Andrew Osmond compares Edward Elric to Harry Potter
It’s tempting to compare Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the final Blu-ray collection of which is out on Monday), with an epic fantasy saga about a certain boy wizard. For starters, both Harry Potter and Alchemist have male heroes but female creators. Alchemist comes from the manga by Hiromu Arakawa, who wrote and drew the nine-year, 27-book manga about two brothers’ journey through an increasingly rich world of steampunk and sorcery.
Moreover, Alchemist and Potter both become world hits in print and screen form, going from small, whimsical-seeming beginnings to massive battle finales. You could also point out that both epics share outrageous oversized panto figures – Harry Potter’s Hagrid, Alchemist’s military man-mountain Alex Armstrong – and they also share outrageously intense, Batman-style backstories about child trauma and demonic evil.
The world of Brotherhood runs on technology and magic. It’s a hazily retro mix of 19th and 20th centuries, with vintage cars and steam trains, and military alchemists resplendent in their navy blue greatcoats. The brothers of the title are Edward and Alphonse Elric. Their tragic backstory has echoes of the old cautionary tale, “The Monkey’s Paw,” about the dangers of defying death. When the brothers were small, their beloved mother – abandoned by her husband sometime earlier – fell ill and died, leaving the boys devastated. Edward, however, was already a prodigy in alchemy, the process of transmuting material from one form to another. With Alphonse, he conducted an utterly forbidden ritual, which was meant to return their mother to life.
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Of course, it went hideously wrong. Ed lost a leg to the wild magic, but far worse, his younger brother was consumed by the alchemist’s circle. Aghast, Ed sacrificed an arm in order to save Al’s disembodied soul and bind it to the nearest object available – which happened to be a huge suit of armour.
In this maimed state, the brothers attract the interest of their state’s military, who see their potential as fighters. Al, of course, is practically invulnerable in his new metal body. Ed is given a metal arm and leg by his friend-since-always, Winry, a girl gifted in the art of automail, Alchemist’s equivalent of robotics.
Thus equipped, Ed and Al join the ranks of the military, meeting a range of new colleagues, from the muscled Armstrong, to the shamelessly ambitious ladder-climber Colonel Mustang, to the “I-LOVE-my-wife-and-kid!” Maes Hughes. All of them seem benign, but it’s quickly clear that Alchemist’s world is drawn in shades of gray. The government is authoritarian, and the military alchemists have committed atrocities and war-crimes in recent memory. The boys are working not for some twinkly-eyed wizard headmaster, but instead for a twinkly-eyed Fuhrer, the genial King Bradley.
Edward and Alphonse are uncomfortable about their status as “dogs of the military,” and it’s tempting to wonder if this reflects, among other things, Japan’s own history. Notoriously, there are pressure groups in Japan which resist open discussion of Japan’s bloody actions in the 1930s and 1940s. You’ll find anime about the atom bombing of Hiroshima, but as recently as 2004, a manga about the Rape of Nanking was cancelled by Weekly Shonen Jump magazine after complaints from politicians.
Does Fullmetal Alchemist include coded references to such horrors in fantasy guise? Some of the characters are furiously trying to avenge the past. Others, we learn, are desperate to compensate for their own past actions – but will the past consume them first? Certainly Alchemist continues the anime tradition of muddling up the good guys with the bad. There’s also a lot about the duties of the older generation to the young, bounnd up with the mystery of why Ed and Al’s father abandoned his family.
The brothers themselves are good guys, of course. Ed, we should explain, is the “Fullmetal Alchemist” of the title, although one of the running jokes is that everyone assumes that it’s the suit of armour accompanying him, to Ed’s fury. Ed also has a complex about his small size – a comment on which is usually followed by Ed turning into a superdeformed ball of rage – not helped by his “little” brother now being so much bigger than him.
But Ed is also the hero – noble, courageous, persevering and devoted to his seemingly impossible goal of reversing the alchemical accident and restoring his and Al’s bodies to normal. Al, for his part, is sweet and gentle, as reflected in the incongruously soft voice. We occasionally see the “human” Al, but we soon come to think of the armour as his real body (like the orangutan librarian in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld). Later chapters, though, highlight how Al is affected by his inhuman state, where he cannot eat, sleep or weep the tears he feels.
In a story based around alchemy, it’s pretty much inevitable that Ed and Al are seeking the philosopher’s stone, the possession of which boosts an alchemist’s power to frightening levels. At the same time, there are enemies of the state, including Scar, a murderous vigilante seeking to avenge his oppressed people, and the homunculi, a group of demonic predators named for the seven deadly sins. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is Gluttony, a deceptively cute-looking fat man with the personality of a child and a big (big) mouth, who just loves eating… people.
The plot described so far holds true in all versions of Fullmetal Alchemist. You may come across second-hand DVDs of the earlier Fullmetal Alchemist anime, made in 2003. Both Alchemist anime were made by the anime studio, BONES (RahXephon, Eureka Seven, Darker than Black, Wolf’s Rain), which you can find out more about here. Unlike Brotherhood, the first Fullmetal Alchemist series “overtook” the source manga and was obliged to make up its own story. It’s if Warner Brothers invented Harry Potter’s last screen adventures when Rowling fell behind in her scribbling. In contrast, Brotherhood is far more faithful to Arakawa’s storyline.
Next month, Manga Entertainment will release a spinoff film from the earlier show, called Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa. It’s well worth seeing, but don’t try fitting it into the Brotherhood continuity. Think of it rather as a parallel-universe story, taking the Elric brothers down roads Arakawa never explored. Next month also sees the release of Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos, which does fit into the middle of Brotherhood’s timeline.
One constant in all the Alchmist anime is American voice-actor Vic Mignogna, who’s dubbed Ed throughout the franchise. One difference between the old and the new anime seems to be that Brotherhood has far more comic interludes where Ed shouts out his frustrations, often related to his pipsqueak size. Mignogna ruefully agrees there are more scenes designed to rip up his vocal cords. But, he says, “The comedic moments are often right in the middle of serious, heavy-duty scenes. From the point of view of the plot, Brotherhood is much darker than the first Alchemist; it starts out feeling like comedy, but gets heavier and heavier and heavier. The comedy is there for precisely that reason.”
As well as heavier and heavier, the story gets bigger and bigger. Brotherhood’s cast just keeps on growing; wait till you meet the girl with the titchy precocious panda, or Armstrong’s terrible sister in her snowbound fortress. By the show’s second half, the cast is so big that you could send the characters on three or four competing quests for Tolkien’s Ring and still have some left over.
It’s exhilarating to watch the players shift like sand though endless duels and team-ups. The multi-episode battle royales which ensure are more exciting because few of the players are truly indispensable. Except the brothers, of course… but can even they come through their journey alive? With the release of the complete Brotherhood, it’s time to jump on board and find out!
The final Blu-ray of Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is finally available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.