Anime Debunked: Fullmetal Hype
No sorcerer's stone can save Ed now. It's time to stop gushing this anime's praises and take a serious look at the fatal flaws in Fullmetal Alchemist.
Warning: In order make this article relevant, I was forced to reveal major spoilers about the anime Fullmetal Alchemist. You've been warned.
There are some things in this world that are just blasphemous, like writing a fanfic that turns Alucard into a daffodil smelling, daylight loving pansy, or saying Studio Ghibli's work looks like 'the scribbling of a two year old'. And of course, there is the dangerous ground that one treads when criticizing an anime that seems to have the whole world singing its praises. That's just what I'm about to do.
When I started watching Fullmetal Alchemist, or Hagane no Renkinjutsushi to the purists, I had high hopes. The Japanese fanart pages I frequented had pictures of Ed and Al all over the place. The series had the number two top rated spot at AniDB.net. Everyone I talked to could do nothing but sing this show's praises. "What am I waiting for?" I asked myself, and quickly grabbed the whole thing.
For the first few episodes, I admit that I was beyond impressed. Everything was so fresh, so interesting! I hadn't seen a concept like this in a long time, and I'm always looking for interesting new things in an industry packed full with wannabe samurai and bumbling high school girls.
And then, as the series progressed, I began to see its flaws. Episode after episode passed, and slowly I realized that this show was digging itself into a hole that it wasn't going to be able to get out of. By the time the ending credits started rolling for episode 51, my brother and I were stunned and appalled. In despair we erased the files from our computer, and never spoke of the show again. In fact, if we absolutely must mention it, we merely refer to 'That Show Which Must not be Named.'
You think I'm being melodramatic, don't you? I am, but I am also sincere about the disappointment that was Fullmetal Alchemist. After sitting around silently as the show continues to be hailed as a masterpiece, it's time for a dissenting voice to rise up.
Why do I dislike this series so much, even when it has a lot going for it? True, the animation is good, the fight scenes were cool, the voice acting was some of the best that I've heard, and there were some really well made characters. However, the cool guys died, and the writing aspect of the anime left a gaping hole where continuity and purpose should have been.
The issue that I take with Fullmetal Alchemist is this. Where is your plot? What is your purpose? Even in anime, a genre with stuff that can sometimes be described as 'Plot? What plot?', effective elements of fiction must still apply. When you have an anime like Fullmetal Alchemist that sets out with such a heavy purpose and tries so hard to have some meaning, those elements are the only things standing between a masterpiece and a piece of crap.
My English teacher would be so proud if he saw me now, because I'm going to give you all a quick lesson on these elements of fiction of which I speak. A group of old men got together in a room one day, looked at the most amazing literature of the western world, and put together a small list of what made them so great. A good story, thus by extension, a good anime, must master these things: Plot, Character, Setting, Theme, Point of View, Style and Tone, and Symbolism, Allegory, and Image. In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, all of this is attempted, but nothing hits the mark.
First and foremost, we have plot. If you ignored my warning in the beginning, take heed now, because I'm about to get to the point and start at the end. When I saw the ending to Fullmetal Alchemist, my only thought was wondering what the hell were these people smoking. Alternate universes is one of the biggest copouts in fiction history, and as far as I can tell, it was only used to add a cool plot twist, or to save the Elric brothers from the bloody and depressing death that was coming to them. The only thing that would have been worse would be a soap-operaesque wakeup scene at the end.
To say that there are problems with Fullmetal Alchemist's plot would be an understatement. Hiding Envy's identity until the last few minutes is a good example of an attempt at explaining things without actually explaining things. Why does Envy choose to stay in a different body instead of his own throughout the anime? Because the show needs to keep its watchers in the dark in order to make revealing his true identity more shocking. (It wasn't, by the way.) Is there any excuse for this in the plot? No. It's an example of a bad plot device when something is contorted within a story solely to provide a certain effect on the reader.
