Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Blu-Ray - Complete Series [Collector's Edition]
Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is Alchemy's First Law of Equivalent Exchange.
The year is 1914, in a world not so different from our own save for one revolutionary difference. Alchemy, an art combining the rational principles of science with the force and power of magic, has evolved to become a discipline that holds sway over all lives across the nation of Amestris, a military-state that controls the fate of even more surrounding nations. Superpowered alchemists are dispatched as soldiers to suppress border disputes with religious minorities, pseudo-immortal homunculi slink around in the shadows to stir up conspiracies for a mysterious master, and all parties seem to be in pursuit of one legendary artifact: The Philosopher's Stone.
Underneath all this global turmoil is the much smaller story of two brothers fighting to undo just one past mistake. 15-year old Edward and 14-year old Alphonse want to use The Philosopher's Stone to restore their corrupted bodies to normal, so they enlist in the State Alchemy program for the best opportunity to achieve their goal. As their journey thrusts them into conflicts much greater than themselves, they struggle to hold onto their bond as brothers: the only thing still keeping them alive in a world that seeks to destroy everything they once believed in.
Few anime have had the opportunity to leave a thumbprint on pop culture the size of Fullmetal Alchemist's. Upon first airing on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block in 2004, FMA became a sensation with critics and audiences alike, leading the manga to become the top-selling graphic novel in America the following year. Merchandise flooded retail stores, armies of Amestrian soldiers (and red-caped Eds) flooded convention halls, and the fervor still hadn't died down by the time Studio BONES started producing a reboot (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) over half a decade later. The series was so formative for so many anime fans that Funimation's marketing for FMA has been deliberately spoiler-deaf and nostalgia-driven for years now, assuming that the hundreds of thousands of people who see FMA trailers and promotional banners are already intimately familiar with the story's major beats. It was a big anime series in both length and legacy, and now that it's officially the same age as Edward was when he became a State Alchemist, it's finally available on Blu-Ray.
FMA's high definition transfer is particularly impressive for a digi-paint era show. Perhaps because of its subdued color palette (but in spite of that palette's low contrast?), the series' lines and shades have an earthy richness to them that really draws the eye to its rarer pops of color in each episode (like the red of Ed's jacket or the luminescent purple fog of alchemy experiments gone awry). BONES' artistry on the series can finally be fully appreciated at its maximum possible resolution, allowing viewers to see the subtleties in every dark corner of this mad-science-driven world. The show also indulged in CG imagery so rarely that there aren't many distracting digital effects. (The most obvious are the fast-moving lowish-framerate single-texture CG mountains in the show's first opening theme, which are pretty harmless as far as immersion goes.) There aren't any significant jaggies, banding, or blurriness here, none of the standard upscale woes beyond what you'd expect from an early digipaint show being upscaled for HD, leaving the show as striking and involving as it ever was. It isn't perfect, but it won't be unless they literally remake the show in a higher resolution, and this looks miles better than those old DVDs. It's the best this show will ever look.
Solid transfer aside, Fullmetal Alchemist's aesthetic has aged rather gracefully after twelve years. Being an early BONES' effort produced in that awkward transition between the 90's and the 00's, it does have a harsher edge to it than most modern shonen, and characters are bound to go off-model to a distracting degree at various points in its 51-episode run. (Thankfully not too often.) However, the action choreography and dramatic direction are still well above par. Seiji Mizushima delivered tense and surprisingly restrained climaxes in nearly every episode that exhibit flashes of shocking intimacy and thoughtful detail for a show aimed at teenagers. Edward's fight against Greed is beautifully animated in moments, but it's the staging and pacing of the fight that make it so powerful; both combatants are eroding emotionally as they wear away at each other physically, leading to a victory for one side that feels as hollow and uncomfortable as it should. The use of lighting throughout the show is also unusually artful for the expectations of its genre, employing bleak lantern orange hues to stunning effect in episodes like Night of the Chimera's Cry or Goodbye. More than anything else, the presentation of Fullmetal Alchemist's story sells its power and resonance. Even when the narrative goes wild and wooly on paper, the show's tactful art direction (not to mention the fantastically versatile musical score) lend it a lived-in texture that makes fantastical concepts seem homey and horrific developments seem honest.
Now that the story has been retold more faithfully to the source material through 2009's Brotherhood, the merits of 2003's first standout effort have frequently been called into question. Is there anything left to be gleaned from the first run now that a more faithful (and high-budget) version exists? It's certainly hard to deny that Brotherhood "wins" the competition for flashier production; it was produced in high definition with greater assets (and expectations) thanks to the continued success of the first anime and original manga. On the other hand, considering the goals of Bones' first FMA production, any attempt at comparison seems beyond the point. At the time of the 2003 anime's production, there weren't really enough manga chapters to fill 20 episodes with adapted content much less 51, and while popular, the manga hadn't yet proven itself the juggernaut it would become in following years. Late-night cour-by-cour production hadn't yet become the norm for promising-yet-untested manga adaptations, so with a potentially massive opportunity ahead of them and the author's blessing up front, BONES' production staff made the decision to spin these early chapters of the FMA manga into a year-long original work aimed at a general audience rather than prior manga readers or otaku, largely because of the excellent early-evening timeslot they'd been given for their efforts. (Sourced from interviews conducted for this Blu-ray release.) It is definitely easier to look at FMA 2003 as an original work birthed out of adaptation, especially when compared to the painstakingly faithful Brotherhood remake. Right from the start, Seiji Mizushima and Shou Aikawa's FMA was a divergent beast from Hiromu Arakawa's FMA, and in retrospect, they demand to be enjoyed separately for different reasons.
