The second serialised TV adaptation of the manga series Full Metal Alchemist starts in media res with cyborg brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric helping the military stop a super-villain with ice powers from terrorising a city. Almost immediately, the brothers find themselves fighting ‘Isaac the freezer’, a fight that reveals Edward’s metallic arm plus his power to create lighting and objects out of seemingly thin air. They subdue Isaac, but he escapes, and the brothers find themselves being debriefed at HQ before being invited back to the house of their commanding officer for quiche and a place to sleep as he’s a fan of their work. Meanwhile Isaac disguises himself as an officer to sneak into the Central Prison to give another rogue sorcerer the offer of work…
The above plot précis only covers the first nine minutes (including the long opening credits) of the first episode and makes it clear that this series is one aimed at fans of the franchise rather than newcomers to the experience. While the plot may be bewildering, there is an alluring cinematic style to the fight scenes, with the street lamp and moonlight penumbra of its city setting giving the animation an evocative feel that suits its ‘steam-punk’ aesthetic. However, while casual viewers who have enough experience of both Western and Eastern (super-hero) comics may take the script in their stride - expecting correctly that the back story and the thrust of the ongoing narrative will be revealed shortly enough - the odd schizophrenic animation style is much more off-putting: every engaging ‘camera’ angle and beautifully rendered scene that intrigues the viewer is offset by strange childlike drawings that accompany comedy moments and scenes where Edward reveals the more immature elements of his character.
If you haven’t seen any extract of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, the best way of describing this is as if the animation was suddenly handed over to a 10-year-old who was asked to do a more cartoony rendering of what’s going on in the scene, before the animation process was handed back to the professionals, a couple of hundred frames later. This is a style of drawing called ‘Q-version’, which isn’t unknown in dark fantasy animé, but is usually reserved for extras on DVD collections and not inserted into the main animation except where the entire endeavour is meant as a post-modern parody of the genre, such as Production IG’s mini-series FLCL. Production IG’s animation in general seems to have been the model for this series: the dark Gothic flavour of the art plus the enigmatic opening credits, which suggest various layers of reality and include a cameo by a hound, are all reminiscent of IG’s various Mamoru Oshii productions (Brotherhood narrator Iemasa Kayumi was also the voice of ‘The Puppetmaster’ in Ghost in the Shell). But unlike the animation produced by IG, this series takes more of a scattershot approach, including as many references and heightened emotions as it can to produce an overall effect that is neither one recognisable genre nor another.
I haven’t read the Full Metal Alchemist manga, but I did watch the first two episodes of the 2003 animated series to compare the new adaptation with, and found the previous version a lot more watchable than the new series. The animation of the 2003 series suffers in comparison by being a little less Gothic and cinematic, but while it shares the notion of having more comedic expressions integrated into the characters for moments of heightened emotion, these are shorter in length and limited to their faces - more akin to an actor pulling a comedic expression than the actor being replaced by a cardboard cut-out for a scene. The original Alchemist also begins with the tragic accident that turned Edward into a cyborg and Alphonse into a talking suit of armour, before jumping ahead to the present, and this is a more intriguing opening than the fan (only) friendly start of the new series. So, while the animation and score of the original series are more generic than that of the remake, the storytelling is more confident and endearing, and made this casual viewer want to watch more.
Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood treads an odd path: it could easily be a continuation of the first series, as it includes the same characters and narrative, and the same actors voicing those characters, but by remaking some of the same plots, it’s likely to put off fans who saw the 2003 version, when ironically they are the audience who will appreciate it most. The justification of this new series is down to both the lucrative nature of the franchise and presenting a more faithful adaptation of the manga, as the comic only finished recently so the previous animated series had to continue with new plots that diverted from creator Hiromu Arakawa’s strip when they ran out of instalments to adapt. That being the case, since Brotherhood drops viewers into the middle of the story, before revealing the characters’ origins in flashbacks, the animators could have started with the first issue of the comic not adapted the first time around.
Although the disruptive ‘Q-version’ interludes calm down by episode five of Brotherhood, other negative elements of this series still outweigh the positive: long, self-indulgent ’emo’ scenes, while possibly suitable for the story of an orphaned teenager with great power and responsibilities, bring the plot to a halt, and the over-dramatic score, though more memorable than the first series’, often distracts rather than supports the storytelling. At the risk of suffering Full Metal fatigue, I watched the first two episodes of the original version in-between the first two discs of the second series, and another element that wasn’t (yet) present in the original Alchemist but which blights the remake was the character of Alex Louis Armstrong, a caricature of a circus strong man who likes to strip off his shirt and profess his affection for Edward. This might be an example of Japanese humour that doesn’t translate well, but it adds a weird homoerotic element between a grown man and a young teenage boy.
The various elements of Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood that I found distracting from the ongoing narrative may be due to the series’ greater adherence to the manga than its predecessor; if so then this shows the problems in translating one medium too accurately into another. These elements may be unique to Brotherhood alone, but either way this seems to be a serial that exists mainly to satisfy an existing fan base. Newcomers to the range who may be intrigued by the early 20th-century setting and the mix of magic and technology on screen would be well advised to give the 2003 series a watch and only return to this if they’re then desperate for more.