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While it wasn’t the first anime I ever watched, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is always the first show I point people towards when they want to start their foray into the world of Japanese animation.
Having watched the 64 episode series several times over the last 10 years, it is undoubtedly one of the greatest stories ever told in the animated medium, and is up there with some of the best television shows of all time, period. The anime adapts the story of Hiromu Arakawa’s 27 volume Fullmetal Alchemist manga, following alchemist brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric as they journey across the country of Amestris with the ultimate goal of finding a way to get Al’s body back after a botched transmutation. The brothers are pulled into a deep-rooted conflict that reaches back hundreds of years, and while this is the force that drives the action of the series, the overarching theme deals with grief, loss, and trauma in incredibly complex ways.
When you look at the bones of the series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has the advantage of an incredibly well developed world, and unlike the first attempt to adapt the manga that aired in 2003, the story was completely finished when the series was produced, meaning that any creative liberties that were taken still ultimately led to the same ending. The Elric Brother’s home country of Amestris has a rich history, and it isn’t all immediately shoved in your face in the first episode. Information is only revealed as needed, and there isn’t a single thing that you learn about Amestris and the rest of the world around it that is unimportant to the story. Worldbuilding is something that is so regularly underappreciated in media of all kinds, but Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is one of the few pieces that proves it’s integral to a show actually being good.
With such a well established environment for the story to be set in, the rest of the series can focus on the emotional journeys of the rest of the large ensemble cast. Even the most minor recurring characters are given fleshed-out backstories that fuel their actions, and even though this aspect of the writing would technically fall into the character development category, it makes for stronger worldbuilding as well. By acknowledging that every even slightly important character has motivations behind what they do, it makes the stakes the story sets more believable. Sure, a large event is going to affect the main characters that have the power to make it out alive, but more often than not audiences aren’t given a closer look as to how those things may affect a member of the general population.
A large portion of the things that the characters go through (at least the ones from Amestris) are driven in some way or another by the Ishvalan Civil War, either as victims of its violence or as someone who perpetrated the violence. It is clearly established that even the characters who did terrible things are traumatized by what they did, but instead of excusing them for their actions, it’s simultaneously established that while there were greater powers pulling the strings, they are ultimately responsible for their choices. For many of the characters in the Amestrian Military, they go through the story trying to right the wrongs that they know they cannot truly be forgiven for.
When it comes to how Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood handles the trauma of loss, it dives deeply into the emotional arcs of several characters that showcase the different paths grief can take you on. In the case of Ed and Al, they are not only driven by the loss of their bodies, but by the loss of their mother and the absence of their father in the wake of her death. When tragedy first strikes their lives, they are only 10 and 11 years old. Them wanting to do anything to get their mother back is understandable, and their youth plays a large role in their decision to try and resurrect her through the forbidden practice of human transmutation. They take the law of equivalent exchange too literally because they are children, and in the end that is their downfall, with Ed first losing a leg and subsequently losing his arm to bring Al’’s soul back to the physical world after his entire body is lost.
Their childhood friend, Winry, deals with grief in a more subtle way, partially because she is a secondary character in their story, but also because her grief is rooted in different circumstances. While Ed and Al’s mother died due to a sudden illness, Winry’s parents purposefully put themselves in the situation that would lead to their demise, and when it comes to the people she loves, there is a deep-seated fear of abandonment that underlies everything she does. She is subconsciously reassured by the fact that Ed will always need her due to her being the one to create and maintain his prosthetic arm and leg, but at the same time is constantly fearful of him dying. As much as they are tied together, she knows that if she isn’t seeing him often, he’s less likely to be in danger, and that reassures her in its own odd way.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that without the incredible animation that went into creating Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it wouldn’t be the series that so many people (including myself) are dedicated to coming back to. The style that Bones Inc. created for the show meets a perfect middle ground between simple and detailed, with the visual displays of alchemy never feeling out of place despite the backdrops of real-looking towns and cities. With a main use of alchemy being the transformation of certain materials to other things, the visual representation of those things that are roughly created with alchemy are consistent, again playing into the sturdy worldbuilding of the series.
More subtly, we are able to see younger characters like Ed and Winry physically grow up, something that pulls you even deeper into the story by forcing you to reckon with the passage of time. It isn’t often that there are subtle clues to the aging of characters in animated works like the ones we get in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and it makes the entire story feel all the more real.
The final thread in the web that makes the series what it is is the soundtrack. Composed by Akira Senju, the scoring of the series contributes heavily to the tone, serving to make the saddest moments of the show even more devastating. The lighter comedic moments have their own musical cues that get to shine of course, but when it comes to the repeated tragedy that drives the anime, the solemn, string-driven themes work beautifully, and are often used to key the audience in to a moment that may have a double meaning to the characters involved.
At the end of the day, it is very rare that any form of television is rewatchable once, let alone multiple times. Even if someone gets through a second watch of a favorite show, it is more likely than not that they’ll end up picking apart details and potentially ruining it for themselves. As someone who has done that more times than I can count, I can confidently say that I’ve never had that issue with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and I don’t think that I ever will. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a show will simply be that good, and while I am not one for putting things on pedestals, this series certainly deserves one.
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Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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