The 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime was a critical success, and became very popular. Why shouldn't it have? It was a great show. Fans of the manga, however, will notice a few changes: like... everything. The anime really went and did it's own thing entirely. Brotherhood is a reboot of the series, and one that stays closer to the manga source. For those few who may have spent the last eight years under a rock (or out in the real world doing something with their life, unlike myself), heres what sets FMA apart from other animes: alchemy. It's what jutsu is in Naruto, or what ki is inDragonBall. It's the hook of the series. And it's pretty damn cool.
In the show, alchemy is presented, distinctively, as a science. It has rules that must be followed. But have you ever heard the saying, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?" (It's an Arthur C. Clarke quote, by the way.) Well, this is kind of like that. Change the properties of an object or material's matter, in order to create something different -- and in the process, you'll be sure to get a fancy lightshow. That's what alchemy is. And you'd be amazed how many great fight scenes, and how many interesting storyline plot points can be hung onto it.
The Plot / Setting
Fullmetal Alchemist creates a fully-realized fictional world, and does so far better than most anime series. Not only that, it perfectly streams information to the viewer at a digestable pace: so while we're following the main characters, Ed and Al Elric, and seeing their personal quest unfold, we're also seeing largescale military and political conflict at the nation level. The military state of Amestris. The (suspiciously Chinese) eastern kingdom of Xing. The fallen nation in the wake of a genocide, Ishbal. Each has a role in the grand scheme of things; but we're rarely shown things from such a disconnected point of view.
Instead, we have Ed and Al making use of Ed's state alchemist position in order to look for a philosophers stone, so that they can regain their bodies, which they lost by committing the taboo of human transmutation. Along the way, they face homunculi, chimerae, and the Truth. If you haven't watched the show yet, that pair of sentences probably raised an eyebrow. And although I could potentially summarize the series into several paragraphs, I don't want to do that. Fullmetal Alchemist does a great job of pacing itself: it lays out its story as a collection of pieces, and then by the end, it puts them together to form a cohesive whole. For a review to spoil this experience would be a crime, as far as anime-viewing goes.
Suffice to say, it's all highly enjoyable.
Every once in a while, a series comes along with a character that's just so cool, and so likable, that he becomes an instant classic for anime fans: someone like Kakashi. Someone like Light Yagami. Someone like Lelouch. Fullmetal Alchemist has two of those. Both Ed Elric, and Roy Mustang will be remembered as some of the all-time greats. The simple fact is, even though they are highly capable characters who -- let's spearhead it -- are cool as hell, they face real problems. We as viewers can relate to them.
The rest of the cast is also really solid, though. Personal highlights for me included the sadistic and androgynous Envy, Scar, an Ishbalan serial-killer targeting state alchemists, and Lan Fan, who is for lack of better words a ninja bodyguard from Xing. Your mileage will vary, and I expect that no two lists of favorites would turn out the same. Every character is richly detailed, with their own motivations and goals, and as a result there are many likable ones. And another positive, that goes a long way in this reviewer's mind, is that they are all visually distinct and interesting. Sometimes a series, even a very prominent and popular one, will seem to re-use faces or bodies, and that's jut not the case with Brotherhood. Here, every character is unique, and they are all aesthetically solid.
The animation in Fullmetal Alchemistis really good -- it's one of those series that gets all of the big sponsors, like Square. But it's not just the animation that makes it so exciting to watch. The fights contain so many moments that could best be described with the phrase "Oh damn, it just got real." On more than one occasion, I found myself standing in front of my monitor, fist pumping and cheering. At times, the action will appear to be going in one direction, only for things to swerve, due to an interesting development in the story, the action, or both. Unfortunately, by their nature, these occurrences would be major spoilers, so we'll not linger on discussing them. But we will say that they generally involve fire, swords, kunai, alchemic explosions or any combination of one or more of the previously mentioned things.
Unfortunately, one of the few flaws of the series comes from its action scenes. Namely, some of them are just too short. I understand that Fullmetal Alchemist isn't a "fighting anime." And that's fine, we have enough of those. But still, it's somewhat disappointing to see a fight that is built up to (Ed versus Greed comes to mind) end in roughly one minute. I recall that fight being particularly good in the 2003 series, and I expected a lot more when I got to it this time around.
Art and Sound
As mentioned, the animation quality of Brotherhood is really high. The artwork is stunningly beautiful. The series has strong, solid line art, and is full of vibrant colors. The alchemy effects, in particular, can be jaw dropping. I'm convinced that the reason for the lightning-effects being produced through transmutation has little to do with the scientific principles behind it, and more because it's just really pretty. Certainly, I have no qualms to make about the show's visuals.
The music is arguably even better than the art. There's one or two stinkers as far as opening and ending themes go, but this is offset by a few really brilliant ones, crowned by YUI's "Again" and Chemistry's "Period." Aside from adding to the list of J-Rockish J-Pop songs that I like, Brotherhood also contains a lot of background music that really adds to the drama of certain scenes, and helps to build tension. However, not only do I not know the names of any of them, I can't say for certain that they even have names... Well, I assure you, they're there, and they are complimented by a wonderful cast of voice actors (going by the original Japanese audio tracks.)
I haven't yet stated it directly, so here it is: I loved Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. It's my favorite anime of 2009. However, I should state that I was totally bummed out by the ending. After an incredible rollercoaster ride that lasts sixty-three episodes, the sixty-fourth (and final) really left me unfulfilled. But can I overlook the ending? Absolutely. The rest is A-plus material. The ending is the single flaw in an otherwise perfectly cut diamond.
Final Rating: 10.0 out of 10