I am rather late to this particular party, but since Adult Swim's come around to episode 1 of Fullmetal Alchemist starting this Monday night, I felt I ought to post with some whens and whys of the show. (This is going to be long but not still not as complete or polished as I'd like, because I have to drive to Massachusetts today.)
At the most basic level: Fullmetal Alchemist is an anime, complete at 51 half-hour episodes, which has been available for some time in Japan (there is also a movie that was recently released). While various fan groups have created their own subtitled versions of the series ("fansubs"), the licensed English dubbed versions are only now being aired on TV and released on DVD.
When: The U.S.'s Cartoon Network (which I believe is generally part of the basic cable package) has a late-night programming block called "Adult Swim." Right now, it's showing one new-to-TV episode each Saturday night at 11:30 p.m. Eastern (repeated at 2:30 a.m.), and repeating one older episode each night on Monday-Thursday at 1:00 a.m. (repeated at 4:00 a.m.). Here's Adult Swim's page for the show, but you can avoid the Flash and go straight to this schedule listing to check episode titles. (This general information page has a numbered list if you need to check which title goes with which episode.) The upshot is that Adult Swim's weeknight airings have cycled through the available episodes already this season, and so are starting all over again with episode 1 this Monday night, November 1, at 1:00 a.m. Eastern.
If you've been watching my many spoiler-cut posts go by and wondered what it was all about, or wanted to get into the show but couldn't afford to buy or rent the DVDs [*], now would be the perfect time to start watching (or recording, if it's on past your bedtime).
[*] Four episodes a disc, five discs out so far. The sixth is due out 11/15/05, following an every-eight-weeks pattern.
Why (the short version): Because I think that it has something to appeal to every kind of viewer—whether you want character development, plot consequences and surprises, worldbuilding, symbolism, philosophical and moral underpinnings, angst, humor, mystery . . . it's all there and it's all intertwined (with minor exceptions that I will note later). I love it for the characters, of course, because that's the kind of watcher I am, but I've also had a great deal of fun thinking about the moral universe that's being constructed and trying to figure out plot details as I watch.
(Caveat: I'm only through episode 26 at the moment. I trust the series to continue to make good storytelling choices, but take these comments with whatever amount of salt you deem appropriate.)
Unless the concept of anime is an absolute and immediate deal-breaker for you, give it a try—I need more people who are only watching it now to discuss things with. => (This was my first anime, and I'll talk a little about the ways that affected my viewing below the cut.)
Why (the long version)
One of the many cool things about Fullmetal Alchemist is the way it takes its premise and really runs with it, so I guess I should start with the premise (plagarizing from myself):
It's the early 1900s in a world somewhat analogous to our own, except with alchemy practiced as a science. Edward and Alphonse Elric are gifted young alchemists; at ages eleven and ten, they try to resurrect their dead mother through (forbidden) alchemy. They fail, spectacularly, at the cost of Ed's arm and leg, and Al's body (his soul is affixed to a suit of armor). After Ed is fitted with automail replacements for his limbs, Ed becomes a State Alchemist and they go on a quest to restore their bodies by finding the Philosopher's Stone—which is still forbidden human transmutation, and dangerous and uncertain to boot. But they're determined to try.
As Al says in voiceover just before the opening credits of each episode:
Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy's first law of equivalent exchange.
In those days, we really believed that to be the world's one and only truth.
We see "those days" in the very first scenes of the series, which is a flashback to the resurrection attempt. It shows the brothers finishing their preparations and beginning the transmutation; their excitement when they think it's working; their realization that it's going wrong; Al's empty clothes and Ed's missing limbs; and then the thing that their attempt produced (the second picture on this page)—which is a very attention-grabbing thing to go to black on.
I was completely, irreversibly hooked right then. If you watch that sequence and aren't at least a little interested in what happens to the brothers after that—well, first, I'd be very surprised, and second, you might as well stop there, because the Elric brothers are, in my view, the heart of the series. (There's a reason that my default show icon (and the prior one) is of the two brothers together, despite having various alchemical symbols and cool pictures of Ed and such available.) Al's lack of a body, Ed's guilt and determination, their sibling relationship of affection and exasperation and support—it's what drew me in and what the series pivots around (though it's not all that's going on).
