My 100th Review: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood

Humankind cannot gain anything without giving something up in exchange. To obtain, something of equal or greater value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of equivalent exchange. As it follows, there is another law, and one that’s harshly enforced, both by humanity and by fate… No matter how skilled an alchemist may be, and no matter how much they offer up in exchange, they must never attempt to transmute a human being. Yes, it is possible to map out the chemical make-up of a human body… It’s been thoroughly explored, all the way down to the follicles on an average adult’s eyelashes… But there is nothing in existence that can be exchanged for a human soul. To most, this warning would be more than enough to strike fear into their hearts, and make them think twice about putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to bring a deceased loved one back from the grave. For every rule, however, there are people who will be tempted to break it, and to prove themselves above it.

Normally, these individuals are foolhardy, courageous, and naive, believing their abilities to surpass those of others. This is exactly the attitude that one young prodigy named Edward Elric, a child from Risembool, and the son of one of the greatest alchemists alive. With his father having disappeared from his family under mysterious circumstances, and his mother having been taken from him at the whims of a lifelong illness, he and his younger brother Alphonse attempt to resurrect their beloved mother, a venture that costs Ed a literal arm and a leg… Oh, and his brother, whose soul he saves by binding it to a suit of armor at the last minute. Looking nothing like the naive children they once were, both in body and soul, the Elric brothers burn down their house, and set out on an epic journey to restore their bodies to the flesh and redeem themselves for the sin that they’ve committed.. A task that will require the use of a Philosopher’s stone, an artifact of legend whose power is rivaled only by it’s danger… Much like alchemy itself.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood… Which I’m just going to call Brotherhood, from here on out… Was, unsurprisingly, an effort of Studio Bones. Bones doesn’t always give it’s productions the budgets that they deserve, but most of their titles were directed well enough to compensate for this issue. Some of them use smart editing and enchanting uses of lighting and shading to enhance the visuals, achieving mixed to positive results… I am sad to say, however, the Brotherhood is not one of them. It would be generous of me to say that even half of this anime looked good, but it really doesn’t. It does have some impressive looking visuals… There’s a lot of CGI used for special effects, and it looks competent enough. There are also times when certain shots will have fluid animation, such as most of the fight scenes and a violent riot in the settlement of Liore, but such animation doesn’t come cheap, and Brotherhood’s budget saving tactics are about as blatant as a punch to the face.

Throughout the series, there are constant key frames. For the most part, they stay on screen for two to thirteen seconds, with minimal movement happening in them aside from flapping lips and occasional shifts in posture. Sometimes, it’ll freeze on one character’s face while other characters are talking, so they don’t even have to pay for lip flaps in the first place. This isn’t something that has to be noticeable or distracting under the right direction, but here, it’s just an eyesore. The actual alchemy looks nice, as that’s where the 3D aspect comes into play, but when it’s juxtaposed against the stiff, motionless 2D key frames, the two styles mix about as well as oil and water. A good example of this in the early episodes is when Ed and Al, as children, show off their alchemy to their mom, and she’s momentarily bathed in the glow of their experiment… During which she freezes completely, and then has a minimal reaction. Motion wasn’t necessarily needed there, I mean she was just spectating, but come on, guys, try harder.

And the art, I’m afraid, isn’t much better. The character designs are fine, and they’re accurate to the manga, but they look way too polished and clean, like they don’t exist in any sort of real world. Part of this is the lack of effort in shading, but a much larger part of it is the cartoony direction of the visuals. These characters almost seem to spend more time in chibi and super-deformed mode than in actual, realistic shape, and while I’m sure that’s a huge exaggeration, it doesn’t FEEL like one. The backgrounds are detailed, but for the most part, they feel lifeless, like the characters are just walking around in life size paintings that have no real personality or depth to them. The only other problem that I feel is worth mentioning is the character’s outlines… And I’m not talking about Ed’s hair having light outlines, although that’s the best way to distinguish Brotherhood footage from ‘03 footage. I’m talking about the choppy outlines that persist throughout the series, especially whenever there’s a close-up of a character’s face. To be fair, this really only seems to be a problem on DVD releases, as it was a problem for a LOT of Funimation DVD sets back in the day. The bluray and Netflix releases don’t have this issue.

I decided when I began writing this review that I’d bring up the original 2003 adaptation as little as possible(although, realistically, I’m gonna bring it up once or twice), but when it comes to the music, I did notice what appears to be an interesting role reversal that I can’t help but comment on. The original series had a stellar soundtrack that fit the subject matter of the series to a T, and carried a lot of emotional weight with it, but on the flip side, the opening themes were just generic(but high quality) rock and pop songs that didn’t really tie into anything. They were picked because they sounded good and didn’t feel out of place. The exact opposite seems to be true for Brotherhood, because the musical score is a bit on the generic side, but more than befitting a grand Shonen-Action style epic, and the openings are where the true heart and emotion of the series can be heard. This isn’t a blanket statement, of course… There are some heartfelt tunes in Broitherhood, such as Trisha’s Lullabye, which is used as a beautiful motif throughout the series, but that’s about it.

