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I really doubt I have to introduce this series to most of you, but for those who have been living under a rock I'll do it anyways. Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, who are alchemists in training. In their world alchemy is a scientific principle that relies on the concept of equivalent exchange; to create something you must give up something of equal value. So like if you had all the pieces to a broken radio you could use alchemy to reform it into working form once again. Edward and Alphonse live with their mother after their father Hohenheim abandons them while they're small children. The three of them share several happy years together until tragedy strikes. One day the boys come home to find their mother collapsed on the floor with an incurable sickness. Unfortunately Trisha Elric passes away and in their grief and pain the kids decide to commit a taboo and do what must not be done; to try to bring the dead back to life with alchemy. After learning the ingredients of a human body and honing their skills they attempt the forbidden art of human transmutation. However they forgot to account for the soul, and in the process the equation tries to balance itself out by taking Alphonse away as well as Edward's left leg. In a frantic state over his brother being lost Ed uses his right arm as alchemic material to bind Al's soul to a suit of armor whilst his body gets obliterated. And what is made even worse is that the human transmutation didn't even work... no, it's beyond that. What they created was something that couldn't be called human. With Al as nothing more than a hunk of metal with a soul attached and Ed missing two limbs they decide to go on a journey to find the fabled Philosopher's Stone which defies the laws of equivalent exchange to get their bodies back to normal. And so the iconic series begins.
Now, I might as well get this out of the way right here; while this might be one of the most popular animes of all time most people recommend the redone version Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, with updated animation and a story that sticks more closely to the manga. So how does the original series hold up? Well, err... not really that great in all honesty. The series has some brilliant moments, no doubt about that. The struggles that Edward and Alphonse experience on their quest start off much like Samurai Champloo in that the travelers drift through towns one at a time and resolve them in a chain of unrelated matters that span the first twenty or so episodes. As it goes on however the random encounters start to come back to haunt them as events and people they met along the way reappear to throw a wrench in their plans and start coalescing into something far more heinous. This is an incredibly dark anime by the way, no doubt about it. Things aren't always sunshine and rainbows. Hell, just within the first few arcs you get false prophets, human experimentation, epidemics, and genocide. Even with all this depressing stuff however the series can't take itself seriously a lot of the time and inserts comic relief into sometimes questionable places which gets frustrating occasionally.
One of my main issues with the series is the pacing. It might just be the fact that I'm the type of guy who enjoys seinen animes much more than shounens, but there's no doubt that there's some issues here. Any time the overarching plot starts to creep forward someone does or says something that prolongs the points far longer than they needed to be dragged out. Characters seem to get struck with stupidity at the oddest moments and will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo no matter how hard they were fighting against it a moment ago. It's just really damn annoying when they keep moving forward at an oozing snail's pace.
One of the best things about the series at least is the main characters. Let's start off with Edward. As the elder of the two Elrics he's the one who tries to look after his younger brother. He is someone of rather diminutive height and this fact ignites his extremely short temper whenever someone mentions it. He's foul-mannered, surly, and a bit of a Dick at times. However he has unshakeable fervor in his quest to return his brother back to his body, and cares deeply for his friends and family few as they may be. He decides to become a state alchemist (or as he puts it becoming a dog for the military) to gain resources to help him along into finding out the mysteries beyond the legendary Philosopher's Stone. Ed carries around a lot of guilt with himself due to almost losing all he had left the night he tried to bring back his mother and it's a largely defining part of his character. He also shares a deep bond with his brother that is tested and strengthened several times throughout the course of the series.
Alphonse meanwhile is the younger brother, and generally acts quieter and far more level-headed than Edward. He seems to be meek at first glance but when push comes to shove and he reaches a decision he turns into a stubborn mule who will fight as long as he is able to stand. Unfortunately this also works to his detriment at times due to how incredibly stupid he can be. At a snap judgement he will believe the words of a serial killer he barely knows or an artificial construct over his brother and friends. Come to think of it on a side note both the Elric brothers are painfully quick to forgive people who have committed the most horrific atrocities, Al even moreso than Ed. People can commit mass genocides and frequent murders of innocent people right in front of them and they'll still be half-convinced that the psychopaths are actually good deep down and even start trying to protect them. One more thing about him though is his battle to hold on to his human identity inside the prison of cold steel, unable to feel heat or cold, to eat or sleep. It's his main struggle as he progresses through the anime.
