When I mentioned to friends that I was on an anime binge, the most common question was, “Have you watched Fullmetal Alchemist yet?” This series is on everyone’s list of anime series to watch, so it was only a matter of time.
There are actually two series. The earlier one is called just Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a relatively loose adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa’s epic manga series. I think I started to watch this one a few years ago, assuming the later series was a sequel, but wasn’t drawn in by it. (Although it does have its fans. And to be fair, it came out before the manga series was complete, and Arakawa reportedly requested that it have a different ending.) However, most of the acclaim is for Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which is a reboot and reportedly a faithful adaptation of the manga.
Having now binged through all 64 episodes in a week, I can attest that I think the acclaim is well deserved. Arakawa is a master storyteller. I was actually sad to be finished with it. Which is ironic since I was a bit slow to take it up. I’ve seen the series described alternatively as steampunk science fiction or fantasy. I think fantasy is the better description, but it’s fantasy that refers to its magic as “science”, and which establishes certain rules and sticks with them.
The setting is in a world very similar to early 20th century Europe (pre WWI), particularly Germany, although there are differences in geography, and the country in the story is called Amestris. To the east is a desert, on the other of which is the country of Xing, which resembles China. In the desert are the ruins of a civilization called Xerxes, that disappeared suddenly centuries before the events in the series. Amestris is surrounded by other countries, most of which it appears to have hostile relations with.
Amestris itself is a military dictatorship, with a fuhrer at the top. The fuhrer in the story looks like a cross between Hitler and Stalin, but with a voice that sounds like Mister Rogers (at least in the English dub). Although this fuhrer also appears to be a badass, with phenomenal fighting abilities.
The biggest difference between this world and ours is alchemy. In our world, alchemy was a pre-scientific attempt to manipulate chemical substances. The best thing that can be said about it is that turned out to be a precursor to the real science of chemistry. But in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemy is a real science, one that gives magical seeming powers to those skilled in it, all of it working through transmutation, the conversion of things from one substance to another.
A strict rule in alchemy is the law of equivalent exchange. In order to obtain something, something else of equal value must be given. Seemingly anything can be transmuted into anything else, with a couple of strict taboos. An alchemist may not transmute gold, or a human being.
Edward and Alphonse Elric are brothers. Both are alchemist proteges, learning its secrets from an early age. They are praised by their mother, with her commenting that they are just like their long absent father. When she dies of a plague, despite knowing the taboo against transmutation of humans, the brothers, in their grief, decide to do it anyway, in an attempt to bring her back to life, with devastating results.
The immediate result, due to the law of equivalent exchange, is that Ed loses one of his legs, and Al disappears, apparently a casualty of the attempt. In addition, the attempt to transmute their mother produces something ghastly that quickly dies. Ed, in a desperate attempt to save his brother, binds Al’s soul to a suit of armor, sacrificing one of his arms in the exchange. The result is that Al is alive, but his body is gone, and he only exists in the world as a suit of armor, able to move, talk, and fight, but not to feel or sleep.
Fullmetal Alchemist begins as the story of Ed and Al working to get their bodies back. One way they identify that might be possible is by acquiring a philosopher stone, which appears to allow transmutation without having to supply an equivalent exchange.
In order to afford robotic prosthetics for his lost arm and leg, as well as the resources for their quest, Ed agrees to join the military as a state alchemist, eventually being given the codename, “Fullmetal Alchemist”. But joining the military involves the brothers in the politics of the country, including its dark past.
The story is focused on the brothers, but gradually expands to include a large cast of vivid characters. As it progresses, it becomes clear that there are those willing to use the law of equivalent exchange in monstrous ways to accumulate vast power.
As noted above, I think this is much more fantasy than science fiction, fantasy that at times is pretty dark, although I wouldn’t call its overall outlook grim. But it also includes a good amount of violence and gore. Many of its stories end up being commentary on social and historical issues in our own world, sprinkled with some theological speculation before it’s over with.
The result is an exciting and compelling story that was easy to binge through (even if I don’t agree with much of the speculation). If it sounds like your cup of tea and, like me, you haven’t gotten around to watching it, I highly recommend it.