Tired Jokes and Compelling Folks: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Episodes 1-13

Tsukasa (Staff Writer) — February 2nd, 2012
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I hope you guys like some short jokes. Hey guys, short jokes are still funny in the 21st century, right? Remember when short jokes were in, guys? I'm pretty sure it's ironic to tell short jokes now. Guys, you're supposed to be enjoying these short jokes. It's endearing when a guy gets mad 'cause you called him short and he's actually short. Guys, insecurities about obvious subjective physical flaws being exploited in an attempt to endear a character to the audience are funny! Look, guys, I'm explaining the joke, it's a funny joke, guys. Why are you walking away, guys? C'mon, you're supposed to laugh at these short jokes. Let's go! SHORT JOKES FOREVER!!!

The above is a representation of what I got out of the visible fan community that sprang up around the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series in my earlier college years. Short jokes and animated Livejournal icons based on stale jokes that were supposed to be cute and endearing, oh, and fanfics, too — but you already knew about the fanfics. Those are everywhere now. And about everything. I'm not cool enough for that scene, though. I'm too vanilla. I ship bread x butter. Back off. Anyway, these thoughts also represent exactly why I went out of my way to avoid the original series back when it was setting the Internet on fire. By which I mean, getting fansubs torrented everywhere. Haha! Buying anime's for chumps! Thanks, Internet!

As you'd expect, I was a little apprehensive when it was decided, "You did Soul Eater, you'll be dead before you finish One Piece... you're doing Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood." I was assured that this is a much better show than the original — which was not a direct adaptation of the original manga, apparently. There was no escaping the apprehension.

I popped in the first disc of this first set, doing my best to go in with as open a mind as possible. The first episode opened with some compelling action. The characters weren't terrible. And then the opening scene's action passed, and my dread reared its head. "HEY GUYS! TIME FOR SOME SHORT JOKES! HAVE A BARREL OF 'EM! BOY IT'S FUNNY WHEN THE LEAD KID GETS MAD ABOUT BEING CALLED SHORT!"

It was then that I realized that however good the rest of the series was, it could not get a free pass on the 'funny' moments in the writing. Every single written joke in the series so far has yet to elicit so much as a chuckle, and they all feel like your typical, cliché forced anime humor. "Ohoho! That's a somewhat awkward thing to say! Look at the other characters' exasperated or embarrassed reactions! A joke well cracked, fine sirs and ladies!" After over a decade and a half of the stuff — and having been exposed to no lack of legitimately funny television, cinema, and stand-up comedy — this stuff doesn't get a pass. There's no excuse for continuing to use a style of stale, dull, painfully safe 'humor' that wasn't funny decades ago as if it's still fresh today. You don't put on a Gallagher DVD and insist, "Hey! It was funny in the '80s!" when nobody laughs. You don't own a Gallagher DVD, either. What were you thinking? It wasn't funny then; it's not funny now. We should all aspire to do better — and "It's Japanese!" is no excuse either. There've been much funnier things coming out of Japan (anime and otherwise) for ages now. And if you actually laugh at tired 'jokes' like these now, I can only pity you, and then toss gigantic lists of far better comedy at you while harrumphing and lecturing you on how to improve your taste. Much like you can imagine now, I would be looking so far down my nose at you that I would be literally falling over backward. Pretension is hard work.

All that established, there is actually one element of humor in which it does excel — the excessively deformed style the series switches to for many of its comedy face-fault moments. In these moments, the characters become so distorted that they're only half-recognizable at most and take on a particular childlike minimalist art style that should be at least vaguely familiar to most who've read manga or watched anime in the past decade, but it's a style that works, and each shift at least managed to elicit a smirk. Fret not, bruised egos. If nothing else, this is evidence that those behind Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood have at least some grasp of one style of comedy. Besides, all the things that actually matter about this show are not in the attempted humor.

Now that I've dumped my entirely appropriate comedy rage all over you, I have to go on to say that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is actually pretty good. Not so much in the, "This anime is amazing and will be remembered for decades!" sense, but the, "Oh, this is entertaining and accessible and has legitimately compelling characters, I can see why this is so popular," sense.

The story of the show follows a pretty large ensemble cast, but at the center are the protagonists — teenage Elric brothers Edward and Alphonse. As young boys ditched by their dad, their mother died a sudden, tragic death, and they soon became fixated on breaking the alchemy taboo: the transmutation of human life, and set about bringing dear ol' deceased mumsy back from the grave. As you would expect, this went horribly wrong, leaving Ed minus an arm and leg, wearing automail prostheses in their place, and poor Al no more than a soul tied to a large suit of armor. The two, notable prodigy alchemists in their mere early teens, go on to become State Alchemists working for the military of their home country, Amestris. The central story follows their quest to get their bodies back. But of course, the whole of the show isn't that simple.

