Full Metal Alchemist
Well, I haven't finished the story, but I have run out of tapes. And since I think I have a decent grasp of the series, including the fact it doesn't plan to come to a conclusion anytime soon, it's time to write a review.
This story takes place in a world similar, but subtly different from our own. It's a relatively simple land, broken up into disparate villages and people. The average level of technology seems low, but modern innovations like guns and super technology like cybernetic limbs (known as auto-mail) exist. It also has another form of technology that ours does not have. In this world alchemy was not some medeavil fallacy, here it's very real, and awesomely powerful. The skilled alchemist can change the shape and even composition of matter. Something the dominant political power of the land realised had substantial military value.
However the power exerts costs of its own. The military application of this force has shattered lives and minds. The power it offers has driven men to acts of madness, as they pursued research beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity. And the one thing, forbidden above all others, is the manipulation of the flesh and the soul by alchemy. A practice that has created monsters and takes a terrible toll upon the practitioners. Of course two young children, focused and far more skilled in alchemy than is truly safe at their age, have only a limited understanding of why such rules exist. And when their mother dies it seems natural to use alchemy to reverse their loss. Little do they know that they will pay a massive price for their folly, and have a long and deadly path to follow as a result of their actions.
Before anything else is said I have to make it clear that this is pretty cool and interesting anime. The primary strength of it being the character work. The creator of this anime has the superb talent of bringing out strong, and interesting, characters in even a relatively short amount of screen time. The two main characters themselves are particularly fascinating. One is a young blond haired boy, with auto-mail arm and leg, who's known as the full metal alchemist and recognised as a genius in the field. He's not the wisest guy though, tending to attack both challenges and opponents head on with an unwavering focus. His brother, currently existing as a soul bound to an archaic suit of armor, is much more passive but has the advantage of superior perception and wisdom. They're both young, scarred from the error they've committed, and driven to recover their lives at any cost. Fun to watch, as are the huge number of other characters, including the opposition, who we get to follow in this rather epic tale (I adored hughes-san, Gotoh would approve).
The world itself is somewhat more carelessly assembled, it's very much a backdrop. The cities look like relatively small towns, looking almost like turn of last century Europe. The cybernetic limbs are truly out of place, the only reason they exist is so that the handicaps of the lead character are not actually particularly disadvantageous. Likewise the environmental technology seems to be limited primarily so that the power of alchemy can be better illustrated. It must be the greatest power a person can wield, something easy to demonstrate in a more technologically limited and less populated time.
Likewise the alchemy we follow is sort of weird. The true history, of alchemy as a sort of primitive and overly optimistic chemistry, is ignored in favor of something more dramatic. In this world a transformation circle, and a focus of will, is all an alchemist needs. Action oriented alchemists tend to have a favored transformation circle on their clothing or as a tattoo so that it's always at hand. The lead possesses the rare talent of being able to form any circle on the fly, an ability very useful for a melee alchemist, and far more entertaining for us. The one law of alchemy, the idea of "to get something, you must sacrifice something of equal worth" is frequently expounded but selectively enforced. Whenever human transformation, or the quest for the philosopher's stone which allows the rule to be ignored, are discussed it tends to be considered vital but for most other uses there seems no limits. Indeed the lead seems to mostly limit himself, when the crunch comes he tends to use his martial skills first and alchemy only if they fail. Which is fine mind you, cause the action is excellent. But at the same time it's not hard to realise that, given his skills, there are often better ways he could have done something. He's forced to be dense to make up for the lack of limits on his power.
In fact he's pretty damn dense in general. And here we come to the strength and weakness of the title. The events are really powerful, the story is rather weak. The author, with his superb cast of characters, is excellent at coming up with potent scenes. The series is pretty dark in parts, and characters are frequently threatened or even killed. Heck, entire towns or even civilizations are open to being messily exterminated to serve the plot or event being depicted. Some of the nemesis characters in the story tend to play for keeps, and will kill without thinking twice. Even relatively major characters exit the plot in rather violent fashion. The impressive strength of the characters is multiplied by the intensity of the conflict when they, and the goals they represent, meet.
The disadvantage is that the connecting elements are sometimes tenuous. For example the whole central story line is sort of weak. The lead characters, having learnt the hard way that human transmutation is really bad idea, decide to try doing it again to undo the damage. Their path being to search for a mythical object, that just about everyone else would kill to get if they knew it existed, that they `hope' will help. They learn how much this object will cost to create, what terrible secret repercussions human transmutation has, that they're walking into the middle of a conlflict between monstrous beings, but still they go on. The military itself seemingly happy that they wander, largely randomly, from adventure to adventure.
The reason is that the creator is in no great hurry to come to a conclusion to the story. They're clearly happy to let it wander from event to event and you can somewhat sense this in how the story flows. Thus the lead characters apparent `dense' nature is actually required so that he'll follow up any hint without actually thinking or planning too deeply about it. Both of them tend to panic, or go into shock, to play up the dramatic effect of a scene. Likewise there are lots of times when they probably should have been killed, such as when the lead physically attacks people much stronger and more skilled than he, but the author is in no great hurry to kill off a character quite so central. This is especially true because alchemy doesn't really offer much in the way of physical protection but lots of ways to kill someone.
This isn't really that much of an issue. Most long running series have a general story that serves as a backdrop for specific encounters. But this one sort of feels like it should have a big story to tie it together, and it just isn't really there. It seems more as if the two leads can't wander into any village in the land without getting their faces rubbed in some secret war, conflict or alchemical mystery. It's not enough to stop this from being a strong title, but it does make you wonder how much stronger it could be with a stronger story arc and a stronger sense of character progression.
Thankfully, for an action centric anime, it has some really nice production. While the alchemy is relatively under-developed as a subject it looks great both in casting and in practice. The two leads, and most of their opponents, know martial arts so there are some nice fight scenes which really show a strong sense of motion. You sometimes wonder why no-one uses guns, and alchemy seems a last resort, but given how much fun the action is who cares. Character design is strong, and as indicated the sense of personality is superb. Some of the characters positively radiate identity in every act they do, how they talk, move, fight... it's great stuff. The world is well depicted, as is technology. There's no shortage of physical humor, which it actually manages to balance with some quite terrible acts of cruelty and violence. Strong dialog is backed up by excellent voice acting to enhance the scenes. The sound is great, as is incidental music, but I'm not so sure about some of the opener and closer songs.
In an alternate world, where alchemy is the strongest force known to man, two young boys get to learn a harsh lesson. That being that using alchemy upon flesh, even with the very best intentions, will exact a terrible price. The path to recovering what they have lost will be an epic quest, facing a huge number of dangers, many of them from others who have walked the same path as they. Wonderful characters, strong and dramatic events, but a story that seems content to take it's time getting anywhere. Good thing it's so much fun to watch that this is no big problem.