Anime Reviews: Fullmetal Alchemist
Some Basic Information About This Venerable Series
Title: Fullmetal Alchemist a.k.a. Hagane no Renkinjutsushi a.k.a. Fullmetal Alchemist 2003
Production: Bones / Aniplex / Square-Enix
Series Length: 51 episodes
Air Dates: 10/4/2003 to 10/2/2004
Age Rating: 13+ (some strong violence, mild language, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: Edward and Alphonse Elric are two young boys who live with their mother in the town of Resembool, studying the pseudo-magical science of Alchemy. Alchemy is ruled by the principal of Equivalent Exchange, giving something and receiving something of equal value in the process of destructing and reconstructing material into whatever form the alchemist desires. As the boys learn and mature, their mother falls ill and eventually succumbs, leaving the brothers behind to fend for themselves. In their despair, they try to use alchemy to bring their mother back, but the ritual backfires, taking Ed's right arm and left leg as well as Al's entire body, leaving his soul to bind with a suit of armor. Now, Ed and Al embark on a journey to find the Philosopher's Stone, a powerful alchemical relic that could not only restore their bodies, but finish what they started once and for all.
The Good: Technical mastery on all fronts; highly immersive characters and setting; changes from manga may delight some viewers
The Bad: Overly reliant on dialogue; early filler episodes are tiresome; the last few episodes leave much to be desired; changes from manga may infuriate some viewers
The Ugly: The comedy can be intrusive
So what's my history with this series?
Oh, 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist, why do you do so many things well and so many things wrong at the same time? You're making it hard for me to like you! Well, not really--you're still really good, but stop being so inconsistent! In case you weren't already aware, FMA is a veritable juggernaut of the anime scene, and if you haven't seen it yet, you're probably not yet an anime fan or you're lying to me. And you know how much it hurts me when you lie to me.
Funnily enough, I had only caught a few episodes of the 2003 series when it started airing on Adult Swim, and I had completely missed some of the key early episodes that hooked everybody else in, so I never got onboard the FMA train until the 2009 reboot, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, came out, and that series' greatness prompted me to return to this original version. And now I'm going to tell you my feelings on the matter!
On what merits does Fullmetal Alchemist set itself apart?
First off, every technical aspect of Fullmetal Alchemist is, like Death Note, swimming in money. For a series made in the early 2000s, the art and animation are bold, lively, and just flat-out exciting to watch. CGI is utilized to great effect, too, without looking too inconspicuous--to make a long story short, FMA still looks great to this day. The voice acting is sheer perfection in both the English and Japanese, particularly both Romi Park and Vic Mignogna's performances as Ed and Aaron Dismuke's role as Al. Whether you're a Japanese-only purist or a dub-only casual viewer, you're guaranteed a high-quality experience either way.
And to complement the voice acting, FMA boasts some impressive music. The regular score for the series is full of militant percussion and soft orchestrations, and there's not a flaw to be found. A spectacular effort. Not to be outdone, the many opening and ending themes contain some fantastic tracks with eye-catching animation to boot. "Ready Steady Go!" by L'Arc~En~Ciel is definitely the most popular of them all, but there are plenty of notable ones: "Undo" by Cool Joke, "Rewrite" by Asian Kung-Fu Generation, "Melissa" by Porno Graffiti, and those are only the openers. I certainly cannot find anything wrong with the soundtrack, and that makes me a happy boy.
It does help that there are relatable characters and a stunning fantasy setting to get us involved in the story, too. From the very beginning, you get sucked into Ed and Al's plight, their struggles, and their accomplishments on their journey, and each new locale they wander into is as interesting as the last. And with an incredibly huge cast of characters (who also get ample development time), you'll be presented with multiple angles on every issue and you'll always have an important conflict driving the story forward just a bit more. Add to that a myriad of interesting villains, particularly the Seven Sins, and you've got a veritable melting pot of emotion and action and everything wonderful.
And where does it leave you begging to see the reboot instead?
That being said, maybe not everything wonderful was added to FMA, after all. Its slow, deliberate pace works well at times to establish that the Elrics' journey is a grand and monumental one, but then you occasionally run into a deluge of dramatic dialogue and filler episodes that test your patience even more. The amount of dialogue may not bother everyone--many will even see it as a boon--but I can safely bet that many people grow tired of the "Ed and Al wander into a bad situation and fix everything like they're Jesus" episodes that seem to appear periodically throughout. Once or twice it would've been fine, but these episodes occur a little too often for my tastes.
The series' greatest crimes occur in the final third, when all the plot points converge and the final showdown draws near. To jump forward a bit, the ending is a letdown in more ways than one. A.) It's just a big damn downer, and B.) it doesn't even stand on its own, because Bones had to release a movie the very next year (The Conqueror of Shamballa) to try to fix the convoluted mess they made. There are a few cool ideas and concepts present, including the simultaneous possibility of parallel worlds and the afterlife, but it just flounders about in between the gaping plot holes made by the ending. We learn that a Homunculus is made when people attempt to bring the dead back to life, but with a few exceptions, little is done with this point and it ends up going nowhere. The villain also tells us they and their former partner have to constantly switch bodies in order to remain immortal, but...how then do they recognize their partner? There are a lot of questions like this left behind, and the entire final conflict itself is also left up in the air for the viewer to determine what happened. I don't know about all of you folks playing at home, but it really rustles my jimmies when questions are left blatantly unanswered.
Much of this whole problem exists because the original author wanted the anime to not follow the manga faithfully, and so Bones (and Aniplex and Square-Enix) had to change things up and make their own story from the foundations of an existing story. With the exception of the final few episodes, the changes made are usually very well done and add a new dimension of enjoyment to the series. A good many people found the changes to be beneficial, because they now have two separate stories in the same fictional setting to enjoy, but there were also others who were less pleased. These people were miffed that they would now be deprived of seeing the story they loved translated into animation, and so they were far less enthusiastic about this particular series.
So, can Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 stand on its own?
Now then, what does this mean for you? Do I recommend this series or not? Well, if you've honestly neglected to see Fullmetal Alchemist for whatever reasons, then yes, I would highly recommend seeing it for yourself. Aside from the dumb mistakes I mentioned earlier, you've got a really solid anime right here, with some memorable scenes and powerful character moments. There are just too many good things here to miss out on because of a few boring episodes and a messy ending.
Final Score: 8 out of 10. Fullmetal Alchemist is an extremely well-made fantasy epic with stylish presentation, attaching characters, and even some complex discussion of morality and philosophy, but the flaws of adapting a still-ongoing manga keep it from attaining the perfection it desperately wanted.