Friday, April 21, 2017

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

What is the value of a human life? What could anyone offer that would be equal to the life of even one person?

That question is one of many philosophical mysteries in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, an anime based on the manga of the same name. It's the question that sets our main characters off on a journey that marks their minds, bodies, and souls. At its heart, the series centers on the conflict between those who would destroy or control life to advance their aims and those who cherish life more than anything else and will protect it at all costs.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood centers on two young brothers: Edward and Alphonse Elric. In the country of Amestris, they are employed as state alchemists by the military and are the youngest state alchemists in history. In fact, it is Edward's codename, Fullmetal, that supplies the title. I should note Alphonse is a suit of armor.

More accurately, Alphonse's soul is bonded to a massive suit of armor. As young children, Ed and Al committed the major transgression of alchemy, human transmutation, in a failed attempt to resurrect their mother Trisha Elric, who had died of an illness. Crossing over to the "other side," Ed lost an arm and a leg while Al lost his entire body. Their father, Von Hoheneim, himself an accomplished alchemist, left them when they were young and never returned.

The teenaged Elric Brothers, especially Ed, are exceptionally talented at alchemy, and in between completing missions for the military, they search the countryside for a way to restore their bodies.

The quest of the Elrics is the base plot on which everything else rests, and everything else encompasses a lot. The anime is filled with dozens of primary characters and their affiliated circles along with big narrative threads and countless subplots and personal vignettes. If there's one thing to say about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it does not lack for material, richness, or detail. I'll try to cover some of the more important characters as succinctly as I can.

- Winry Rockbell, a childhood friend of the Elrics. She is a skilled mechanic and constantly repairs Ed's damaged prosthetics, which are known as automail. She lives with her dog Den and grandmother Pinako but has a way of getting involved with the boys' adventures.

- Colonel Roy Mustang, an ambitious military officer also known as the Flame Alchemist. He is focused on eventually becoming fuhrer, the military leader of Amestris, but he is loyal to those around him, especially longtime associates Lt. Riza Hawkeye and Colonel Maes Hughes.

- Fuhrer King Bradley, the military dictator of Amestris who is respected for his superior fighting skills and beloved by his people for his devotion to his country. It is Bradley who recruits the Elrics as state alchemists.

- Scar, a vengeful killer with no name targeting state alchemists, whom he believes are defying God's will. Scar is from the province of Ishval, which was a country annexed by Amestris, leading to a bloody war that ended after the Amestrian leadership ordered the extermination of the Ishvalan people, wiping out most of them in a genocide conducted mainly by the state alchemists (state alchemists by the way are referred to as "Dogs of the Military").

- Princess May Chang and Prince Ling Yao. Contenders to the throne of Xing, a neighboring country across the desert. May is a young girl, always accompanied by her little panda (that everyone refers to as a cat) named Xiao-Mei, but she is skilled in Alkahestry, another form of Alchemy. Ling is a cocky young man with a pair of body guards, Fu and Fu's granddaughter Lan Fan. May and Ling arrive in Amestris looking for a way to become immortal.

I could go on. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a series in which history, both personal and national, plays a pertinent, ongoing role, and everyone is connected in an ever-expanding web. It very much concerns itself with legacy, the legacy parents have on their children, the legacy wars have nations, and the legacy we leave on the people around us. Amestris is a country with a trouble past and an uncertain future, controlled by a ruthless military and defended by people who end up questioning their values and beliefs as they learn the truth about those who lead them and what they've done.

Alchemy is based on the idea of equivalent exchange: to get something, you must sacrifice something of equal value. For example, Ed can fashion his automail arm into a blade during a fight or extract steel from a wall to make a sword. In a gruesome example, a rebel alchemist uses his blood to create a weapon. So the question becomes: with all those lost lives in the Ishval Civil War, what did Amestris receive in return?

