Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist

FMAEdward and Alphonse Elric are brothers who can use alchemy: the concept of ‘Exact Trade’ where you can destroy or create something using the sum of the parts already there. In short, you have to balance out whatever you take with giving something in return. After losing their mother to disease, they ignored one of the vital rules of alchemy by trying to bring her back to life by using a forbidden technique. To compensate for this, one of Edward’s legs was consumed whilst Alphonse has his whole body taken away. To save his younger brother’s life, Edward sacrificed his right arm in exchange for binding Al’s soul to a nearby suit of armour. As a result, Edward now has artificial ‘automail’ limbs whilst Alphonse is a walking, talking, empty suit of armour.

Determined to bring themselves back to their original forms, the brothers join the military in order to procure information about an item that is rumoured to amplify an alchemist’s power: the Philosopher’s Stone, which supposedly bypasses the universal law of equivalent exchange. However, the closer that they get to the truth, the more dark secrets they discover not only about the stone itself, but the military and the secret behind the creation of what is called a ‘homunculous’.

The Fullmetal Alchemist manga is a lot darker than its anime counterpart. There are some truly harrowing scenes almost from the get-go that show the real power of the Philospher’s Stone and the things capable of a human who has one in their possession. No character is truly safe, and every one is at risk as they go up against the immortal ‘Father’ and his team of virtually indestructible homunculi.

As a result, plot pieces are played out in small, action-packed pieces that provide only glimpses of explanation before people are eliminated. It really makes for a thrilling read as there are plenty of red herrings and contradictory statements that make a reader wonder which is true and what isn’t. The reader knows no more than the characters and find themselves working towards revelations in the same blow-by-blow style.

There is a lot of action in FMA, which is often difficult to portray in static panels. However, Arakawa’s drawing style is so fluid that I had no problem following what was going on and was able to follow fighting scenes at the swift pace they are supposed to be viewed at. There is also a lot of differentiation between characters with no lazy character designs.

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Despite the dark themes that run throughout, there are also some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Edward himself is both a sympathetic and comedic character. It makes him a great character device for bridging the gap between humour and tragedy and his flaws make him very relatable. Both Elric brothers mature as the story progresses, and their beliefs and objectives change as a result. I also truly enjoyed Major Armstrong – initially as a comic character, but also on serious level further into the story.

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Unfortunately, in this case, FMA’s strong points are also its weakest. Having to slog through so many deliberate contradictions in the story as well as the constant mystery often makes the plot line confusing and keeps the reader at arms length, never letting them into any secrets. This manga is blessed with a great plot, steeped in the history of alchemy with backstory for each of the warring factions, but this made it very difficult to follow in places, and I found myself having to jump back a few times to remind myself of key points that I had overlooked. As well as disrupting the flow of the story it also made it less enjoyable to read.

Another drawback is its ‘no character is truly safe’ approach. Whilst I really enjoy the risk of getting invested in a character knowing full well they might not survive until the ending, this also makes it convenient for a character to die when they’ve served their purpose or to neatly tie up loose ends. It’s easy to kill off a character at a crucial moment for dramas sake and then forget about them, but I wondered if, sometimes, a new and innovative way would have been more interesting.

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Despite these things, since its beginning in 2001, Fullmetal Alchemist has been generally well-received by critics in Japan, US and Europe alike and as a result has a large franchise including two animes, light noves, audio dramas, music CD’s and video games. Despite finishing a few years ago, it still maintains an active fandom online. Upon seeing the storyline, character development and social and political themes, I can certainly see why. It’s a manga that can be read on more than one level.