Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the best anime

Why the 2009 anime hit still holds up

Artwork by Mathew Philip Artwork by Mathew Philip

A transmutation circle is drawn in chalk, runes forming lines and curves within it. The screen pans up to unleash a view of Central City gleaming in the dark. Two brothers stand in front of a giant moon. The opening song plays. It is a song by Yui, and it is called Again.

You are 15 with yearlies around the corner when you press play on Episode 1 of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. There’s a Freezing Alchemist, two brothers, and several slightly confusing fight scenes. By the episode’s end, you’re a little confused, and a little less than impressed.

You move on. In Episode 2, you truly understand Edward and Alphonse Elric, the innocence they had lost, and the cruel misfortunes they had suffered.

In Episode 4, you meet Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist, and his daughter Nina. By the episode’s end, tears are leaking from your eyes. You had never imagined that alchemy could be used for something so horrific. You are disgusted. You are intrigued. There’s no stopping anymore. You keep watching.

“If one wishes to obtain something, something of equal value must be given. This is the Law of Equivalent Exchange, the basis of all alchemy. In accordance with this law, there is a taboo among alchemists: human transmutation is strictly forbidden. For what could equal the value of a human soul?”

As young children grieving the loss of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric transgressed this law in an attempt to resurrect her. A rebound effect occurred, in which Edward lost his leg and Alphonse lost his entire physical body. By sacrificing his right arm, Edward attached his brother’s soul to a suit of armour. The series follows their adventures in searching for a way to return to their original bodies— but naturally, plans are derailed, rogue characters are introduced, and hidden conspiracies are revealed.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, or Hagane no renkinjustsushi, was released by Studio Bones in Spring 2009 and aired until 2010. It is based on the awardwinning Fullmetal Alchemist manga, created by Hiromu Arakawa and serialised monthly in Shonen Ganga (Studio Enix) between 2001 and 2010. With two separate anime adaptations and a live action movie released last year, the series’ success and enduring popularity is clear. On MyAnimeList, the IMDb for anime buffs (also known as ‘weeaboos’), Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has consistently stayed at rank #1 on the top-rated anime list for the past few years. It remains highest-rated with an average score of 9.25 from almost 1.2 million user rankings. It is also ranked #4 on the most-watched list.

One of the greatest strengths of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is its adept navigation of human emotion. It forces its viewers to bounce between laughter, sadness and shock. The show’s excellent animation is full of exaggerated physical humour, lending to a gamut of scenes of bodies becoming blobs, arms turning into squiggles, and souls comically exiting the body. You laugh over Alphonse’s delight in cats, Edward’s hypersensitivity over his height, and the electrifying banter between the characters.

And you cry, too. You cry a whole lot. Episode 2, Episode 4, Episode 10, Episode 19, still more in Episode 30, and pretty much all through Episode 56 to 64. These are the things that get you: the cruel fates that befall underserving people, persistence that bears no result, the corruption of the powerful, the abuse of science. In this universe, many practitioners of alchemy become inducted as State Alchemists, to serve the government as “dog(s) of the military.” Great pain, outrage and conflict burst to the fore when the power structures they are serving are revealed to be oppressive and destructive. And you… you are crushed further by the inhumanity that is displayed, and the pained confrontation of the alchemists with their own complicity in it all.

No shounen anime is complete without battles— and the battles in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood are excellent. They are relentless and exciting, drawn and animated in smooth, sophisticated scenes that thrust you into the power and excitement of the fight. And unlike other popular shounen animes of the same generation, such as Naruto, Bleach and Fairy Tail, the fights do not drag on longer than necessary. The whole anime is fairly compact, unveiling its many layers over the course of only 64 episodes. Without being weighed down by filler episodes or dips in animation quality, Brotherhood manages to maintain the excitement and intensity of its story and characters all the way through.

The anime’s magnificent original soundtrack propels the experience of these emotions to the fore. Senju Akira’s masterful compositions lift and depress, calm you and intrigue you, and compound the joy, tragedy, and comedy of it all. Crime and Punishment, To Be King, Crisis in the North and Main Theme—The Fullmetal Alchemist are standout tracks. The openings and endings are likewise superb, with atmospheric visuals that are beautifully synchronised.

You fall in love multiple times. With the Elrics, Winry Rockbell, Riza Hawkeye, May Chang, Lan Fan, Roy Mustang, Olivier Armstrong… each character manages to wedge themselves into your heart. You love Olivier’s strength, Lan Fan’s loyalty, Riza’s steadfast intensity, Edward’s persistence, Alphonse’s kindness. You love the villains too—the series allows each of them to show their complexities and motivations in all their sad, twisted wretchedness. Even the minor characters endear themselves to you—the lonely, abrasive Doctor Knox, the undersized panda Xiao-Mei, the resourceful Paninya. The depth of feeling you possess towards each character solidifies your love for the series. Brotherhood fully humanises and gives layers to its characters. It makes you care about everyone, and everything that may happen to them.

It’s the end now. It’s your fourth feverish day watching and you’re finishing Episode 64, the final one. Edward is telling you that if you can endure the pain to sacrifice, you’ll have a heart that can overcome any obstacle. A heart made fullmetal. And you are saying thank you, and you are crying in the closing credits, and you are running out of tissues in the box, and snot is dripping out of your nose, and your Mum is yelling at you because she doesn’t understand why you’re like this, and Hologram by NICO Touches the Walls is playing, and you are glimpsing snapshots of the characters’ lives as the years go by, and everything is breaking and coming together, ending and beginning.

You’re 21 now. Your worldviews are completely different. You don’t think you’ll ever be able to relive raw emotion like that. You are sure there will be more things you don’t like this time around, and you worry that it will dim your love for it. Change this untarnished memory in your mind into something else. But you press play on that first episode again, and watch as a transmutation circle is traced out across the screen. The city of Central is revealed to you, its streets lit with warm. Edward and Alphonse grumble at each other in the light of the moon. The first opening plays. It is a song by Yui, and it is called Again.

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