The other characters are varying shades from decent to hilarious yet one dimensional to mediocre and outright bad. At the top of the heap is Colonel Mustang who seems to be married to his position yet this facade hides surprisingly strong morals. Major Hughes and Major Armstrong are extremely likable and funny but they never really get all that much development beyond some simpler stuff. None of the rest of the military characters really fall into much more than fairly bland supporting roles despite how much screentime they get (two days after finishing all I remember of the names are the ones I just said as well as Fuhrer Bradley and Chessa). On the other end of the spectrum however you have Ed and Al's childhood friend Winry. And holy hell I can't stand her. She's one of those female characters who likes to constantly hit the protagonists without any repercussions due to her gender. I find this easy to overlook and have in many series so long as the character is otherwise likable enough. Winry fails craptastically at this. She's violent and stand-offish half the time and whiny and emotional the other half. There's an episode partway through where her and the Elrics stop in a town famed for its automail makers and in it she acts incredibly petty and selfish. It personifies everything I hate about the character, and to top it off she starts crying and sobbing whenever Ed or Al are about to kill despicable villains in front of her and forces them to stop. Come to think of it she's a lot like Ed and Al's teacher, although their teacher at least has enough badass moments to make up for her character flaws later on. That's about all the major players I really care to talk about that aren't the villains.
As for the dark side of the coin you have the enemies the Elrics face throughout the series. Let me get this out of the way, all but a few of them are absolutely terrible. Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth as well as their master are by and large one-track minds that don't go far beyond "I WILL DO ____ AND KILL ANYONE WHO GETS IN MY WAY WITH NO REMORSE". They try to inject more sophisticated motives behind their actions later on but by then it doesn't do a damn think towards making them one bit more likable. And I'm not talking about someone who ends up an antihero or something, no, I'm talking about I want villains who I love to hate instead of just plain hate. In this category the only ones I can consider quality are Greed, and to a lesser extent Scar and Pride. The lesser villains are even more in the one-track mind I listed above, and they're the ones who are basically one step away from rubbing their hands together and cackling. There's no intrigue behind them, they're just one-dimensional selfish bastards bent on money or power or simply just getting off on killing people.
The visuals for the series are about par for the course for what you'd expect from a decade ago. Bones does a fairly good job. There's no magnificent backgrounds or lush scenery to be had but it does well enough with what it has. The character designs are all incredible though, particularly for the Elrics. The robotic limbs and red coat Ed wears and Al's suit of armor are some of the most easily-identifiable ones I've seen. No complaints here from me, not even for all the minor characters either. They're all really well put together. As for the music it's decent but nothing amazing, although I did like one of the ending themes really well (the second theme I think?). Last but not least this is one of the series I have no trouble recommending the dub from. All the voices fit really well and since it came out in the early 2000s it misses out on most of the cheesiness that plagues slightly older dubbing jobs.
Final verdict: 7.75/10. Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the most popular animes of all time. It is backed by some really good moments, a great premise, and an eclectic cast of characters. However, problems arise aplenty due most notably to the pacing as well as the mediocre to terrible villains and some general stupidity. Is it worth experiencing? Yes, but don't go in expecting a masterpiece. Temper your expectations going in and adopt a more realistic outlook on what you're gonna get, which is a flawed but decent series. If you want to go for this instead of Brotherhood then by all means you could do far worse than picking it. Also it is of note that the movie finishes things off and it also has the same set of problems attached to it and in some cases magnified even more. Long story short, this is a series that is too large to ignore, but whether you go to where it all began or move on to the much more acclaimed Brotherhood is up to you. Neither path is a bad one.