Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa is a unique specimen amongst shonen manga. While most of its kind are completely content with being mostly action and fighting with story elements thrown in every now and then, Fullmetal Alchemist sets out to tell a story with actual, well-developed characters, themes, and plot. Although it has its flaws, the fact that it tries to be something more is admirable. Best of all, it manages to fulfill this goal without pretension, and while still being entertaining.

The set-up goes something like this: the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, live in a world where alchemy is possible, dictated by "The Law of Equivalent Exchange". That is, that something cannot be gained without first giving up something of equal value in return. After a failed attempt to resurrect their dead mother with alchemy, the young brothers paid the price: Ed lost his left leg and right arm, while Al lost his entire body, becoming nothing more than a soul sealed to an empty suit of armor. Now, the brothers are looking for the legendary Philosopher's Stone so that they might be able to restore their bodies to normal.

On the surface, it doesn't sound much different from your standard shonen adventure fare, but it's how this story is told that makes the series shine. It's apparent that Miss Arakawa has put a lot of effort into creating a fully developed world, and that she's also put a little bit of her own personality and experiences into everything.

The series also makes great use of theme. Concepts such as "Equivalent Exchange" and "One is All, All is One" have practical uses in the context of the plot, but they also have deeper meaning and connotations that resonate with the characters and their situations. Brotherhood, loyalty, redemption, the strength of the human spirit, and many other themes are utilized, and utilized WELL. It really gives the story a sense of purpose and a stronger emotional core. I'm sure other shonen series have tried to establish themes, but rarely has it been done so effectively.

Although it may sound like high fantasy, the series is rooted surprisingly deeply into reality. There's military intrigue and scenes of gritty wartime violence, and sometimes whole chapters go by without any use of alchemy. There's a balance of high fantasy elements and realistic elements, and sometimes the two parts don't mix well. Usually, though, it makes for a very interesting setting.

The art isn't exactly great. It's not bad at all, but there is a very generic anime look going on. The author relies heavily on face-faults to express emotions in an exaggerated fashion, even in some situations where it seems quite inappropriate. There's also not a whole lot of detail in characters. In fact, some of the character designs are rather bland. The art fares better in the backgrounds, mechanical, and creature designs, however, which are much more imaginative and detailed.

Despite simple and somewhat generic designs, however, the characters still manage to be memorable by token of being well-developed and seeming remotely like human beings. They all have their own personalities, beliefs, motivations, ambitions, and relationships. Ed and Al, in particular, are great characters, being perfectly balanced, as well as having a convincing and well-developed relationship as brothers. Many of the secondary characters are also great, with the only drawback being that there gets to be too many of them at some point, meaning some get more development over others. To say that the characters of Fullmetal Alchemist are one of its greater assets is an understatement; the series THRIVES on the characters and their interactions. They might not be extremely well drawn, but the art is a supplement to the writing in this case, unlike in most other shonen series where it would be the other way around (I'm looking at you, Bleach!)

Unfortunately, the writing isn't perfect. There are some structural issues. Most manga series are structured in a simple series of "story arcs", but Fullmetal Alchemist tends to move from one major event to the next very quickly, and sometimes the transition isn't as smooth as it could be. It can also be hard to tell how much time has passed between events. The pace sometimes seems a bit rushed, but at least it's never sluggish.

The series also tends to resort to using plot contrivances. One thing the author does more than once is to throw random characters together into groups through pure happenstance. Although these characters eventually prove to have a reason to be grouped together, the ways in which they meet seem forced. There are other things, but they are mostly minor. Often events end up happening at just the right time, or character happen to be in just the right place to move the plot forward. These instances of sloppy storytelling are readily apparent, but never become so distracting as to pull the reader out of the story completely.

Despite the occasional use of plot devices, the series is still largely character-driven. If you're as tired of idiot plots as I am, this is the series for you. Ed and Al often have to use their wits to overcome situations, and there's much more strategy and thought going into the battles here than in your standard shonen fare. There is very little deus ex machina going on, and the characters have to think for themselves, and think fast, often in order to survive. You can tell that the characters are always thinking, and that makes it all the more involving for the reader.

Although it spends more time on plot and character development than many of its ilk, Fullmetal Alchemist is still a shonen manga, which means there's going to be some amount of action. And the series definitely has it's fair share of action. Fortunately, there's a lot of strategy going on during fights to keep them engaging, and the fighting only happens when it's appropriate to the story. There's no trying to bend the plot around long series of battles like in other series. The concept of alchemy, as presented here, also makes for some great and memorable fight scenes. The scenes of action also tend to be easy to follow while also being visually appealing.

There's a lot of "big" concepts going on in the series. There's lots of talk of metaphysical whatnot and alchemic jargon. There are also plot twists and other things to make the plot seem more complex than it really is. The big secret behind the events of the series turns out to be a somewhat dopey conspiracy. Some characters have bizarre backstories that don't amount to much. But even the more nonsensical concepts and plot twists can be forgiven, because the author always manages to tie them back to the themes and characters in an effective way. And the why it's all revealed, the way it unfolds, the way the characters have to think and plan and outwit the enemy, it all helps to make the developments engrossing even when it's a little far-fetched.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a flawed, but highly admirable and enjoyable series. It has its high and low points, but the high points are downright brilliant. I highly recommend it.