I first got to know Fullmetal Alchemist during its original run on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim back in 2005. Airing on Saturday evenings sometime around 11:00 pm or midnight, it was a big hit, at least according to the regularly posted ratings in the much-discussed black and white “bumpers” that would air before and after commercials. As I understand it today, Adult Swim has shifted their programming away from anime, now opting for in-house productions much more often than imports from Japan. I haven’t been able to confirm this for myself first-hand, as I’ve been without cable for much of the past three years or so. I should be reconnected in a few weeks’ time, but I no longer expect to tune in on Saturday night and find anything like the Inuyasha–Fullmetal Alchemist–Ghost In The Shell lineup that I could reliably look forward to after work in the past. Nor am I certain that I’d be able to kick back and enjoy it in the same way that I did back then. I’ve sworn off the kind of fast food I’d usually pick up on the way home to eat in front of the TV, and getting drunk by myself while watching English-dubbed anime just doesn’t hold much appeal for me anymore. I guess I’ve grown out of that part of my life, still a long way from giving up on anime but ready to take my life a little more seriously than I was back then.
I caught the first 25 episodes — the entire first season — as it aired in America, but missed out on the second half of the story when it finally ran in late 2005/early 2006. It wasn’t until this past autumn that I was able to revisit the show and see what I’d missed. Unsurprisingly, I found the original Japanese dialog to be a bit more engaging than the English voiceovers, though this tends to be my personal preference in most cases. Visually, the series is easy on the eyes, bold, bright and colorful, boasting wonderful character design and disparate detailed settings: the rolling green hills of the Resembool countryside, the barren browns of the desert surrounding Lior, the empty, white walls of central and south headquarters and the dark catacombs of the fifth laboratory. The blend of action and exposition with both drama and humor, as well as a rich and sizable cast of complex characters makes this a remarkably balanced series and one of the best I’ve ever had the fortune to watch. Plumbing the depths of existential dread, survivor’s guilt, traumatic regrets and general angst of all shapes and sizes, it’s surprising how the underlying tone of the series somehow remains positive and hopeful.
As fantasy adventure, Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t toy with genre conventions or try to upset our expectations in any Eva-esque fashion. It’s just a traditional quest story, its villages resembling an early 20th century Eurasia, with only a few touches (advanced artificial limbs, modern handguns, villains with punk rock haircuts) of future technologies and culture thrown into the otherwise romantically simple and sometimes magical world (or as Clarke’s Third Law reminds us: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic). Before we get too caught up in the other-ness of it all, there’s also the distressingly familiar themes of state-sponsored segregation and genocide, racism, radical religion, government cover-ups, and plenty of parallels to our own ethical controversies surrounding human cloning, stem cell research, and the limits of biotechnology. What makes a someone human? A body? A soul? Does it even matter?
While these kind of elements make for an intelligently layered and often poignant show, I’m drawn more to its less universal qualities, ones I identify with in personal ways that others may only casually acknowledge. I cannot remember viewing any series, let alone almost any movie (Gates of Heaven, After Life and the less-remarkable What Dreams May Come aside) that confronted death so boldly, not just imagining what might be awaiting us on the other side of the metaphorical/literal gate (hardly an original theme, but a frighteningly imaginative vision of it, nonetheless), but examining our attitudes toward death and the lengths some may go to escape or even embrace it. Since I was very young I’ve been plagued by these questions to a sometimes upsetting degree, longing for answers to the unanswerable and trying into make sense of what to do with a finite life within an infinite timeline of existence. Neither the church nor science has offered me any satisfactory consolation against this seemingly perpetual uncertainty, and even when I find myself at peace with this, I’m still left wishing there were other options, anything I could do to prolong my existence long enough to find answers or resolve. This same conflict drives the motivations of several characters in several different directions and to several different fates. Some realize their dreams, though often not as they expected to.
The bond between the two main characters, brothers Edward and Alphonse, is the central relationship in the series and a welcome relief from the theme of brothers-in-conflict so common in anime (Van and Folken Fanel, Sasuke and Itachi Uchiha, InuYasha and Sesshomaru, etc.). Their loyalty and devotion to one another total and complete, tested throughout the series but ultimately unshakable. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for my younger brother and myself while growing up, as we spent almost a decade and a half at each other’s throats, constantly fighting, never really communicating, and missing out on countless opportunities to help each other through difficult times. We’re on much better terms today, so much so that when I spend time with him I’m often astounded by how brilliant and generous a person he is. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder what could have been if we’d both grown up a little quicker and stopped taking everything out on each other like we did for so long. Watching a story like this only makes me more aware of the time we lost. I’ve accepted that conflict is an inevitable part of any siblings’ relationship, and so long as it’s followed by reconciliation, it’s a healthy way to learn about others as well as oneself. Give and take, forgive and forget, equivalent exchange.
I should probably write this after watching the Conqueror of Shamballa movie, which supposedly brings the story to a proper conclusion (and which I may see as soon as tomorrow). But even ending on a somewhat ambiguous note, Fullmetal Alchemist is a ridiculously entertaining and rewarding series, certainly one of the best of the decade, if not all time. How’s that for a hyperbolic first review?