Fairly early into the series, Ed and Al discover they might be able to restore their bodies when they learn of Philosopher's Stones. A Philosopher's Stone amplifies transmutation abilities, granting seemingly unlimited power to the user, but it comes at a heavy cost. To create a Philosopher's Stone, one must harvest human souls to power it. That Ed and Al are horrified by the idea and refuse to take any lives under any circumstances sets them at odds with the villains of the series, who see human lives as mere pawns to be spent. The Elrics and their allies give all they can, and their enemies only take.

The initial villains of the piece include Scar as well as high-ranking elements in the military, but the ultimate villains are revealed to be something much worse. Artificially created humans known as Homunculus, each with terrifying powers and abilities, are behind a great deal of the scheming and evil in the series, and they serve a mysterious figure known as Father (who looks like Von Hohenheim). Simply put, the Homunculus - each named after one of the Seven Deadly sins - are monsters, and they include the shape-shifting Envy, the hulking Sloth, the man-eating Gluttony, and the shadow-being Pride, who masks his true form beneath the visage of a young boy.

And yet, the Homunculus are not one-dimensional threats. They have their quirks and foibles. Gluttony, who looks like a massive Ziggy, is relentlessly cheerful and almost child-like, even as he announces his intention to eat someone. Greed is the rebel of the group who acts out his own agenda. And yet as monstrous as they are, for all the contempt they hold humanity in, one still can't help but feel some pity for them when they meet their fates over the course of the series.

Tonally, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is all over the place like a roller coaster. There's exciting action, terrifying fights to the deaths, tearjerking goodbyes and realizations, heartwarming relationships, tragic downfalls, cruelty, adventure, comedy, even some romance. Sometimes, the tones overlap.

Early on, Al and Ed meet a state alchemist, Shou Tucker, with a cute little daughter, Nina, and a big friendly dog, Alexander. Tucker's work is stagnate, and he's worried he'll lose his job, so he fuses Nina and Alexander into a human-animal monstrosity called a Chimera. This after Ed and Al spent the day playing with Nina and Alexander and growing fond of them. The resulting creature is horrifying to look at but pitiful, and the Elrics' rage at Tucker is palpable. The gradual realization of what he's done is one of the show's most shocking moments.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, there's silly comedy. Take Major Alex Louis Armonstrong, the Strong Arm Alchemist. He's a hulking, overly muscular man with a shaved head and blonde mustache; he looks like an old-time strongman. Yet, he's a big teddy bear, prone to weeping with joy and wrapping others up in a big bear hug. He also likes to flex. Just wait until you meet his ice queen sister, General Armstrong, who thinks her brother is a weakling.

Meanwhile, Ed and Al have a tendency to get scolded and beat up by those who love them, mainly Winry and their alchemy teacher, and there is a running gag about how insecure Ed is about his short stature. He hates being called short.

Visually, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is stunning. The fights involving alchemists involve much manipulation of the environment, like summoning a wall out of the ground to block an attack or transforming concrete into a giant fist. The realm beyond the living world, whether nebulous shadows or infinite emptiness, suggest a hellish landscape. Dark tendrils lurk in blackness, ready to drag people off; eyes and teeth appear on people in places you'd prefer they didn't; and the pour souls used in Philosopher's Stones are left in a twisted state of eternal agony.

Overall, it's an aesthetically pleasing world just to take in and look at. The world looks fairly modern - guns, cars, trains, etc - but has an old-fashioned, fairy-tale like touch. The characters look distinct, the environments are interesting, and the supernatural elements are alternatively beautiful and terrifying (sometimes both). When something overtly comical happens - like when someone gets scolded - their character designs simplified and without details, as if their fear and embarrassment has drained them of their distinguishing features.

With more than sixty episodes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a huge commitment. I confess I found the middle section dragging a bit, but by the end, I was sad to see it conclude. I wanted it to keep going. The characters go through so much and change greatly; even the side characters have their arcs. It felt like watching my own friends and family go their separate ways.

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