I admit there are some interesting plot points. The fuherer's identity and the 'truth' of the stone were both handled well, but that's about it. Mustang's absolute disappearance throughout most of the anime, Armstrong's temporary conversion to the forces of evil (which makes more sense if you realize his actions were just another attempt to dupe the watcher), Rose ending up mute and with a baby (the baby's inclusion being another faux pas that I'll bring up), and the entire concept of the Gate being nothing but an interdimensional portal that seems to warp people back and forth like a rickety roller coaster are all devices that seem to have no reason other than to keep the plot moving. I could go on, but thinking about it all over again is giving me a headache.
As I wrote this, I did some research, and learned that the anime is based off of a manga that has yet to conclude. That fact is probably the reason, but not an excuse, for the sloppiness of the anime's last twenty episodes. For most of the first half of the anime, things made sense. As the series wound down, I assume the writers began having to make things up off the top of their heads, which is why for the last ten episodes there's nothing but plot hole after plot hole.
The secret of the Gate is the most obvious one, as each time it's approached it does something different. First, there are a bunch of formless creatures that take Ed's arm and leg. Then it's a portal to another world that puts Ed in another boy's body and graciously sends him back instead of letting him die when a zeppelin falls on him. Finally, it takes Ed back our universe completely intact, even though his arm and leg are roaming around somewhere on the other side of the Gate. They say in the anime that when people die, their life force goes through the Gate in order to feed the life of another. Why is it that the Elrics are the only exception to this rule, other than the fact that they're the main characters? There's no continuity in it whatsoever.
Character is another problem area. I know, Fullmetal Alchemist has some of the freshest and most vibrant character designs since Naruto. Alphonse is awesome, Ed's cloak is cool, Scar looks like a complete badass. If that's what I meant when I said 'character', I'd have to admit that the show has this element in its pocket.
Unfortunately for Fullmetal Alchemist, when I say character, I mean how someone acts, not what someone looks like. No matter how awesome and varied the people who populate the Fullmetal Alchemist universe are, if they don't grow and they aren't realistic in their actions, they don't pass the good entertainment test.
In fiction, you have a protagonist, an antagonist and a conflict. The plot is what happens and what the protagonist does about it. Through his decisions, the protagonist changes, and the purpose of a story is to see how the protagonist chooses and changes as a result.
Ed is our protagonist. In the beginning, he is a little kid who thinks big. He's failed a forbidden procedure once, and now he thinks that if he had a little more firepower, he can succeed the next time. The plot is all about him fighting the homunculus to get the magic stone that will let him ignore the laws of life and do what everyone else can't.
This is all well and fine, but by the end of the anime what happens to Ed? Does he learn his lesson that the laws of equivalent trade are not to be trifled with? Does he in some way overcome his aversion to killing others and create the true stone out of love for his brother?
No, he does some last minute alchemy to save his brother's life, and the Gate decides to go easy on him and warps him to another world instead of having him actually die. If that same situation had been presented to him at the first episode, he would have done the exact same thing. He hasn't changed one bit.
And then, to make things worse, Al doesn't only get saved but he miraculously wakes up with his old body, perfectly fine, and sets out to start the cycle all over again. Well, he lost his memory, so that's understandable, even if how he got out of a massive subterranean city and back home is not, but even then, all the adults just sit back and let it happen!
Did these people go through the same last fifty episodes that I just did? Did anyone learn anything? It seems that the answer is no. At the end of the anime, no character has changed from how they were in the beginning. There have been no revelations. Even as the show tries to show that the Elric brothers are coming into their own as they pursue the stone, they're really not, because they keep on making the same mistakes over and over again without pausing to consider a fundamental change in their ideals. The adage of the soldier and his acceptance of losing his leg is lost on them. The death of an entire city in the pursuit of the taboo doesn't phase them. The lifeless eyes of Nina doesn't do a thing to make them appreciate the value of death.
If not the protagonists, what characters in this anime really grew? Did any of them change at all? Mustang was a good contender for a solid character, but he seemed to blip out of existence for most of the series, appearing only when needed. His tragic past, like the past of every other character, was so much a part of him that there didn't seem to be room for anything else. In fact, you could point out the characters in this anime by the sad lives they led. This girl's boyfriend died and she was raped, this woman's kid turned into a homunculus, this man's brother had his gonads ripped off by equivalent trade and went insane.
Do any of these characters move beyond their pasts? No. They all act cool, but by the end of the anime, they've either died, not learned their lessons, or both. Most of them exist to represent a certain sentimental notion and to pull a few heartstrings. That's it.
