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Full Metal Alchemist -
volume 1 | volume 2

Full Metal Alchemist 5
February 2006 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Full Metal Alchemist -
volumes four and five

voice cast: Romi Pak, Rye Kugimiya, and Toru Okawa
director: Seiji Mizushima

2 x 105 minutes (15) 2003
MVM DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Full Metal Alchemist is an anime series set in a world that's roughly technologically equivalent to the 1930s. However, in this world some people have the capacity to be magically control certain elements to the point where these techniques, if properly trained, can give you superhuman powers. Ed Elric (nice reference to Moorcock there) is an alchemist with power over metal, this power helped him save his brother Alphonse's spirit and trap it in a gigantic suit of armour. Now the two boys are searching for the Philosopher's Stone, a semi-mythical object that might well have the power to allow Ed to get rid of his cybernetic limbs and Al to get his own body back.

Episode 13 begins as Ed continues in his attempts to join the military and become a state alchemist. Suddenly, the Fuhrer (yes... the Fuhrer) and his staff of alchemists turn up at the barracks. This creates inevitable tensions and leads to Ed fighting his commanding officer Colonel Mustang the flame alchemist. Though the fight ends in something of a stalemate, Ed learns that all is not peachy in the military and that the Colonel used to be friends with a deserter who might well know where to find a Philosopher's Stone.

Episode 14 sees Ed and Al tracking down Dr Marcoh who, it turns out, is the crystal alchemist and has created an artificial Philosopher's Stone that boosts alchemists' powers but was used by the army to brutally put down a rebellion. They also discover that the Fuhrer turned up at their barracks because of a religious man named Scar who is killing alchemists.

In Episode 15, Ed and Al realise that Dr Marcoh and the Stone are not safe from the killer, but neither is he safe from the military who are evidently mass murdering brutes who virtually destroyed an entire civilisation simply because they did not believe in alchemy and wanted to peacefully worship their god away from the modern world. While Dr Marcoh created the objects that allowed this slaughter, it also turns out that all of the senior alchemists played their part in the slaughter and that this is why they are being hunted and killed by Scar. As the episode ends Ed and Al have their metallic bodies shattered by Scar only to be saved by Mustang and the State Alchemists.

As Episode 16 starts, Colonel Mustang finds himself in front of the Fuhrer only to have the Fuhrer explain that he had no desire to put the rebellion down brutally, but that he had been forced to stand behind the actions of his second in command the freshly killed Iron Blood Alchemist. So Al and Ed are again at peace with the State Alchemists and decide to return to their hometown in order to get themselves fixed. During the voyage there by train, Al's body gets stolen forcing Ed to go and look for him. His search leads him to meet a man who also lost a leg but who accepts it as the price to be paid for his actions in accordance with the great alchemical laws that rule their society. Considering the hardships that Al and Ed have faced, Ed's faith in the alchemical law wavers as he wonders what crimes they had committed that would warrant the misery they have been put through.

Full Metal Alchemist is pure anime. While its setting might borrow intelligently from dozens of different cultures and mythologies, it ultimately remains a story about people with superhuman martial arts style powers slugging it out in epic battles. In this respect FMA is not original. However, it is distinguished from other anime series by its sheer quality and the style with which it exploits its genre. The artwork and animation are of excellent quality for an anime series, the fights are well and imaginatively choreographed and the various characters all have interesting personalities, powers and back-stories. The writing is also remarkably intelligent, balancing large plot arcs with human drama and a wealth of ideas. The only time this series struggles is with episode 13, where the writers suddenly decide to include broad slapstick comedy and bawdy jokes about miniskirts. Again, this is quite common for anime and is reminiscent of the dramatic changes on tone in Love Hina. However, FMA is by and large quite a serious story with serious characters and seeing them fall over and turn lecherous and be afraid of puppies grates and serves to undermine the characters and the serious plot points that the episode is trying to get across. Mercifully though the other three episodes are free of this comedy, preferring instead briefer flashes of more low key and character-based comedy that works much better. The voice acting is also of a very high quality, even in English. The voice of Al in particular is absolutely perfect.