That’s not to say the music isn’t awesome, of course. In addition to Trisha’s Lullabye and it’s hypnotic vocal track, one of my personal favorites is To Be King, the theme of the character Greed, as it’s tribal theme carries a sort of rebellious pride that suits his ambition perfectly. The openings, of course, blow anything FMA ‘03 brought to the table out of the water. They fit the story so well that some of them, most notably the first one, called Again, can even be identified as coming from the perspectives of certain characters. The animation in these openings is so good that they almost make up for the lackluster visuals that are present in the series proper. I don’t think this was intentional, but the best contribution these openings make to Brotherhood is the fact that the two best ones… The first one, Again, and the last one, Rain, just happened to be placed during the beginning and ending arcs, which were arguably the worst parts, and they managed to get a lot of necessary good will out of me.

When it comes to the English dub… Well, there’s not a lot that I can say about it, and I mean that in the best way possible. I can normally go into an English dub and say whether or not an actor was able to fit the character they were casts as, what they were able to do with it, how they interpreted the roles… I can’t do that with EITHER version of Fullmetal Alchemist, because to my ears, the actors ARE their characters, to the point that I honestly forget while watching the shows that there are even actors involved. To this day, I associate Vic Mignona with Ed Elric, and vice versa. Some of Caitlin Glass’s most diverse performances have been ruined for me because no matter how good a job she does, I can’t stop thinking “Huh… That does NOT sound like Winry.” None of the other characters have this effect on me quite as bad, but the FMA performances they did will always be lurking somewhere in the back of my mind when I hear other work by them. I feel like the reason I experience this phenomena so strongly with Ed and Winry is because of just how sincere and earnest Vic and Caitlin’s performances were.

Speaking of iconic performances, I can think of a couple of actors who were unable to reprise their roles from the first series. Dameon Clarke seemingly retired from anime voice acting two years prior to Brotherhood’s release, and was replaced by J Michael Tatum, who did a stellar job, but was unable to capture the grit and years of lonely pain that had peppered Clarke’s performance. On a much more impressive note is the role of Alphonse, who had a lot of American fans worried when they realized that original actor Aaron Dismuke was too old to go back to the role, having gone through puberty between shows. Through some kind of miracle, Funimation was able to find Maxey Whitehead, who was not only able to perfectly imitate Aaron’s younger voice, but was even able to prove herself a better actor than Dismuke, having of course had more experience than he’d had when taking on the role.

In addition, the rest of the cast is back, slipping right into their characters as though they never left. Colleen Clinkenbeard is still playing both Rose and Riza while successfully sounding like she’s actually two different people, even though one is fleshed out a lot more and the other is fleshed out less. Christopher Sabat is still the most masculine fop you’ve ever heard in what is arguably one of his best roles ever, Major Armstrong, and the scores of roles that Travis Willingham landed between shows have transformed him from a promising rookie to a veteran befitting his strong, resolved character. New characters like Lin Yao, Lan Fan and Olivier Armstrong bring a handful of new actors into the mix, and let’s be honest, no dub has ever been worsened by the addition of Todd Haberkorn, and Trina Nishimura, Stephanie Young. The only disappointing returns are from people like Laura Bailey, Chuck Huber and Sonny Strait, who’s characters have been substantially diminished between shows, and Monica Rial, whose new character May is a lot closer to her usual typecasting than her old role was. I included this in my top ten favorite dubs, and it deserves to be there.

The original Fullmetal Alchemist manga was released in 2001, by the magazine Monthly Shonen Gangan. The series was met with resounding popularity right from the start, and after only two years of it’s ten year run, the demand for an anime adaptation was overwhelming. Studio Bones took up the production, but with the manga not even a quarter of the way finished, they were left with a pretty big lemon to deal with. Fortunately, they were able to make lemonade by writing an entirely new story using the material they were given. The resulting anime was an immediate success, among fans and critics alike, winding up on more than it’s fair share of top ten lists since then. And yet, despite the fact that it was universally loved and critically acclaimed across the board, there was still heavy demand for a more faithful adaptation. Thus, in 2009, only one year away from the manga’s end, Brotherhood was born, and the fandom was elated at the idea that a more faithful adaptation of the original manga was finally being made.

