Full Metal Alchemist Vol.01: The Curse Review
"Man cannot obtain anything without first sacrificing something. In order to obtain anything, something of equal value is required. That is alchemy's Law of Equivalent Exchange. Back then, we believed that to be the true way of the world."
Those ominous words recall one tragic night in 1910 when the young Elric brothers: Alphonse and Edward, attempted to resurrect their dead mother through the ancient art of alchemy. This was a violation of the science's most sacrosanct law, which expressly forbids the transmutation of humans, and the price for this desecration was severe. In a flash of blinding light, Edward's left leg was ripped apart while Alphonse's entire body crumbled into the ether. Without giving a second thought to his own well-being, Ed quickly sacrificed his right arm in order to bind his younger brother's soul to a nearby suit of armor, so now the amiable youngster is condemned to a freakish life as an animated pile of metal.
Four years later and a lot has changed in the brother's lives. An automail arm and leg has allowed Edward to continue his work as an Alchemist, but in order to rapidly expand his knowledge and power he has become a State Alchemist for the military. This means if war ever breaks out, he will be condemned to use his Alchemy on the front line and possibly use his powers in open conflict. To Ed this is a necessary sacrifice in order to obtain his goal of rebuilding a healthy human body for his brother's soul, but for now in these seemingly peaceful times, the brothers are wandering the land in search of the legendary Philosopher's Stone, which is said to allow its users to bypass the laws of Alchemy and could well be their only chance to rebuild their tattered bodies.
Created by Manga writer Arakawa Hiromu, Full Metal Alchemist made its Manga debut back in 2001 in the sprawling monthly tome Shonen GanGan and quickly made a good impression on readers across the land. Almost three years later, at the tail end of 2003, the Anime adaptation hit Japanese screens courtesy of studio BONES and Full Metal Alchemist found a new legion of success both home and here in the west with the fansub community lapping it up. The series ran for almost two full seasons at 51 episodes, but with Hiromu's Manga only being published one chapter per month, it was only a matter of time before BONES caught up with her work, and soon after the halfway point of the anime's run the writers introduced completely new and independent storylines that understandably frustrated fans of the original Manga. Still, Full Metal Alchemist's popularity never waned right until the end, so much so that a big-budget film is due to hit Japanese theatres in the Summer.
It's easy to see why Full Metal Alchemist is such a favourite with Anime and Manga fans, for a start the writing is very strong and the story seamlessly encapsulates a wide range of genres; in just four episodes on this disc we flit between high drama, thrilling action adventure, slapstick comedy, and some surprisingly atmospheric horror. Then you have the general visual splendour of the art design, from the broad Shonen character designs to the fantastical European setting, Fullmetal Alchemist is extremely easy on the eye. But perhaps the most appealing aspect about the series is the way Hiromu envisioned Alchemy in its purest ideological form as a magical ability to just shift and shape matter around at will by those skilled enough in the art. It's an absolute delight to see extravagant duels where the combatants can summon vicious beasts and fanciful weapons out of thin air, or create a massive barrier from the ground they're standing on. In one sequence the brothers are running away from an irate mob inside a large building, and upon reaching a dead end, Edward simply transmutes a small portion of the wall into a doorway to make his escape. It's this giddy attention to neat little tricks that really sells Alchemy as an entertaining action plot device, rather than strict attention to every realistic fact of the Esoteric art. Sure most of the Alchemy facts featured in Fullmetal Alchemist – or FMA to refer to its given abbreviation – are actually quite true to the real tenets of the craft, but big liberties have clearly been taken in order to deliver an exciting action adventure. Hiromu managed to strike the perfect balance between realism and sensationalism in her Manga, and this has been fluidly envisioned by director Seiji Mizushima and his animation team in this animated form.