One thing that does need to be said is that I disagree with the previous reviews of this series on this site when it said that the series was inaccessible. Yes, you need a certain tolerance and familiarity with anime in order to not be weirded out by the world and characters of Full Metal Alchemist, but the plot is not difficult to follow at all. For example, this volume was the first I have seen and I was perfectly able to follow the action and piece together the important plot points I had missed out on. Like any series, if you come in halfway through you're bound to miss stuff but the pacing and delivery of FMA make it perfectly easy to get into, even if you come to the series late.

If I have one criticism of the series (inappropriate comedy aside) it is that it sticks so closely to the demands of the genre. It even has a giant robot in the shape of Al's armour. Given the quality of artists and writers involved in the series, it would have been nice to see them stretch their wings slightly beyond the 'bitchin p0w3rz' and evil empires but if you're going to stick within the limits of your genre, at least do so with style and this show has bags of style.

Full Metal Alchemist is beautifully and intelligently made, it really is TV anime at its best. They even bring in a new theme tune that is horribly catchy to replace the early one that sounded a lot like the theme music to TV quiz show Going For Gold. Warmly recommended to anyone who likes anime. As this is a famous series, it would have been nice to see it released as a box set like Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex rather than the standard 'one every couple of months' DVD volumes, but with four good sized episodes per disc, this is still well worth a look considering the quality on display.

The saga of Edward and Al Elric continues in the fifth volume of this critically acclaimed anime series. As with the other discs, this volume has four episodes running from 17 to 20. Episode 17 sees Ed and Al return to the Rockbells in order to repair their metal bodies. Given some time to ponder they realise that when they left to find the Philosopher's Stone they did leave behind a home and family.

In Episode 18, the boys make their way to Central in order to track down the research notes of Dr Marcoh, the crystal alchemist who created the Philosopher's Stone. They arrive to find that the library has been destroyed in a fight between the serial killer Scar and the weird creatures named for deadly sins that have been shadowing Ed's quest for the Stone. They eventually manage to track down a former librarian with a photographic memory who recreates Marcoh's research journals only for them to discover that they seem to be recipe books. However, Ed does not give up hope and realises that the journals are written in code and manages to decipher them only to find out the terrible secret behind the Philosopher's Stone.

Episode 19 reveals that, like 'Soylent Green', the secret ingredient in the Philosopher's Stone is people. This causes Ed to virtually shutdown. How can he sacrifice live humans for the sake of getting Alphonse and him their own bodies back? However, it rapidly becomes clear that this is only the method Marcoh used and it might still be possible to safely make Philosopher's Stones. The boys decide to break into Marcoh's old laboratories in order to learn more.

Episode 20 finds Ed squeezing into the secret laboratory only to find that it is guarded by a mysterious figure in a suit of armour. It rapidly becomes clear that this strange person is like Al; a soul bound to a suit of armour. A brutal battle between the boys and two suits of armour now follows, but the real battle is psychological. The armour suits tell the boys that they are not really human; they are simple facsimiles of humanity used to animate armour. They are not people... they are things, but if they are things then what of Al? Is he a thing too?

This volume feels decidedly lighter than the previous volume. For all the excellent character development in episode 17 and the wonderful Ghost In The Shell-style musing on what constitutes humanity, in episode 20, episodes 18 and 19 feel padded and underwritten, as the plot's wheels seem to spin without moving anything forward. However, the strength of the first and last episodes is such that it is easy to forgive the comparative weakness of half the episodes.

The writing continues to show nice touches such as naming a serial killer Barry the Chopper (clearly he missed a career as a northern stripper) and mirroring Ed and Al's relationship in the relationship of two evil killers. The comedy even manages to settle down and becomes more grounded in the identity of the characters. The most obvious example of this is the Strongarm Alchemist who looks like a Victorian strongman and who can't help striking poses and speaking in a dramatic voice. The voice acting continues to be excellent in both the English and Japanese versions, with Al stealing the show again in the final episode as he undergoes an existential crisis.

In conclusion, while this volume might not do much to advance the plot the writing and acting continue to be of a high enough standard that it shouldn't really bother you. The final episode in particular proves to be particularly strong showing a level of intelligence that is unusual in this genre of anime. Still pretty damn good.

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