just in terms of alchemy, but for life in general. Anything that the boys are able to accomplish comes after working hard and usually having to give something up, commonly their innocence. Although this is a fantasy series, that lesson applies to this world too.
The w25 episodes that make up this first season come on four DVDs each with its own thinpak case. In addition there are six booklets that were originally included with the single volume release of this season. They contain character sketches, background info and short statements from the creators. It was very cool of FUNimation to include these as they're fun to read.
This set presents the show with the original Japanese stereo soundtrack or an English dub in both DD 5.1 and stereo. While I really wish the Japanese track had a DD 5.1 option too, both tracks sound very good. People who prefer dubs will be happy with this one; the voices aren't artificially high for the women or filled with fake accents. The English actors did a good job and brought their characters to life. The Japanese track sound a bit more 'natural' to me however and the optional subtitles offer a nice translation without any glaring grammatical errors.
Full frame image looks great. There was a tiny bit of aliasing in the background occasionally but the colors were vivid and strong (and they used a wide palate too) and the blacks were nice and dark. The level of detail was fine, what you'd expect from an anime series that's about 5 years old, and the lines were nice and tight.
There are a few bonus items included with this set, none of them too exciting, all located on the last disc. There is a single Japanese commercial promoting the show, a music video as well as a promo clip for the album the song comes from, a textless opening and closing and a set of trailers.
Exciting, thought provoking, and a whole lot of fun, Fullmetal Alchemist has quickly become one of my favorite shows. Easily in the top 10 anime shows of all time, and probably in the top five, this is a program that should be in every anime fan's library. This is a keeper that will have a lot of replay value. This set belongs in the DVD Talk Collector Series.