Now there are tons of videos and editorials comparing the two FMA adaptations… I wrote one myself that’s been quite successful… But I’m not gonna do that today. I’m not going to review Brotherhood as a reboot, nor am I going to review it as an adaptation… To be fair, I’ve barely read any of the manga. I’m going to judge it by it’s own merits, as a stand-alone series. Unfortunately, this is going to do it more harm than good, because a good chunk of this show’s early material fucking depends on the added context. Starting with the obvious, the first episode is entirely unique to Brotherhood, and serves largely as fanservice to returning fans, as well as a baffling reintroduction to a lot of the story’s more frequent elements. The episode, I’m sad to say, is horrible, and not just in the way that it fumbled a lot of the biggest reveals and surprises of the early episodes, which were supposed to have massive story-based impacts. It also introduces one of brotherhood’s over-all biggest problems, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

With that out of the way, we’re able to start the series proper… Only I wish this were the case, but it turns out they’re not quite done getting things out of the way yet. I’m not gonna beat around the bush about this, the pacing of the first thirteen episodes or so is abysmally fast. We get to know Trisha Elric for about ten seconds before she dies(I don’t THINK that’s a spoiler), we get almost no material with Ed and Al as children, and it just feels like the writers were bumbling from one important moment to the next, looking to get the viewer up to speed on what they presumably already saw so they could get to the new material. I think I’ve heard that’s exactly what they were doing, but it’s a pitiful excuse for shoddy story telling. It was included for new fans, and rushed for returning fans, trying to please everyone and ultimately pleasing nobody. They don’t even make an attempt at suspense, atmosphere, or any kind of emotional investment, just making sure all the exposition is taken care of, violating the rules of show-don’t-tell to an absurd degree.

The pacing does fix itself once the series recap episodes are over, but by that point the damage is done, and the effects last throughout the series, even during the legitimately good parts, creating some very troublesome problems. For example, Brotherhood has a very weird attitude towards death. In the first episode, an ice and water based alchemist attacks the capital, and he murders two state alchemists in order to show off some of his powers… And these alchemists are disturbingly forgotten immediately afterwards. He’s attacked by Ed and Al, who seem completely oblivious to the fresh corpses lying less than twenty feet from them, and of COURSE this is an appropriate time for the show’s first “LOL, Ed’s so short” joke. Dude, THERE ARE DEAD BODIES RIGHT OVER THERE. They’re also worried about his Ice powers destroying the government, but I’m pretty sure those glaciers were crashing through buildings at one point, and I doubt they were evacuated.

There are four noteworthy characters that die in the first thirteen episodes… I told you about Trisha, but I’m not spoiling the others… And the execution of said scenes makes it seem like we’re supposed to care a great deal about them, but they’re given almost no screen time, and we don’t have enough time with them to build a relationship. This makes it even more uncomfortable when the series corrects it’s pacing, and winds up giving several characters boatloads of extra screen time, despite some of them having minimal impact on the story at best, and with so many of them far overstaying their welcome. I’m sorry, but the fact that Yoki got to live to the end of the series is a slap in the face to one of the most beloved characters in the franchise, whom we were expected to cry over when he died ten fucking episodes in.

And look, before I go any farther, yeah, I like this show. I enjoy watching it. It’s a little on the bulky side, at over sixty episodes, but I have fun with it. The action’s really cool, it has a lot of really imaginative ideas, and I find myself on the edge of my seat way more often than I’d ever like to admit. It’s a good show, so why am I shitting on it so much? Well, there are two reasons; First of all, everything good about it has been pounded in the dirt by now, with over 90 percent of it’s reviews giving it a ten out of ten score, so there’s really no need for me to suck it’s dick. The other reason is that the best things about it are the same things that are awesome about almost every other shonen action series out there… It’s fun, it has great action, and there are a lot of imaginative ideas, and it’s populated by a cast of likeable heroes, detestable villains and hopeful turncoats. Honestly, it has a lot of good qualities, but there’s really not a lot that I can say about them, which is why I’m focusing so hard on the things I don’t like about it.

So on that note, let’s move onto what I consider the biggest problem with Brotherhood, it’s immaturity. It just doesn’t feel like it was written by a grown-up, or anyone who really has anything important to say other than “Hey, guys, look how cool this is!” A big part of this, and possibly the element that irked me the most, is it’s use of binary morality. In Brotherhood, the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and the only variety in sight is when a bad guy is somehow redeemable, either by the desire to turn over a new leaf or the excuse of not being directly accountable for their actions. Yeah, the original Star Wars trilogy also had this issue, but at least Vader was a complex character with nuanced motivations. Here, the villain is a literal embodiment of evil with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and six of his seven henchman(well, Homunculi) have no motivation outside of serving him and following the sins attributed to them. It’s a story so devoutly based on the struggle between good and evil that at the end, the hero(who has kept his hands insultingly clean up to this point) has to fight the villain in a literal fistfight while his friends and allies chant his name.

