Reviewby Jacob Chapman, May 25th 2010
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood DVD Part 1 (Hyb)
In 2003, Studio BONES produced an anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, a shonen series from relatively new mangaka Hiromu Arakawa. The end result was a smash hit for both Japanese and American audiences, ranking #20 in TV Asahi's list of the Top 100 most popular anime, and continuing to run on Adult Swim for years after its incredibly successful initial run with longtime anime fans and non-fans alike, becoming a gateway title to otakudom somewhat comparable to Cowboy Bebop and Spirited Away. For all its acclaim, however, a fair amount of fans were displeased with the adaptation's severe divergence from the original manga.
Brotherhood seeks to rectify this complaint with a retelling of Ed and Al's quest to regain their lost bodies, this time in strict accordance with the events of the manga, which is now nearing completion. The revisited epic jumps to an electrifying start, following the brothers from their tragic origins up through their first encounter with the self-proclaimed homunculus, Greed…
It would be nice to have written a real plot summary to preface this review, it would be nice to pretend everyone doesn't know the synopsis already, and as such, it would be nice to discard the first anime adaptation of FMA and take Brotherhood completely at face value. It's the only way to gauge an adaptation's worth as a work unto itself, after all. Unfortunately, this series makes it clear from episode one that it doesn't want to be taken in through fresh eyes, but rather, squeals of nostalgia. Like its predecessor, Brotherhood's begins its pilot in media res, but instead of doing this as a way to establish the cast and the world they live in, this is really an excuse to cram as many well-known characters and their catchphrases into one episode as possible. This does not feel like the first episode to a fantastic journey, it plays like an episode of Saturday Night Live where retired cast members come back for a cameo and only those who recognize them laugh at the skit. Of course there is a great deal of action, the story is well underway, and some character establishment is present, but “establishing” that “ha ha, Ed is short” at least four times in ten minutes makes this easy to forget.
Speaking of casting, fans of the Japanese version of FMA may be at odds with the casting choices here. Romi Paku, Rie Kugimiya, and Keiji Fujiwara return as Ed, Al, and Hughes respectively, but the majority of the characters have been recast, and many, notably Mustang's new seiyuu, sound wholly different from their original voices. Still, no complaint can be found with the acting as of yet, and this goes for the dub as well. With the notable exceptions of Dameon Clarke and Aaron Dismuke, the entire English cast, down to some incidentals like comedic vagrant Yoki, returns here and mostly sound as if they've never left, which is a very good thing if the glowing reception for the previous dub is any indication. J Michael Tatum takes over Clarke's place as Scar, playing the role quite differently but for good reason: Scar is a very different character in this version of the story. Maxey Whitehead takes over the post-pubescent Dismuke's role as Al, and while still clearly not Dismuke, does a remarkable job emulating his voice. What's more important, of course, is that she fill the part dramatically, regardless of her vocal quality, and in that regard, they could not have found a better replacement for Aaron's great performance in the first series. The english cast is also responsible for the only noteworthy extras on this release: a pair of commentaries, wherein we are introduced to the talented Maxey Whitehead and everyone discusses Tesla and anachronistic rotary telephones. Thanks to the breakneck pace of the show, nearly all the main cast makes an appearance somewhere in these first thirteen episodes, so viewers can judge for themselves what to think overall.
This is a party held for the fans, and the more diehards you can pack into a room to watch this series, the more enjoyable it will be. This is highly recommended, because viewed alone with the fanboy (or girl) switch off, the very first episode is borderline terrible. By episode three, there is no borderline. Now portraying these events for a third time and striving to do it uniquely, Brotherhood plows through key emotional moments just before shattering them with poorly placed humor, all the while dogged by music so uninspired and distracting, it sounds suspiciously like a mix from Pro Scores tacked on far too late in the game. In fact, the musical score of Brotherhood has got to be its highest detriment. This series' fear of silence is astounding, and overly grandiose choral music or piping loops of orchestral mediocrity blare through scenes that were more effective without them…just compare to the other, quieter anime. It is honestly embarrassing. By episode 4 the series has shown signs of restraint, but it's not yet doing anything that the first anime and the manga did not do better, because it can't seem to decide between the two mediums in its execution.
With the exception of its celebratory premiere episode, this series is everything that the fans have hoped for: a transcription of the original manga, nearly by the panel, with elements and events added in occasionally to pad for time or speed it up and substitute chapters like the train hijacking or the Youswell coalmines already covered faithfully in the first anime. It seems loyal to its source manga to a fault, playing out like a pan of various comic panels and lapsing into super-deformity and screaming for nearly a third of every episode, but the places it chooses to step out and improvise are much worse. Case in point: by the time Father Cornello turns into the Hulk, exhaustion and confusion have replaced all initial fanthusiasm, never mind any poor newcomer who happened to stumble upon the raucous mess. Once the dust has cleared, this series has covered roughly 33 episodes of the first anime's material in its first 13, or to be more accurate, 7 volumes of manga.
Still, to be fair…how many anime fans have not seen Fullmetal Alchemist or have at least had its entire plot spoiled for them by their friends who have? The franchise was lucrative enough to allow a viewership entirely of prior fans, and should they hold out past the garish introduction, the later episodes in this release are already improving. Al's identity crisis and the brothers' reunion with Izumi are handled well, and despite rough spots in execution, the story at Fullmetal's heart is incredibly strong, and not even slipshod pacing and delivery can tarnish that by much. All complaints against this series are simply comparing it against an incredibly high pedigree, but it is still above average.
In truth, there are precisely three places this adaptation surpasses its predecessor. Adherence to the manga, obviously, which will be a more rewarding trait when new material is animated, and a budget sizable enough to make those coming episodes an incredible treat for all. Brotherhood carries a rounder and warmer look than its predecessor, with simpler character models that are both more fluid in animation and, of course, eerily exact to Arakawa's illustrations, down to Ed's puppyish downturned mouth when he's being obstinate. It could even be argued that this sketchier, more velveteen look will lend the gorier events of the manga more tolerance than the original series, which is sometimes accused of being melodramatic. Whatever the case, a couple fights in these initial offerings are near feature-quality, and that's reason enough for praise. Thirdly, a minor but appreciated detail, the opening and closing themes to the show are wonderful. FMA has had a number of catchy pop and rock themes grace its episodes, but YUI's Again and SID's USO are so good at conveying the heart of the story they play more like love letters to the series itself, assisted by some downright moving animation that proves this remake may be in good hands after all.
If those factors make it a superior series for certain fans, namely aficionados of the manga, then rejoice, because it will run for many more episodes to come. For those wishing to view it as standalone entertainment, however, it is floundering in its own self-indulgence, pleading for approval, and despite being fairly enjoyable for it, only has room to improve. With any luck, it probably will, and quickly. Until then, either the first anime or the manga should absolutely be experienced first, then this younger sibling can be given a fair shake.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Much higher production values for the well-loved story; an entirely new animal from the original while still maintaining the essence of the franchise, later episodes show promise
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