Upon rewatch, it becomes painfully obvious that liberal adaptations of FMA 2003's narrative scope and ambition don't really happen anymore. Fullmetal Alchemist is a gigantic show, with a heavy story, large and complicated cast, and loaded range of thematic ideas. Even breaking the story down to arcs and subplots strictly related to the two protagonists seems incredibly daunting. There's Ed and Al's relationship with each other, with surrogate family the Rockbells, with their deceased mother and absentee father. There's Ed and Al's relationship to the military complex that both empowers and uses them, to the disenfranchised who either idolize or despise them. They also confront complicated relationships with religious zealots, war criminals, scientist peers and the tragic byproducts of their experimentation, all depicted in multifaceted shades of sympathy and disgust, all pushing them to cross moral boundaries out of both temptation on one side and self-defense on the other, with each brother reacting differently for his own reasons.
The conflicts faced by these two central characters alone run a gauntlet of complex emotions and philosophical arguments, and that's not even going into the many episodes full of powerful scenes devoted to side characters like Mustang, Scar, or Lust. The series is filled with rich and diverse interactions between all these parties, but it still leaves room for breather diversions like Fullmetal vs. Flame or The Secret of Warehouse 13. (Not that they can be called disposable comedy episodes either. Even these lighter episodes contains smatterings of plot-essential info or thoughtful character development.) Fullmetal Alchemist manages to illustrate a monumental pile of both high-concept and real-world issues through dozens of varied perspectives, but its success at keeping these ideas simple is even more important. At every turn, FMA never forgets to keep its views tethered to the experiences of two adolescent boys struggling to navigate the adult world without losing their childhood sense of reckless hope.
In fact, FMA's tireless endeavor to bring daunting concepts down to teenager comprehension levels is potentially its greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Not every jump from slapstick comedy to dark observation on human nature plays as smoothly as it should, and the story's spare threads on noble thievery, militarized cyborgization, and bizarre contagions may have been better left behind at the script stage. Still, for every mild tonal misfire, the show lands a dozen striking statements of purpose that every audience member will react to in a slightly different way. Over a decade later, the show is still ripe for discussion from many angles from its world-building minutiae to its harsh political commentary, and there's no one "right" way to interpret anyone's journey. The show's ultimate statement on its own nature is a declaration of beautiful imperfection and the worth of effort expended even in pursuit of failure. FMA 2003 argues that the blood, sweat, and tears behind a dream is valuable for its own sake, if only because of the effect it has on the human heart underneath those efforts. It may be only one of the show's hundreds of bold statements on the human condition, but the sentiment left a mark on anime fans deep enough to carry into the present day. Fullmetal Alchemist isn't a perfect series, but even in comparison to the glossier remake, this anime original has proven itself timeless. It's an ample reward for a one-of-a-kind story.
Funimation's Collector's Edition for the series is massive in weight as well as content. The chipboard box is several inches deep, designed to look like Edward's travel trunk (complete with luggage tag bearing his name), and heavy with physical extras. Aside from the hardcover art book, it's all paper goods, but all the reproduced art and interviews are printed on thick, textured paper rife with little FMA-flavored flourishes that give the whole set lots of gravitas for nostalgic fans. The artbook itself is easily nice enough to be sold on its own and features hours of production materials and interviews to scour and reminisce over. All the art, notes, and interviews printed in the DVD booklets that came with the show's initial release on DVD (and more) are included in the artbook, for anyone concerned about discarding past goodies. Disc extras have also been transferred over from the series' past DVD releases. (The widescreen-yet-standard-definition "behind the voices" special Funimation produced for the show's final disc is one heck of a blast from the past, featuring Aaron Dismuke as a young boy and Troy Baker as a newbie with almost no other voice credits to his name at the time.)
Apart from the obvious audiovisual upscale, there are no new features produced for the Blu-ray. Of course, the box is too bulky to display on most disc shelves (and some bookshelves), so for those who wish to display the artbook and the series separately and store the trunk away, the discs sit inside a very handsome red-and-gold case at normal Blu-ray box size. Unfortunately, the canon series finale film, Conqueror of Shamballa, is not included in the Collector's Edition and must be purchased separately. Altogether, the initial $300+ price point still seems too steep for all but the most ardent FMA fan, but the collector's set itself is very gratifying to pore through if you can pick it up at even a minor discount.
Fullmetal Alchemist is a difficult show to discuss overall not only because of its intimidating length, but because its full run defies genre so completely. It frequently excels as a comedy, a drama, cold science fiction, inspirational fantasy, political commentary, action spectacle, heartwarming family story, psychological and visceral horror piece, and it tends to juggle multiple tones and ideas across one episode, sometimes even pitting them against each other to make a point (the shocking twist that carries Words of Farewell) or just create an artful image and let you decide what to make of it (The Gate and its Children). Not every part of its epic run will work for any given person, but the series became a phenomenon because some part of it will work for just about everyone. It's terrific to finally have this modern classic available on Blu-ray for a new generation of fans to experience.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Solid high definition transfer in an impressive collector's release, unique and compelling story brimming with huge cast of memorable characters, shocking and thought-provoking content delivered with tact for broad audiences, still one of the most ambitious yet satisfying blockbuster anime ever made
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