Thursday, 14 July 2016

Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood Review

The following review originally appeared in MyM Magazine issue #4 

In Hollywood, remakes, reboots and re-imaginings have been a big part of the plan for a long time. Why come up with a new idea, when there's a perfectly good one waiting to be dusted off and reused? It worked before so it can work again. Despite the anime industry becoming increasingly risk-averse in these turbulent times anime remakes are surprisingly few and far between. This makes Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood an unusual case- especially as the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime only dates back to 2003. FMA was one of the most popular anime of the early noughties (at least in the West), and was even screened on the short-lived Anime Central channel. Arguably however Brotherhood is not a remake at all, nor a sequel. It is a fresh adaptation of the same material- Hiromu Arakawa' s original manga.

For those who have been living under a philosopher's stone, all incarnations of FMA follow the adventures of the Elric brothers- Edward and Alphonse who live in the fictional country of Amestris . Their world resembles our own (in the early twentieth century), except for their reliance of the art of alchemy. The brothers attempt to use alchemy to resurrect their beloved mother, breaking a taboo that costs the older brother his arm and leg and the younger his entire body. Edward's missing limbs are replaced by artificial ones, while poor Al has his soul bound to a suit of armour, as they set off on a quest to recover their missing bodies. Persuaded to enlist in the military as a State Alchemist, Ed and his brother find themselves involved in a conspiracy that goes to the very top.

Brotherhood is intended to be a more faithful adaptation of the source manga. The original anime diverged considerably from the plot, with almost the entire second half being new material. In the new version however it sticks much closer to how the story was originally written.

This does mean that, yes, if you have already seen the original version the early episodes will be somewhat familiar.  It almost goes without saying, but obviously if this is your first brush with FMA then this won't be a problem at all.

One thing that distinguishes itself from the original right off the bat is the amount of comedy. The first series had comedic moments, but nothing in comparison to the level seen in Brotherhood. Frequently the show throws in slapstick and wacky humour - often accompanied by a change in animation style. This may be more in keeping with the tone of the manga, but it can sit oddly with some of the more serious material, and the constant “ Ed is short, ha ha” jokes can get wearing.

The animation (courtesy of studio Bones) has had an upgrade and looks gorgeous. It's a shame that low sales forced Manga to cancel the Blu-ray release, as this is a show that deserves HD. None-the-less this is an an unquestionably good-looking series, with some subtle well-integrated CGI.

Action sequences here are also top-rate, with alchemy a good excuse for some cool looking powers. Flashy and spectacular, they keep you on the edge of your seat. However it's thanks to the anime's fantastic work in building up the characters that you stay really invested in the action- and caring about the outcome.

What really sets Fullmetal Alchemist apart from other Shonen series is it's depth. Sure, most other similar shows try and give characters tragic back-stories but few series can hold a candle to FMA in this regard. There are few series that put their characters this much through the wringer, at least this side of Evangelion. The Elric brother's troubled past is genuinely affecting and makes them hugely sympathetic leads. All this stuff was handled well in the original but is done even better here. A major event that occurs to one of the most beloved characters in the story (fans know what I'm talking about) is even more of a gut-punch in Brotherhood.  In a number of places this series proves to be genuinely poignant, and there's not many anime you can say that about.

Brotherhood delves into some seriously dark themes. It touches upon ideas such as eugenics, genocide and what it means to be human. The fantasy setting is used to draw parallels with real-life events. The military state of Artemis is a warmongering nation, often apparently on the wrong side of a conflict. This invites comparisons with Imperial Japan's wartime activities. More obviously it evokes Nazi Germany- made more explicit with the use of elements of German culture and language.  The flashbacks to the desert nation of Ishval also recall the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and America's recent foreign policy.  For those who enjoy a show that makes you think, this is a definite plus.

If you've already seen and enjoyed the original then this is still worth your time. Yes, the earlier episodes may be a retread, but at 65 episodes, there's still a whole load of new material. It does everything the original series did just as well, if not better.

However for FMA first-timers- which version should you go for? Well... the original is out of print in the UK for a start, which might make your decision easier. The new version is superior in virtually every way. It's personal preference whether the increased amount of comedy is a good or bad thing (I could have lived without it), but in every other respect, this is an unqualified success. You can't really go wrong with either version, but personally I'd go with Brotherhood every time.

Overall, Brotherhood is an astonishing piece of work and a towering achievement. Well animated, action-packed and entertaining and that's all before you consider the hidden depth that the intelligent writing has. This bumper-sized boxset is great value too. The episodes are worth in on their own, but audio commentaries on all the episodes are icing on the cake. This is one of the best anime released this decade and comes unreservedly recommended. 5/5

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