I couldn’t tell how much of a cultural cornerstone Fullmetal Alchemist would become when I was watching its first anime adaptation in 2005, and its second iteration Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which more faithfully adheres to the story of mangaka Hiromu Arakawa, back in 2009.
But I knew it was good. Like, really good. It was the days of Animax, back when — and this gesture of TV commitment doesn’t really exist anymore — I made a concerted effort to catch the timeslots of shows I liked. Anime wasn’t a part of my television diet at the time (Animax was changing that for a lot of people, though), and my case isn’t unique. One Piece and Naruto may have been the kings of shonen, but FMA was the gateway for a new generation of anime fan — a generation that, up until very recently, was the youth. And perhaps because we thought ourselves as young for a long time, we hadn’t quite realized that FMA had, over the passage of time, and through great shifts in the cultural landscape, graduated from its status as Really Cool Show, to Absolute Required Viewing from the Great Anime Canon.
I didn’t have the language to articulate what made Fullmetal Alchemist beautiful, but 10 years after the premier of Brotherhood, I think I finally do.
On its face, the story of FMA takes place in a world that closely resembles steampunk Europe, whose society, military, and sense of humanity are all influenced one thing: alchemy, a kind of science through which alchemists can bend the elements and manipulate the material world (and beyond, I guess) through the law of equivalent exchange. Our two protagonists are Edward and Alphonse Elric who, after a botched attempt to revive their deceased mother through alchemy, end up unwittingly sacrificing more than they bargained for, with Edward losing his right arm and left leg, and Alphonse losing his whole body, his soul bound to a suit of armor to keep him from death. The show follows our two heroes joining the military as state alchemists in their journey to find an artifact called the Philosopher’s Stone, a sort of alchemy cheat code that allegedly ignores the laws of equivalent exchange, in order to get their original bodies back.
But synopses can only say so much. FMA is an example of one of the best stories the science fiction genre has to offer, whose otherwise super serious storyline is punctuated with well-timed comedic beats, and all-killer, non-filler subplots that contribute to the show’s perfect pacing. The laws of FMA’s worlding introduce and wrestle with a bevy of philosophical concerns, from the value of human life and the meaning of truth, to the significance of God and the function of the state and its military in human affairs. One of the countries of FMA, Ishval, can stand as an analogy for the Middle East and the wars that have ravaged it, and the way FMA handed such things may have kickstarting many hapless teenagers’ sense of class consciousness from an impressionable age.
And that’s not even mentioning art — the visual impact of alchemy circles and each of the designs of the seven deadly sin characters are branded into my brain, like magical markings drawn on ritual ground. One can even argue that this is Required Viewing for any self-respecting anime fan — Brotherhood was produced by Bones, an animation studio that went on to produce some of the greatest anime of our time, including but not limited to My Hero Academia and Mob Psycho 100, their portfolio a sturdy exemplar of the richness of the shonen tradition.
Even with the language I have now, it is hard for me to treat this like a prim and proper article without regressing into the Full Stan mode, rattling off FMA’s greatest traits rapid-fire, one by one. It has one of the greatest opening themes of all time, no arguments. It’s one of the few shows where every single minor character is a legitimate candidate for Best Boy or Best Girl. The voice acting is killer, and I’m never going to get tired of the contrast between Alphonse Elric’s (Maxey Whitehead) small, childlike voice coming out of a suit of giant armor. Badass-looking prosthetic limbs! Power gimmicks! The fact that this show actually made me root for the heroes to kick God’s ass. Did I mention it’s also one of the few anime to have an English dub that the general weeaboo populace agrees is pretty great?
In this age of morally scrutinizing the art we love, it is a rare thing to encounter a show that has aged well. But FMA has aged beautifully.
I can only articulate it as well as I can (barely) I’m a 25-year-old who writes for a living. But I still feel like I’m 15, praising scattershot, absolutely exuberant, talking 120 miles per hour about fluid animation, and metal arms, and how on-point each personification of the seven deadly sins were as characters of the show, and “oh my god the writing was so good,” and how philosophically rich the show was, what with the way it grappled with questions of God and death and the tensions between religion and science, even though I hadn’t read a lick of Nietzsche.
So it’s interesting watching FMA get its second renaissance in this zillennial era of stan Twitter and reaction gifs. I’m watching other people articulate their love of something I grew up with, in an internet language that had not yet been around in its time, but in the same scattershot, sugar-addled way I’ll talk about it with a friend who wants to get into anime, doesn’t know where to start, and inadvertently opens the floodgates. There are people in this world who, for the first time in their lives, get to watch Major Alex Louis Armstrong sparkle and flex, Roy Mustang brood so handsomely its hurts, and Izumi Curtis be an ass-kicking, ball-busting housewife. And — let this sink in for a minute — there are people in this world who are watching that godforsaken Nina Tucker episode, not knowing what’s coming. Press F to pay respects.
In this age of morally scrutinizing the art we love, it is a rare thing to encounter a show that has aged well. But FMA has aged beautifully. It’s a once-in-a-generation show that gets all the beats right, gives everybody something to love, and remains politically relevant as we who first watched Brotherhood when it came out, now more deeply reckon with issues of imperialism, genocide, and the purpose of the state. The point of this article is not to gatekeep — I personally get annoyed whenever someone talks down at me for having not seen a show they’ve seen, and FMA doesn’t deserve to be packaged in such holier-than-thou endorsements. Treat this instead as an open invitation to watch a show that disproves the law of equivalent exchange, in that, by watching this show, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
You can watch the first season of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood on Netflix.