In the shape of the Elric brothers we also have a pair of distinctive and immediately likeable protagonists to rally behind. Although Alphonse is trapped in the form of a chest of armour, he comes across as a very mature, affable teenager who provides the perfect calming influence on his irascible older brother, Edward. As a true Alchemist prodigy, Ed might be the brains and talent of the duo, but he's hilariously paranoid about his diminutive stature and is constantly jumping off the handle whenever anyone even mentions his size. However, behind this abrasive façade lies a determination that could cut through rock. This is a teenager who, with one leg already torn apart, offered up his own right arm to salvage the soul of his younger brother. If that wasn't enough, he then went and joined a militaristic outfit that might place him in a position to compromise his own morals and use his skills as a weapon of war, just so he would gain easy access to important manuscripts and devices that could boost his Alchemic powers, and perhaps help him realize his dream of rebuilding Alphonse. Make no mistake, there's a lot more to this youngster than first meets the eye, and no doubt there's a lot more to come from both of them as the story progresses.
The series kicks off with a double episode that sees Edward and Alphonse arriving in the town of Liore, where rumours about sightings of the philosopher's stone are emanating. Located amidst a barren desert wasteland, life had always been extremely hard for the inhabitants of the town, but then a man named Cornello arrived and started performing great miracles, like creating food and water out of thin air. Setting himself up as a pope-like holy figure to the religious Liorians, he has ushered in a new prosperous era for the town, but as soon as the Elric brothers catch a glimpse of his supposedly "miraculous powers" they immediately smell a rat. He's definitely using Alchemy and totally ignoring the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which means he could well be in possession of the Philosopher's Stone they are so desperately seeking. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about this plotline bar the striking resemblance between the insidious administration Cornello has established and that of the Catholic Church, which certainly raises a couple of mildly interesting theological and sociological questions - albeit none we haven't seen before. Yet the formulaic set-up allows for swift establishment of the major themes: The fear of death and the struggle to overcome the loss of a loved one. Cornello maintains his grip over the hordes with the promise that he can raise the dead with his miraculous powers, something which Ed and Al – who know the real cost of attempting to perform such a feat – understandably don't take too kindly to. Needles too say, what ensues is plenty of inventive and entertaining confrontations between the brothers and the evil overseers, not to mention some expository dialogue about the brother's past and their mission now, which adds up to a rather engaging introduction to the series.
Episode three incorporates the main themes of the pain of loss and the inability to shed the memories and mistakes of the past quite profoundly when the story flashes back over four years to the brother's idyllic childhood in the sleepy village of Resembool. Seiji Mizushima is given a chance to flex his creative muscles for the first time here, as most of the scenes featured in this episode appear only sporadically in the Manga, which doesn't flash back properly until much later on, but he's done an excellent job in combining these threads into one cohesive narrative, and this touching episode is undoubtedly the highlight of volume one. The primary goal of the flashback is to establish motive behind Edward and Alphonse's night of Alchemic insanity – to which point it totally succeeds, as we really feel just how much the brothers' world revolved around their mother in their early formative years. The father, Hohemhein was a famously powerful Alchemist who was constantly away on some sort of personal adventure, so their mother essentially raised them as a single parent. Inheriting their father's talents, Ed and Al quickly developed a natural affinity with the art and performed minor transmutations to impress their mother. That is until she's struck down by the plague and their entire world falls apart.
Everything comes together quite beautifully in this flashback, from Mizushima's use of comical montages that show the boys growing up as ordinary, slightly antagonistic siblings, to the inevitable change in tone when their mother dies. The scene where they try to bring their mother back is particularly atmospheric, and while the experiment understandably doesn't get too gruesome, Mizushima isn't afraid to emphasize the extent to which Edward's body is mutilated, and the intense pain it caused him – both psychologically and physically. Throughout the piece we are also treated to a wonderful chorus-led score from composer Michiru Oshima that helps to set an appropriately sombre, bittersweet mood right from the start.
By the end of the flashback we have also been introduced to all the recurring supporting characters that are featured on this disc (the reason for this is explained below). Given the length of Fullmetal Alchemist's story there's no rush in introducing all the major players, so only a handful of characters appear who will clearly play a major role in the ongoing story. First up is a shady antagonistic lady named Lust, who seems to be following and observing the boys every move and is partnered up with a freakish little Jelly-babyish thing named Gluttony. Given their choice of names, it would appear there are five more similar characters to be introduced, but as for now they remain an entire mystery. In the episode three we meet Winry Rockbell and her grandmother Pinako, lifelong friends of the Elrics and mechanical wizards who developed and attached Edwards automail arms and legs. These two should take up the crazy inventor convention that's an absolute must in any good adventure story, and with Winry being around the same age as the brothers there should be some romantic tension between her and Edward to come. Last but not least is Colonel Roy Mustang who witnesses Edward's failed resurrection attempt and offers the youngster a place in the state military. He will undoubtedly be right at the centre of the military side of the story, but with just a fleeting appearance in one episode, we don't learn much about him here.