Much of the familiar imagery across the cities of Amestris where the primary action of the story takes place recalls World War II-era Germany, between the uniforms worn by the many supporting military characters and the nation's Fuhrer ruler. And when the show doesn't focus on its teenage leads, you're catapulted into a darker, more adult world of political intrigue with rising State Alchemists — led by Roy Mustang, with his own ambition to become the next Fuhrer — and their own military subordinates.

Theirs is a world colored by the aftermath of the Ishvalan civil war a decade prior, in which the State Alchemists were essentially made into tools of genocide against the eastern Ishvalans' religious fanatics. In the Ishvalans' physical appearance, religious nature, and the portrayal of extremists and normal people among their ranks, it's easy to see them as a Muslim analogue in the series' fantasy world. Especially relevant is Ishvalan serial killer Scar, who spends the whole first set killing State Alchemists deemed 'sinners,' seeking vengeance over the genocide against his people. Not all Ishvalans seen so far agree with his violent quest, seeking to break the cycle of violence. How deeply the Ishvalans' culture and conflict post-genocide will be explored remains to be seen, but overall, it's one of the most interesting aspects of the political side of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Similarly, the role alchemy plays as the form of magic used by nearly every major character in the story, constrained by the law of equivalent exchange, and its laws broken only by possession of a Philosopher's Stone, makes for an interesting break from the usual plot-breaking role magic powers frequently play in anime. Rather than serving as an endless well of supreme elemental force as magic frequently does in anime — such as its role as a one-shot story-wrecking-ball like it is in The Slayers or Kaze no Stigma — alchemy's limits are regularly on display.

As supremely powerful as our teenaged leads come across from the very start of the first episode, they're quickly shown to be fallible as soon as in that first battle, whether overestimating their own abilities or underestimating their opponents. Ed's prosthetic automail limbs are prone to cracking and shattering in the midst of tense battles, and Al's own limitations as a suit of living armor are revealed by the end of this first set as well. These visible weaknesses make the leads and their battle scenes even more compelling, knowing that while they're not likely to be killed, they're not guaranteed to win every fight, let alone survive them without some serious wounds. Where I quickly found myself bored with Bleach when I tried to get into that years ago, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood's battle scenes have yet to fail to impress.

Tonally, the series is often hit and miss. From the first episode onward, they throw you right into the action, and I immediately got the feeling that you were expected to be well-acquainted with these characters already. The sense I got was that the viewers of Brotherhood were expected to have already seen the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series, and I felt an immediate detachment from the characters and action at the beginning as a result. The series doesn't take long to bridge this gap, however, as they quickly switch focus to developing the Elric brothers and getting newcomers up to speed. The rest of the supporting cast is developed much more slowly, as you learn a bit more about the adult characters and particularly the military characters.

The show isn't afraid to dive headfirst into intense melodrama with the teen leads at every turn but it works in that the showrunners seem to be aware of that this only works with teenage characters. The unfolding drama with the adult characters is much more understated and genuinely emotionally affecting. There's a huge difference between the shock the viewer receives earlier in this first set when a desperate State Alchemist's own moral event horizon is reached — causing Ed to nearly beat him to death, and the adults' reception of a sympathetic military figure's abrupt death near the end of the set. Similarly, where the kids wear their emotions on their sleeves, the adults have many sides, and the face they show at any given time is dependent entirely on circumstances and present company. This consistent contrast in character writing is appreciable and only serves to enrich an otherwise fairly straightforward, accessible fantasy adventure series.

The show's opening and ending suit the experience well, too. The opening song, "Again," by YUI, matches the expected energetic shounen anime opening animation with a somewhat apprehensive, dramatic tone and enjoyable alternative rock sound. The ending, "Uso," by Sid, accompanies an unexpectedly kinetic ending animation in an interesting children's chalk drawing style with a catchy rock melody. Both suit the show well and are pretty memorable overall.

As a whole, I can't say I've joined the ranks of the Fullmetal Alchemist fanatics out there, as evidenced by my appropriate rant about much of the show's efforts at comic relief in the opening. Despite my qualms with the cringe-worthy 'funny' moments in the dialogue, I cannot deny the show's overall quality. Thankfully, as the plot progresses, the repetitive short 'jokes' do become more infrequent, and things only get more compelling from there. Depending on your exposure to dramatically better comedy than what you'll find in most anime, you may have more tolerance for the show's comic relief than I do, but either way, I can only recommend the show so far. I'm looking forward to seeing where things go in the next set, with the enigmatic, menacing homunculus villains and political intrigue established in these first thirteen episodes. In all that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has set up so far, the Elric brothers' quest is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks to FUNimation for the review copy!