And on top of that, there’s very little emotion in any of it, with the exception of any lingering feelings the viewer may have carried over from ‘03(and I’m sorry, but there are gonna be comparisons in this paragraph). There are a lot of ideas, but they’re just ideas, none of which carries any weight outside of spectacle. Seeing Gluttony’s Kirby world is cool, but I’m not gonna remember it in a week. The homunculi actually having a reason to be named after sins isn’t going to affect me like seeing them pursue their own individual goals. Knowing the country is named Amestris, and that there’s another form of alchemy called alkahestry is interesting, but it doesn’t make the world feel more immersive. I feel bad for Winry after being told her parents are dead, but not as bad as if I’d seen her crying over it as a kid. I can root for her to forgive the person who killed them by accident, because come on, it was an accident! But when the person who killed them is someone who was willfully following orders, and has been haunted by what he was forced to do ever since, well, things just get a lot less simple.

Brotherhood is a show full of easy answers that don’t provide any sort of challenge to it’s viewer. The heroes win through virtue alone, with barely any sacrifice. Yeah, that’s right, no sacrifice, in a show whose central philosophy is that mankind must gain through sacrifice.. Minor spoilers here, but take the Philosopher’s stone for example. We find out how it;’s made, and Ed vows to find another way. He doesn’t, but a stone is still handed to him in the final act, consequence free, so he doesn’t have to make any harsh choices. There are plenty of huge moments that are immensely satisfying, like a late showdown between Colonel Mustang and the Homunculus Envy, and a pulse-pounding fight between Hawkeye and Gluttony, both of which I did highly enjoy, but it’s popcorn fare(To be fair, still better than 03’s Robo-Archer crap). The action is great on a shallow level, but the drama and comedy aren’t even that good, due mainly to what I understand to be two holdover elements from the manga.

Brotherhood fails hard at achieving both drama and comedy through it’s own aesthetic choices and sense of direction. It has horrible comedic timing with it’s super-deformed and chibi based humor, which happens way too often to ever land a joke, and to make matters worse, they’re used during scenes that are supposed to be majorly dramatic. When Ed and Al are fighting over the former risking his life to save the latter, I don’t want to see a sight gag. IU want to care. I want to feel something. That’s tonally incompetent to a disgusting level. What’s even worse is when they’re actually trying to convey drama, and they do so with no subtlety, using over-the-top facial expressions, screams, and over-acted reactions that are more funny than sappy. I’ve found Tommy Wiseau’s deliveries more touching. There’s a moment after the failed human transmutation when Ed’s trying to get his brother back where he screams “Alphonse no!” And I couldn’t stop laughing over his face’s resemblance to Wakko Warner burping opera music. This kind of thing might have worked in the manga, but anime and manga are different mediums, which is something I don’t think the people behind this show really understood.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood was available from Funimation Entertainment on both DVD and Bluray, but unfortunately, all versions are currently out of print. You can still watch it for free on Netflix, but if you’re looking to own the physical copy, you’re gonna have a hard time finding one at a reasonable price. The same thing goes for the 2003 series as well as it’s movie. What you CAN find in print and for a reasonable price are the Brotherhood movie, Sacred Star of Milos, and a couple of okay OVA series. There are several video games across different platforms, and while I won‘t list them all, I personally recommend PS2’s Curse of the Crimson Elixir. The original manga is available stateside from Viz media.

As I said before, I really like this anime. It’s an entertaining show. It delivers hard on action, fantasy and spectacle, but that’s pretty much all it has going for it. Throughout it’s 60+ episode run, it never really shows any signs of the masterpiece everyone likes to call it, and I’m not gonna lie, those first thirteen episodes are seriously difficult to get through. It seems to follow an ideology of virtue and righteousness overcoming adversity, and while there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that mentality… It is a positive moral, at the very least… It’s still pretty juvenile. In fact, that word pretty much sums up the series… Juvenile. It feels like it takes place in the world as Ed from the 2003 anime wished it was, where good and evil exist on opposite sides, and the whims of fate ultimately favors good people over bad. It’s not deep or complex, but neither are most of the titles in the Shonen Action genre, and those anime are successful for a reason… They’re easy to watch, they don’t ask you hard questions, and they play to your basest ideas of morality and justice. Sometimes, people need an anime like that, and this title delivers. I give Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood a 7/10.

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2 comments
  1. I definitely think 2003 does a better job of making viewers invested in the world. I could see the reason why the directors of Brotherhood wanted to pick up the pace, but it doesn’t make for a strong opening on its own merits.

    • To be perfectly fair, they did have a tough situation on their hands with the pre-established material, but I still feel they could have come up with a better way to handle it.

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