So, I have a confession to make: I’ve never read or watched Fullmetal Alchemist in its entirety. I did catch some episodes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block in ages past and vaguely recall reading bits of the original first volume, but otherwise, my missing the boat was potentially the biggest shame of my anime/manga fandom. Not that I didn’t know Hiromu Arakawa was a talented mangaka in her own right, having become acquainted with her farming series Silver Spoon before its American debut, but I just never found the urge to discover what propelled her into stardom. Now with the release of the hardcover Fullmetal Edition, however, I decided it was ample time to catalogue a latecomer’s perspective into a hallowed series.
Before we detail my impressions, though, we should detail what, exactly, the Fullmetal Edition is. As just mentioned, it’s our version of Japan’s Kanzenban (“Perfection Edition”), with this first entry containing two volumes’ worth of chapters, albeit not in their entirety — for reference, this contains up to six chapters, meaning there’s two chapters left from the original second volume (however, this does mean this edition ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger). Apparently, the Fullmetal Edition also features an updated translation and new lettering; unfortunately, having little to no familiarity with Viz’s original release, I cannot provide a direct comparison. (However, I am aware of certain edits involving swear words/religious symbols; these edits, retained or reverted, will surely be noted in future reviews)
For any anime/manga fan who’s been living under a rock for the past fourteen or so years, Fullmetal Alchemist tells the tale of two brothers: Edward and Alphonse Elric, whose alchemic attempt to bring their mother back to life came at a price – while Edward merely lost his right arm and left leg, Alphonse’s soul now rests in a suit of armor. Having learned full well the cost of messing with the laws of alchemy, the pair become full-fledged alchemists and set out on a journey to retrieve the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which may hold the power to grant their original bodies back.
As I understand it, Fullmetal Alchemist was not merely what immortalized Hiromu Arakawa into stardom, but her first serialized work. Her rookie status is evident in the first several chapters: anyone familiar with shonen should recognize the oppressed towns, scheming government officials and criminal gangs that often open such stories, not merely showcasing how our new heroes duke it out but intertwining their goal with small-scale conflicts (in this case, a false prophet utilizing what’s apparently the Philosopher’s Stone). Granted, Arakawa’s great characters and creativity with alchemy does make for thrilling action (the train heist counterattack being a standout) and good drama, but while their respective scenarios aren’t necessarily tired, the first four chapters aren’t anything we haven’t seen before.
And then, just like that, Arakawa deals her hand with the infamous chimera story. What’s initially framed as a solid, yet by-the-numbers shonen adventure boldly plunges off the deep end, dragging your heart into the abyss and never letting go. Presenting a heartbreakingly twisted version of Ed and Al’s mishap with alchemy illuminates hard-hitting, open-ended morality; namely, are Ed and Al hypocrites in their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone? While their goals are more for self-preservation as opposed to deliberately harming others – as we had just witnessed in a numbing confrontation – they’re still arguably still breaching ethics in experimentation upon themselves; smartly, the end of this volume doesn’t provide us with an answer, if we are even to expect one at all.
Not that we’d be asking ourselves such questions if Fullmetal Alchemist didn’t have such strong characters, namely in its two brothers. Ed instantly captivates us with his juxtaposition of bitter sarcasm and heart-of-gold morality – granted, his cynicism shows more often than not (his conniving trickery against third-rate officials is perhaps the volume’s best humor), but his failure in saving a certain individual proves he’s not entirely self-driven. In comparison, Al displays Hirokawa’s finest usage of art: depicted only in a suit of armor, he admits himself his new body cannot feel even the pitter-patter of rain, but we know there’s a heart beating in that hollow mail — in spite of wearing the same stern expression throughout the entire volume, Arakawa’s careful use of shading and toning somehow illustrate everything from despair to subdued rage. We are introduced to an assortment of other characters, such as other state alchemists, a band of villains named after the Seven Deadly Sins (namely Gluttony, whose one-track cannibal appetite I suspect will lead to another tearjerker down the road), and a serial murderer identified by the X-shaped scar on his forehead, but as several members from all related factions have yet to even be named (including said murderer), the brothers are ultimately the finest depiction of character. Not that said factions aren’t interesting — I certainly want to find out more about the scar-adorned madman — but it’s evident their individual foibles will come to shine further on.
My waiting so long to dive into Fullmetal Alchemist has sprouted disadvantages: there are certain spoiler-heavy events I’m aware of later on, and there’s the natural expectation upon it delivering all the decade-plus hype surrounding it. Still, I don’t think I have to worry about that too much: even if I was somehow able to dodge any knowledge of the chimera story, it’s not as if I don’t have enough evidence that Arakawa can provide a masterful story. Needless to say, I’m excited to see where this classic will take me.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ.