Andrew Osmond commends Fullmetal Alchemist for going out in style.
Today it's time to wave goodbye to the characters of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, as the series comes to an action-packed, battle-heavy, cosmic-apocalypse conclusion in its fifth boxset (*). Nobody will be really spoiled by the news that the unflappable King Bradley is back and kicking the good guys’ arses – heck, he kicks a tank’s arse at one point. There’s also a return for another presumed-dead character at a vital point; see if you can work out who it’ll be.
This grand finale has assorted alchemists of different stripes and generations, and monster homunculi of strange shapes and sizes. We have soldiers and commanders, foreigners and wild cards, friends and families. Watching FMA: Brotherhood, you realise it has one of anime’s big advantages over screen fantasies elsewhere; the way it can handle a crowd.
Compare the series to another screen fantasy epic that’s just thundered to an end, Harry Potter. Even fans of the Potter films agree that they struggled to fit all the cast in as the novels got fatter, and any actor not called Daniel, Emma or Rupert had to fight for elbow-room. By the last few films, distinguished British thesps like David Thewliss (Professor Lupin) and Maggie Smith (McGonagall) were being slammed in to and out of brutally truncated scenes, as the writers relied on the fan audience to fill the missing bits. Even Dumbledore’s big gay backstory got cut.
Taken together, the Potter films aren’t much shorter than FMA: Brotherhood, but TV shows benefit from very different rhythms. They may have an epic story-arc, but the individual episodes don’t have the same pressure to keep the viewers focused on a few main characters and the hero’s journey. It’s easier to slow down for, for example, a conversation between supporting characters that fills in their nuances, motives and history (and history is very important in FMA: Brotherhood).
Granted, even Brotherhood’s extended climax gives one or two characters short shrift, but the majority get a proper payoff. Maybe in a few years this kind of storytelling won’t be so special. America has just had the live-action series Game of Thrones, a hugely popular epic fantasy brought to the small screen by HBO, home of The Wire and The Sopranos. Maybe Hollywood has realised that a Potter or a George R.R. Martin-sized story needs a TV length and pacing. Are you listening, executives? There’s a rather popular Japanese saga out there that could work wonders in live-action. It’s about two brothers, one of whom is a suit of armour…
(*) Okay, so it’s not quite the end of FMA: Brotherhood. A feature film opened in Japan this summer, subtitled The Sacred Star of Milos. However, Milos is technically a “midquel,” showing a previously untold adventure of Ed and Al, set around episode 20 of the series.
Fullmetal Alchemist 5 is out now in the UK as a DVD boxset from Manga Entertainment.