Speaking of sentimentality, it's about time we moved away from the train wreck that is the cast of Fullmetal Alchemist and put our focus on theme. Theme is very important in fiction, and Full Metal Alchemist abuses it to its fullest. Many reviews that I have read about this anime mention the many themes that this anime covers. Love between brothers, war, religion, death, responsibility, and of course, equivalent trade. The series is touted as a commentary on each of these things, spanning the universe of human experience and having something to say about each.
Quantity is not quality, and Fullmetal Alchemist is severely lacking in the later. Just like how the plot is stilted by cement characters, its themes are held hostage by a constant attempt at excessive sentimentality. Over and over again, Fullmetal Alchemist reveals scenes of horror and disgust, but why? Why did Nina have to turn into a monster? To get you to gasp and cry, of course.
Mass murder, chimeras, dying babies, there's nothing that Fullmetal Alchemist won't do to choke a tear out of you. As a fellow writer said, it wouldn't have been surprising if at the end they killed a puppy just for good measure. Rose's baby is a good example of this sort of ploy. It gets dangled, it cries, you wonder if it's going to live or die, but in the end you don't care anymore. There's only so much sensationalism that an anime can have before it stops being heavy, and starts becoming a chore. And what is the purpose of all this sadness? What is the theme it reveals?
Other than the fact that people are twisted and life sucks, I have no idea. None of the suffering that everyone went through in story seemed to have any effect on the ending. In fact, as if in apology for the horrible things that it put us through, the series concludes with a speech about how equivalent trade isn't really equivalent at all, and everything that's been happening in the past fifty episodes is a lie. When Al proclaims that when people love, there is no cost, he regrets to mention that out of love their teacher created the monster Wrath. Out of all the problems that Fullmetal Alchemist has, that last conclusion is the worst. It even goes against the revelation that is made when we discover Dante and Ed's father's deterioration. Applying deus ex machina and whisking away Ed to another dimension is this series' way of avoiding actually feeding us what the series has promised up to now, and this left me feeling starved and very angry at the cook.
The last element of fiction that I'm going to go in depth on is Point of View. To a writer, point of view is a difficult thing to master, and amateur writers tend to switch from one viewpoint to another whenever they feel they need to provide the reader with some information. A good writer knows that trying to focus on as few characters as possible heightens focus on the important parts of the story, and makes character interaction more interesting.
Fullmetal Alchemist switches its point of view quite often, and the reason it does so is very amateur indeed. From Mustang to Scar to Winry, in order to garner some sympathy for its characters, the show has to give us a little aside about their pasts. "Yes, we know Mustang just sits on his butt and does nothing, but look at this, he killed a lot of people before, regrets it, and now he wants to be fuehrer. Do you like him now?" Nowhere is this more obvious than when for a single episode, we are put in Lust's shoes and dragged around as she contemplates love and life. The only reason that episode is there is to garner sympathy for another underdeveloped character, and maybe to get us to let out a sigh when she dies. The copious use of flashbacks is a similar construct made to inform the viewer about something that the writers don't know how to put into the story itself.
Style, Tone, Symbolism, all of these things are abused in a similar way. That the Sorcerer's Stone require human life for its creation is symbolic in a way, but it's a very base symbolism, and nothing new or exciting like some may profess. As for the style and tone, whatever errors Fullmetal Alchemist may have had in employing them are overshadowed by the ones that I've addressed. Setting also isn't a problem. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist may be in fact the only good thing going for it.
Instead of accepting the fact that an anime like this is so popular, even though it is so flawed, we should be very wary of what this means for the industry. The more anime becomes popular in mainstream Western culture, the more snazzy colors and a cool soundtrack will gloss over poor storytelling, and the less fans will be able to do something about it. Companies will sell what they can, it's only natural, but it's up to the fans to use discretion in their opinions, and to keep their eyes on what makes anime really great. For me what separates this fandom from others is that fact that you can find stories on par with Hemmingway and Dumas. I don't want to see that aspect of anime go, and so I'm more than willing to put my neck on the line, alienate a lot of fans, and state proudly that in my opinion, Fullmetal Alchemist is just no good.