Fullmetal Alchemist has always had a bit of a strange time in the UK. The original series was a major license for MVM, who released six volumes before the American rights holders decided to release the series through one of their own subsidiaries in the UK, Revelation Films. Revelation's presence in the anime market lasted only a couple of years before they shut up shop, and the original Fullmetal Alchemist series has been unavailable since. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a reboot for the franchise which follows the storyline of the original manga more closely, and it was licensed by Manga Entertainment, who are thankfully still going strong. However, their overly ambitious release of the series - which saw it streamed online and released on both DVD and Blu-Ray - caused them a fair few headaches, particularly when low sales coupled with high production costs saw them cancel the Blu-Ray run after just two of the five volumes. With all the drama surrounding the UK release it can be easy to forget about the series itself, but now the furore has died down Manga are jogging our memories by releasing the entire 64-episode series in a single set!
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is set in a fantasy world where the
near-magical power of alchemy is used to help and protect the populace.
Those with alchemic talent can be employed as State Alchemists, a special group
within the military who use their powers to maintain peace and combat
insurrection, receiving a title, special privileges and a good wage in return.
Edward Elric is the youngest alchemist to receive State Certification, he's
short and has a hot temper but is prodigiously talented and together with his
younger brother Alphonse he undertakes many missions on behalf of the military.
However, Ed and Al have an ulterior motive for joining. When
they were children their mother died after a short illness, and overcome with
grief the pair tried to resurrect her using alchemy. However, human
transmutation is forbidden for good reason, Alchemy works on the principal of
equivalent exchange - for everything that's created something of equal value
must be used - but what is the equivalent of a human soul? The brothers'
transmutation failed and they paid a terrible price for their attempt, with Al's
entire body and Ed's leg being taken in exchange and only Ed's quick thinking
and sacrifice of an arm saving his brother's life. Ed's missing limbs have
been replaced with metal prosthetics, hence his State title of The Fullmetal
Alchemist, but Al exists only as a soul bonded to a hulking suit of armour.
He cannot sleep or eat, and needs to keep the fact he has no body secret from
the military. Ed's only goal is to restore his brother's body, and to this
end the pair are seeking the Philosopher's Stone, a legendary source of
alchemical power which is capable of ignoring the rules of equivalent exchange.
Ed's position as a State Alchemist gives them unprecedented access to alchemical
research and information networks, but their search draws them deeper into the
murky world of forbidden alchemy and uncovers some disturbing secrets about
their country's past. There are also others who seek the Stone for
considerably more nefarious ends, and will go to any lengths to obtain it, even
murder and espionage. With enemies like this standing in their way Ed and
Al's path is a treacherous one, but just how far are the brothers prepared to go
to achieve their goal?
For those expecting a straight remake of the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime this series may be a bit of a surprise. The first series was being made at the same time as the manga was being written, and quickly overtook the source material leading to the anime writers taking the story in a completely different direction. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has the advantage of a completed manga to follow, and as such is both faithful to its source material and after a dozen episodes or so, significantly different to the earlier series.
Brotherhood rattles through the early stages of its story pretty quickly, with Ed and Al following up leads and encountering dangerous foes who appear to have harnessed the powers of incomplete Philosopher's Stones whilst learning more about how they are made. They soon realise that their quest will be a maze of difficult moral decisions, and grow increasingly suspicious of the higher echelons of the military hierarchy. Yes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood may be an action series about two teen alchemists battling to restore their bodies, but the story is a hell of a lot deeper and more intriguing than it at first appears.
Whilst the series is suitably action packed and have
its share of amusing moments, it's also not afraid to inject moments of
high drama and horror, or really stretch its characters. The story
and characterisation are its strongest elements, with Ed and Al making
one of the most effective lead character partnerships in the history of
anime. Their relationship is touching and realistic, whilst the
story forces them to confront their fears and insecurities and make
horrendous decisions. Their emotional journey from the start to
the end of the series is compelling, and their journey is matched by
that of some of the supporting cast. Ed's direct superior Roy
Mustang has ambitions to rule the military, whilst Scar, a survivor of
the devastating massacre in a rival country, seeks to bring it down.
The current ruler of the military, the ruthless Fuhrer King Bradley, has
taken a personal interest in the Elric's exploits, whilst their enemies,
a mysterious group of humanoid creatures known as the Homunculi are
seeking powerful alchemists and the Philosopher's Stone for their own
ends. These various subplots weave around the Elric brothers but
never overwhelm them, providing a rich background and intriguing subtext
but keeping Ed and Al clearly at the heart of the story. It's
never completely clear where the plot is going to lead, and as it
progresses and the cast grows the series becomes increasingly exciting.
It combines political intrigue, supernatural action, philosophy and
drama with comedy, a touch of romance and a fair bit of horror, putting
the morality of the characters under the spotlight and never making it
clear who the real villains are. In short, it's fantastic.
Many viewers of this series will not have seen the original iteration, mainly as it's been out of print in the UK for quite a while. Those who have seen the original can't help but compare them and whilst Brotherhood is superior in many ways there are a couple of things that let it down, particularly in the early episodes. The pace of the story is pretty quick early on, rushing through quite a lot of major developments in just a handful of episodes. In the original series there was a lot more time devoted to the sewing life alchemist plotline
which gave its conclusion serious impact, and characters like Maes Hughes were developed far more in the early stages of the series. Some of the defining moments of the original series don't make the same impression in Brotherhood, which considering the quality of the series as a whole is quite surprising.
Nonetheless Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the definitive anime iteration of the story, and Manga's decision to release the entire series in a single box set is certainly a welcome one. Some may baulk at its price point (£55 or so online), but you're getting over 26 hours of one of the best and most inventive anime you are ever likely to see. The series packs in a huge amount of action, drama and intrigue, keeping you hooked from the first episode right through to the last. Nothing's black and white, and the series is clever enough to challenge your assumptions about some of the characters, presenting villains with happy family lives and heroes who have committed atrocities in past. The characters seem more human because of their flaws and complexity, and the plot always ensures it focuses on them even when the scope ranges across the country and to new lands. It makes for compelling viewing, and there's a rare level of depth to the multi-layered story which makes Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood an essential series for any self-respecting anime fan. With its teen protagonists and occasionally cartoony styling some may write it off as kids stuff, but in doing so will miss out on an extremely satisfying action series with real intelligence, poignancy and an excellent ending. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Complete Collection is a must-buy release.
Tonnes. Clean opening and sending sequences, trailers and audio outtakes from the English dub, but best of all there are loads of audio commentaries spread across the set giving a real insight into the English language dubbing process and the impressions of the US dub cast.