I know this isn’t exactly a shocker, but the world’s gone a bit crazy in these past couple years. And in tumultuous times like these, I feel I need to disconnect a bit revisit the movies, books, games, and music that helped me get through hard times in the past. There are many of these that have personal significance to me – Evangelion, Final Fantasy VII, the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the classic albums of Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen – but the one that has been on my mind the most recently is one of my favorite stories ever: the Shonen action-fantasy anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
I’ve loved Fullmetal Alchemist pretty much since the original series first started airing on Adult Swim back in 2003. I remember when I was thirteen years old, I would hole up in the living room in the middle of the night, pouring over every episode on my parent’s ancient 1970’s TV. When that wasn’t enough for me, I would go to the bookstore and spend all the money I had made from mowing lawns around the neighborhood to buy the manga. But while the manga and the original anime start out the same, they eventually went in completely different directions in the story due to the anime going ahead of the manga. That’s why when Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood came out in 2009, my freshman year of college, I couldn’t get more hyped for it. Finally, I could experience the story of FMA as it was originally intended, with no filler content and stunning animation.
While I still love FMA 2003 and have a special place in my heart for it, I think that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is one of those extremely rare remakes that not only matches the original’s quality, but surpasses it in almost every conceivable way. It’s a 64-episode epic full of thrills, action, incredible story and character development, and some of the most emotional gut punches in any story I’ve ever encountered. And it’s just as relevant today, if not more, than when it was originally released 10 years ago.
The story of FMA: Brotherhood takes place in the land of Amestris, a country vaguely resembling turn-of-the-century Europe where everything runs on alchemy. While alchemists in this universe are capable of incredible feats, from summoning flames out of thin air to repairing electronics in an instant, their one taboo is to use alchemy on human beings. Our main characters, the brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, committed this taboo when they were just kids. They tried to bring their mother back from the dead using alchemy, and paid the price with their own physical bodies – Ed losing his arm and leg, and Al losing his entire body and having his soul transmuted into a suit of armor. Now the boys must join the military as State Alchemists in their quest to find the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone and get their bodies back.
But there is so much more at stake than Ed and Al initially realize. Amestris is a military dictatorship, and the State Alchemists are treated as human weapons for war, imperialism, and genocide. Then there are the Homunculi, artificial humans named after the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, and Pride) who kill with ruthless efficiency and are practically invincible in battle. As the story progresses, the brothers discover the connection between Amestris, the Homunculi, and the Philosopher’s Stone itself, and uncover a conspiracy that threatens all of humanity in the process. This is a story with all the trappings of a classic Shonen battle series – train, travel the world, fight the bad guys, save the world – but what makes it truly legendary in the anime fandom is how it incorporates complex political and philosophical themes with incredibly human and fleshed out characters, to create a story that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s easy to see parallels between the world of FMA and the struggles we face today, in our world. Many characters in the military, such as the dour Colonel Mustang and his eternal companion Riza Hawkeye, struggle to reconcile their love of their country with the wanton cruelty of their government. Racism and ethnic tensions fuel the character of Scar, who seeks revenge on the State Alchemists for the murder of his people, the Ishvalans. And there is a lot of weight put on the duality of science and religion, and how blindly believing in either one without questioning it can lead to a cult-like mentality and a disregard for human life. While the story is mostly optimistic in tone, there are many scenes, like the government’s horrific experiments on live humans or the harrowing Ishvalan War of Extermination, that show the absolute worst of humanity and bring to mind the most brutal atrocities in our own history.
But all these heady themes and dark moments are just a part of a deeply personal story for Edward and Alphonse. As brothers both in blood and in arms, they fight and butt heads at times, but their love for each other and desire to protect those they care about is what defines them. And they both have incredible character arcs, with the arrogant and hot-headed Edward learning the value of humility and the more introverted, sullen Alphonse gaining the confidence to do incredible things. Together, they, along with their childhood friend Winry and the huge supporting cast they encounter on their journey, create a kind of found family that all work together to overcome the dehumanizing and alienating nature of fascism.
I think, as humans, we are naturally drawn to stories about overcoming adversity and becoming better people than we were before. And while FMA: Brotherhood certainly doesn’t shy away from humanity’s worst impulses, ultimately, it’s a celebration of humanity in all its forms. The show represents disability in a way not often seen in fiction, with Ed facing unique challenges due to having metal prosthetic limbs. There are many great female characters, like Winry the mechanic or the cunning General Olivier Armstrong, who show strength and tenacity while refusing to conform to gender stereotypes. And by featuring characters of many different (fictional) races and ethnicities come together, it shows how we are all truly human and should regard each other as equals. These are all messages that were important when FMA was first being written, and have become even more crucial today.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a masterpiece of an anime, with gorgeous animation, shocking plot twists, heart-wrenching moments, and breathtaking music. It’s a show that will make you laugh, cry, get hype, and hopefully think a little bit more about the world that we live in. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out at your earliest possible convince. There is some body horror and a lot of violence, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get past that you will find a truly compelling story that anyone can connect with. And it is absolutely, even ten years later, an anime that we need right now.