Animation Wednesday: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

I’ll begin this week’s Animation Wednesday by stating that I like anime.  Anime, for those who don’t know, is a diverse genre of cartoon from Japan.  It’s known a basic style and set of conventions, and anime shows can be everything from comedies to romances to supernatural horror to hard, jargon-heavy sci-fi (and often more than one at a time).  I grew up during the 90s, which was, thanks to Pokémon, really the sweet spot for selling imported anime to kids.  I watched everything, even stuff that wasn’t very good, from a story, animation, or dubbing standpoint.  If it was anime and it was on Kids’ WB! or Cartoon Network’s Toonami, I watched it.  I eventually grew out of this phase, and learned to appreciate quality work and skip sub par shows, but it left me with a strong affinity for Japanese cartoons, which I’ll probably expand on in future posts.

But even if I didn’t watch a lot of anime on principle, I would still probably recommend Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.  It’s a science fantasy series set in an alternative early 20th century where the use of alchemy drives scientific and military achievements.  The story centers on Edward and Alphonse Elric, two young alchemists who work to restore their bodies after a botched attempt to return their mother to life.  Their adventures are framed in the larger universe of their country, Amestris, and its war with Ishbal, another nearby country.  The series has a large cast with a lot of well-developed, complex characters.

Brotherhood is actually the second adaptation of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (comic series).  The first, Fullmetal Alchemist, was produced before the series had been completely written (a not-unheard of practice in Japan), and deviates pretty significantly from the source material towards the end.  I would still recommend the first anime, as there are certain scenes and plot points which are handled better in it, but the story as a whole hangs together much better in Brotherhood, which was made in large part to adapt the second half of the series. For that reason, there’s a noticeable shift in pace, as they blow through events in the early part of the series (which had been covered in the first anime) at a pretty fast clip, while the second half to two-thirds of the story is very decompressed.

One of the best parts of Brotherhood is the visible level of effort put into translating and dubbing it.  A lot of anime focus on a literal translation of lines, which leads to a lot of awkward translations of puns which only work in Japanese, or highly specific references which are lost on Western audiences.  Brotherhood, on the other hand, tries to keep the spirit of the dialogue, rather than the literal wording.  Jokes still fall in the same spot, conversations hit the same points and have the same flow, but sections are rewritten to be understood more clearly.  It’s not always perfect, but it cuts down on a lot of the elongated “aaaahhs” and other hallmarks of cheap anime.

One of the most often praised elements of Brotherhood is the character designs.  While much of the credit goes to (brilliant) manga author Hiromu Arakawa, the animation team of Brotherhood did a great job of maintaining the varied, striking silhouettes of the characters, and tweaking them as necessary.  Slight changes in the facial structure and build of the lead, Ed, show the passage of time in a real and often overlooked way.  The animation looks just as good in high-speed fight scenes as it does in subtle character interactions.  As someone who grew up on Pokémon and Dragonball Z, I feel spoiled.

Brotherhood covers a lot of dark stuff.  It’s not really for little kids, from a violence and a thematic perspective.  A lot of the stories involve loss and abandonment issues, and a large subplot focuses on the horrors of war and the effects it has on soldiers.  It’s perfectly executed and always relevant (especially since the war in Ishbal is an ideologically motivated struggle), but it can be a bit of a downer at times.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood airs every Saturday night at 1:00 AM on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] block.  It’s getting close to the end of the series, and most of the episodes are available on Netflix Instant Queue.  It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of alternative history, science fantasy, steampunk, or well-executed anime in general.


One response

  1. Mike F

    As a person who was introduced to and fell in love with the first series, I have to fully support FMA:B. It’s absolutely fantastic and is a great starter anime to get into the genre. As Joe said, this is not one for the kiddies as it does contain blood, murder, limbs being hacked off, and many other violent and psychological dark material. It is a must watch for anyone who even remotely enjoys the anime genre.

    July 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

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