The final episode in this first volume returns back to the present day where the brothers take a quick detour from their quest when Ed is informed of the whereabouts of an Alchemist named Majhal. He used to correspond with their father years ago, and in one letter he expressed an interest in researching the transmutation of human flesh, so Ed decides to go pay him a visit to enquire about any possible progress Majhal might have made. Obviously with this being a Shonen show and all, the boy's discover there's more to this alchemist than first meets the eye when they investigate claims of the dead coming back to live in the nearby village. This episode is only a moderately involving sidestory that does absolutely nothing to flesh out the protagonists any more, nor does it tread on the main story arc of the Philosopher's Stone – which certainly isn't a surprise considering this is a filler episode that isn't based on Arakawa Hiromu's Manga in anyway shape or form. BONES can be forgiven for the odd disposable episode early on in the series though, because so far they have clearly done an impressive job in introducing the leading characters and bringing the bigger overall narrative to a smooth start. I can feel this will be another excellent long-running Shonen Anime series.
PresentationPresented in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, Fullmetal Alchemist certainly looks the part of a new high-profile show, with a lovely warm colour palette and attractive character designs. MVM's transfer handles this pretty well, the print used is very clean, the colours are very crisp and free of any chroma noise, however if you must go over the transfer looking for flaws you will spot the odd occurance of chroma bleed in Ed's trademark red jacket. Another minor problem is that curse of modern anime productions: digital banding, which rears its ugly head a few times throughout. Everything else about the transfer is pretty much spot on, contrast levels are just right; the image is nice and bright, and detail levels are as high as the animation allows, although a little bit of edge enhancement has been applied throughout.
For the audio MVM have provided a choice of either the original Japanese in DD2.0 Surround or an English DD5.1 dub. For the purpose of this review I sat down primarily with the Japanese track, which is a vibrant stereo mix that provides some minimal but effective use of the rear channels when hooked up to a digital receiver. Dialogue sounds crisp, clean and full, while the impressive score is brought smoothly to life. When the action kicks in the bass answers in kind to ensure the fight scenes feel pretty solid, not to mention some effective use of the stereo soundstage. All in, this is a pretty impressive track.
Fans of English dubs are of course treated to a 5.1 mix, but I have to say it's a little too aggressive for its own good and many of the supposedly ambient background sounds are far too high in the mix – check out the opening of episode three where Ed and Al are looking through some books in a small library, the echo is so high you'd think they were trapped in a cave. The volume levels are very loud across the board and will blow your speakers apart if you set it at the same level as the Japanese 2.0 track, so a little restraint on your settings is advised for the first time you slap the disc in, but once you settle into the rather overblown mix it provides a pleasing audio experience. Dialogue remains clear, the bass is pretty deep and the dynamics remain pretty breezy throughout.
Unfortunately, the dub itself is a bit of a stinker. Fullmetal Alchemist was licensed by FUNimation in the U.S, so it's been given a crappy kiddies dub job to keep it in line with the rest of Cartoon Network's line up. This means we're treated to extremely forced, unnatural performances and actors who sound about twenty years older than the characters they're playing. Worst offender is Vic Mignogna, who dubs Ed like he was 45, not 15. Aaron Dismuke fares better as Al because he's young enough to actually sound the right age for the character, but aside from this, his performance is just as wooden as everyone else's. Another irritating aspect of the dub is the liberties they have taken with the original Japanese script, most of the changes work well, but every now and then you hear a line that is just toe-curlingly cheesy. Take a look at this extract from Al's voiceover in episode three: "We became absorbed in the science that made you feel like you were magic". Bleurgh!
Optional English subtitles are included, and aside from one or two typos, the spelling and grammar remains excellent throughout.