It took a fair amount of time from my introduction to anime to properly start enjoying manga, and I generally started with series whose anime counterparts I liked. Despite this, I still hesitated to pick up Fullmetal Alchemist until the 2009 series, Brotherhood, began and caught my eye in spectacular fashion. Hearing that it was faithful to the manga’s plotline and being apprehensive about the anime’s release in the first place, I decided to give it a shot – and boy, was that ever a good decision!
Fullmetal Alchemist documents the journey of two young brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, and their attempt to regain their original bodies following a failed attempt to bring their dead mother back to life. As they research more into the world of alchemy, the pair becomes embroiled in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy that threatens the lives of the entire country’s citizens, and extends far beyond their wildest imaginations. Despite being a fantastical plotline, never once does it seem too far-fetched or utterly implausible. No matter how many mindless immortal armies or bizarre homunculus-related powers rear their heads, mangaka Hiromu Arakawa manages to infuse a certain sense of realism into the story that makes even the oddest creations pose a truly creepy or horrifying threat.
The convincing feel embedded throughout the storyline also carries through to the various action packed and awe-inspiring fights. With stone spikes skewering skulls and lion chimeras literally going for the jugular, the narrative’s brutality not only causes the reader to flinch at every stab, slice and bite, but also gives these bouts an extra edge. Impressively, Arakawa manages to create such gripping sequences without glorifying war in any way at all. Real battles aren’t like the polished or graceful shounen standards where individuals only ever get punched in the face or wounded in the shoulder before receiving a finishing blow of a single – and fairly bloodless – wound to the heart. Nor do they end with a massive impact that sends the enemy soaring into the sky with a ‘DING’ and a shiny light sparkle. No, they’re messy, dirty affairs that aren’t always pretty or even fair. Somehow I can’t imagine Zulu warriors playing nicely with the invading English… they’re more likely to turn the enemy into a human kebab with their spear before disembowelling them. Certainly, the plot’s no-holds barred violence (without resorting to full-on gore) and Arakawa’s extensive research into war, human experimentation, and the psychology behind murder make Fullmetal Alchemist all the more engaging and memorable.
Amongst all the blood and epic peril, Arakawa sprinkles in plenty of humorous content to keep the story wholly entertaining. A well-placed and appropriate use of chibification and exaggerated facial expressions mean that exchanges between the characters often evoke regular hearty laughs, without being inappropriate to the dramatic nature of the plot. This lighter tone also helps the reader to become more emotionally invested in the characters, which ultimately gives the manga’s events all the more impact.
Though the narrative itself is enough to keep the reader entertained, Fullmetal Alchemist throws in odd bonuses at the end of each tankoubon. Short 4-koma omake show the characters in a variety of humorous situations, such as Ed repeatedly trying to convince ‘Genie Al’ to make him taller, and Lin discovering the effectiveness of citrus fruit when fighting the homunculi – all of which frequently result in a giggle or two. Other odd flourishes added to the back pages such as random comical images and the special ‘In Memoriam’ section depicting those that have shuffled off the mortal coil floating up to heaven, all add to the overall enjoyment of your reading experience.
Hiromu Arakawa’s artwork throughout all one hundred and eight chapters is consistently impressive (as well as impressively consistent). Her relatively simple facial designs work nicely in tandem with more detailed clothing and backgrounds, while her competent use of screentone helps add texture, shadow and weight to every object or fabric depicted. Though Arakawa’s artwork may not incite an intense mangagasm with each turn of the page, she still manages to produce some exciting – and at times realistic – imagery that, when coupled with the events of the narrative, manage to take your breath away time and time again.
While not part of the main manga, and only really a bonus, the pages separating the chapters in each volume offer up a beautiful visual treat. Consisting of a solid black background with a simple white line sketch of a selected character in one corner, the simplicity of these layouts results in some gorgeous imagery that looks as if it has leapt straight out of the mangaka’s sketchbook.
It’s rare that any series with such a sizable cast demonstrates such good characterisation. Despite the legions of individuals appearing throughout the manga, Arakawa doesn’t allow any of them to simply fade away into complete obscurity. No matter how minor their role, every character has a definite part to play and – be it a glimpse at motivations, personality, or showing an evolution in their mind-set – they all make some form of impression. Part of this comes from the fact that while Ed and Al are undoubtedly the central protagonists within the series, they are far from being the only heroes. Even in the final climactic battle, they work as part of a larger team who fight to defeat their enemy, all of which gives opportunities for other characters to step forward and claim the limelight for themselves.
Possibly the best example of the above is Mustang, who plays a huge role throughout the series. His ambition, calculating mind and, at times, harshly unforgiving personality bounces off of the Elric brothers’ idealistic views extremely well. On the other hand, his more carefree and flirtatious nature allows him to become an amiable individual. Meanwhile, his friendship with Hughes highlights the colonel’s more human side, which saves him from being portrayed as little more than a single-minded, arrogant upstart and instead accords him far more depth as a character. Much like the difference between his war-weary cynicism and Ed’s naivety towards the world, Mustang’s humorous persona also works nicely as a stark contrast to the icy demeanour of Olivier Armstrong, providing a perfect opportunity for humour. However, this also helps emphasise the narrative’s gravity, by showing individuals who are seemingly polar opposites co-operating for the greater good.
Arakawa manages to hit the ideal balance of action, emotion and humour without relying on one too heavily, resulting in the reader developing a relationship with the characters and actually caring what happens to them. Without a doubt, Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the few manga that will manage to repeatedly make you laugh, cry, and desperately grasp for the next chapter like a zombie incessantly crawling around to sate his desire for brains.