Going back to the series opening—after we go to black on the thing that the resurrection attempt produced, the next scene is . . . Ed and Al running around a desert four years later, Al sinking into the sand and Ed complaining about being hungry. It's very silly, and this is one of my minor caveats about the series and also an example of how being new to anime affected my watching. First, there's a reasonable quantity of humor in the show, which is good because there's also a lot of angst; however, sometimes I find the contrast between the angst and the humor jarring, especially combined with the anime convention of drawing angry/scared/excited characters with extremely simplified faces (the screenshots mentioned above have some examples on the same page). I don't know if this is a cultural thing or a personal preference; perhaps it's part and parcel of my tentative thesis, formed several episodes ago, that the show is often bad at emotional subtlety, but good at emotional truth.
Interestingly, this lack of subtlety is not matched in the plotting or the ethical and moral implications, which I'm finding fascinating—part of what I meant by the series taking the premise and running with it. I also find it difficult to talk about without hinting at too much, but I think I can say that Ed and Al's quest for the Philosopher's Stone brings them into contact with larger-scale happenings and raises a whole lot of questions for them. Which is probably so vague as to be useless, so I turn to the related question of structure—
The structure of season one (episodes 1-25, not episode 26) is as follows:
- Episodes 1 and 2, "To Challenge the Sun" and "Body of the Sanctioned," are a two-part premiere. They start with the aforementioned flashback to the resurrection attempt and then return to the present day, as Ed and Al investigate a rumor of the Philosopher's Stone in Lior.
I was not as grabbed by the Lior plot the first time around, though I was intrigued by one aspect of it. On reflection, it's not a bad place to start because it does introduce the larger story, and Lior itself will appear again.
- Episodes 3-9 are sequential flashbacks of Ed and Al's life before Lior. Episode 3 is their childhood, their mother's death, and the resurrection attempt; the rest are how Ed became a State Alchemist and some things that happened along the way to Lior.
It seems generally agreed that Episode 7, "Night of the Chimera's Cry," is one of the places where the series takes a noticeable step up in intensity and hooks a lot of people. Me, I was hooked from the beginning and also have a strong fondness for episode 3, but if you're liking the series somewhat in the first few episodes, see what you think of it after watching episode 7.
- Episodes 10, 11, and 12 are post-Lior transitions. Episodes 11 and 12 are a two-parter ("The Other Brothers Elric") about another rumored Stone.
- Episode 13 ("Flame vs. Fullmetal") starts a sequence that unfolds through the end of the season, episode 25, with consequences into season two (judging by episode 26, at least).
Episode 15, "The Ishbal Massacre," is rather like episode 7 in its effects on people. I also put episodes 21 and 22 in that category, and definitely don't be spoiled for episode 25, and, well, this leads into the next thing I wanted to say—
You'll notice that unlike my Firefly post, I'm not saying which episodes are best or most important. That's because I can only think of one episode (10, "The Phantom Thief") that I would be comfortable suggesting that anyone skip. The series really builds on itself as it progresses: secondary characters come back, small revelations accumulate or foreshadow, theme and character are developed. Some episodes are certainly weaker than others, but it's not a show I would recommend watching piecemeal by any means. I really enjoy the way the show keeps surprising me and opening up new depths, and it would be a shame to disturb that structure. Watch it all, watch it in order.
A note on spoilers: don't be spoiled. One of the great things about the show is the way it keeps surprising me, and the one spoiler I've learned and then watched really affected my reaction. Unfortunately it's not so easy to avoid spoilers since the series has been available in fansubs for so long (and some people are less than considerate in the icons they make and use, grr), but do make the effort.
I have a list of episode-by-episode commentary resources that I compiled so that I could read along with other people; posts are only spoilery up to the last episode noted. If anyone else has other links to episode commentary, please do provide them.
(Also, because this was written in a hurry, please add your reasons why people should watch!)