2 things about me that will explain this geektastic post.
Thing 1: I have a casual appreciation for Japanese manga and anime. I have zero expertise and a limited field of knowledge.
I think the graphic-novel medium walks a fascinating line between visual art and writing. I was moaning to my father, just recently, that certain transitions are only possible in picture form. One powerful moment in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga shows characters talking about seeing a friend again, unaware (unlike the reader) that said friend has just been murdered, and the next image on the page-turn shows pallbearers shouldering the casket. Ouch.
No matter how well I write, that kind of visceral immediacy is out of reach. There are things words do that images cannot, but sometimes a picture beats a sea of words.
But like any medium, the quality of manga and anime ranges from what I consider crap, to great storytelling and highly skilled and artistic creations. There’s a lot that I enjoy that I wouldn’t go so far as to praise.
Thing 2: I backtrack. I return to things, I re-read, I re-watch, and I am endlessly fascinated by how works strike me differently over the course of time.
If you don’t want to slog through this whole post, or if you already know the difference between the 2003-04 “Fullmetal Alchemist” anime and “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood,” then you can skip down past the picture of Roy burning things to find my geeky gushing. But don’t worry, I have avoided spoilers.
Having not watched any anime or read any manga for a while, I decided to backtrack and re-watch some of the things I had seen in the past. It’s been fun and enlightening. But while I was muddling about, I discovered that there was a new (newer than the one I had seen, anyhow,) “Fullmetal Alchemist” anime, with the word “Brotherhood” tacked onto the end of the title to differentiate it from the first one.
For those unfamiliar with the title, Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was originally a manga created by Arakawa Hiromu and published in serial form in “Monthly Shōnen Gangan” magazine. Attempting to describe it is challenging, but I would say it is an alternate-earth, steam-punk, science-based-magic, conspiracy adventure involving a large cast of characters. It also has a huge emotional range, but more on that anon.
I had mixed feelings about the 2003-2004 anime, and at the time the manga was still incomplete. I was drawn to the characters, interested in the world, and for a while, excited to see where the story was heading. I was ultimately disappointed. Perhaps my expectations don’t mesh well with Japanese storytelling patterns, but I often am disappointed in the conclusion of Japanese anime series. I still growl when anyone mentions “Neon Genesis Evangelion” to me. My loathing of that series is only increased by the elements in it that I liked.
So, the original “Fullmetal Alchemist” anime left a bad taste in my mouth, but I liked it enough to be curious about this new installment.
Something that often seems to happen with a popular manga is that in order to ride the hype, an anime-adaptation is created before the series is complete. This either results in wheel-spinning, original (non-manga) side-stories, or, in the case of “Fullmetal Alchemist(FMA),” a divergence of the anime from the manga. Since Arakawa was still working on the manga when the first anime emerged, the series took her beginning and proceeded to a different conclusion.
This made me more curious. Was my dissatisfaction related to the loss of the original creator’s vision? Further investigation was required. I re-watched the original series in order to refresh my memory, then I began simultaneously reading the manga and watching “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood(FMAB).”
This is where the gushing begins. For starters, Colonel Roy Mustang (fun fact: Arakawa named most of the soldiers after military weapons and vehicles) gets to Kill it with Fire so much more in FMAB than in FMA, and I do love fire. Behold this awesome fan-art of Roy by astridv on deviant art.
Anyhow, it turns out that Arakawa has a gift for weaving together emotional depth and humor, frequently making me laugh and tear up within the span of just a few pages. It’s mood-whiplash, but she does it so well that I wouldn’t think of suing over my injuries. FMAB has the same wild balance and it is extremely addictive. I am trying not to be jealous of this gift for tone-shift. It is one I would love to have, but alas!
Then, of course, there are the characters. I was initially drawn to the characters in the FMA anime, too, but some of my favorites were underdeveloped. In fact, I’d say that most of the characters in that anime are underdeveloped, though a few of them (hello, Envy) take some interesting turns. In FMAB and the manga, that is not the case. Oh man, is it not the case. And there are even more fantastic characters introduced who are also well-developed. Characters that were dismissed or killed in FMA are shown to have more to them, even, believe it or not, Yoki.
We are given a wide variety of interconnected relationships and a level of complexity that I find fulfilling. Yes, the story still centers around the sibling bond of Edward and Alphonse Elric (as well it should), but it is ultimately an ensemble piece with numerous interlocking storylines.
Arakawa is a writer after my own heart for this simple fact: She takes characters that other writers might shove to the sidelines and makes them important. I feel as if every one of them is the protagonist of their own story and that, if she had focused on them instead of the Brothers Elric, she would still have had a complete and fulfilling tale (though some of them would, of course, be tragedies).
I can’t often say that. And that is how I want to write. That is also the kind of story I most enjoy reading.
Her antagonists have depth and her protagonists are complex and dynamic to the point where, at the end of the story, I hate to close the book (or turn off the screen) and miss out on the rest of their lives.
Arakawa’s plot is no mean feat, either. The FMA anime had a plot that made some sense, but that felt rather empty. The manga and FMAB, though, pull together something that feels natural for the setting and that grows up out of the history and the characters like an oak from an acorn. It’s solid. And the point made, at the end, is the story itself.