Thursday, December 16, 2010

Full Metal Alchemist by Himoru Arakawa: A Review

Full Metal Alchemist (FMA) focuses on two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who lost their mother to a rare illness and are unable to contact their father who's been away. To fill this void in their lives, the boys attempt the most forbidden of alchemic crafts: Human Transmutation. Their failed attempt left Edward with only two limbs and his brother's soul bound to a suit of armor. Becoming agents of the government, slaves of the military-alchemical complex, they use their unique powers to obey their orders, but also to find a way to restore their bodies. They hear news of and are determined to find the Philosopher’s Stone, the only way they can get their bodies back, but others are also searching for the stone and will do anything to get its power.

In the first volume, Edward and Alphonse’s exploits range from thwarting the machinations of a fraudulent and ambitious priest who abuses the faith of his oblivious town to cunningly extracting an impoverished mining community from the exorbitant clutches of an oppressive official and dealing with a train-hijack situation. The second volume teaches us of the many types of alchemy in the world. Edward's commanding officer, "Flame Alchemist" Roy Mustang, can control fire. Mustang introduces the brothers to Shou Tucker, the "Sewing-Life Alchemist," who specializes in the most difficult alchemy of all biological transmutation, the ability to alter the tissue of living things. Shou invites the boys to use his library, and soon they spend long days at the house studying and playing with Nina, Shou’s daughter, and his dog. As the days pass by, the Elric brothers are ignorant of the pressure mounting on the researcher. With his assessment is coming up, and his position as state alchemist on the line, Tucker desperately transmutes his daughter and dog to create his findings, similar to what he did in the past with his wife.

As Edward broods over Nina’s fate and the meaning of alchemy, a new menace makes an appearance. A murderer, known only as “Scar” for the x-shaped mark on his face, is targeting state alchemists and brutally slaughtering them. During a run-in with the ruthless killer, both Ed and Al are damaged, and rendered unable to resist his attack. To save his little brother, Edward is on the verge of submitting to Scar’s assault in exchange for Al’s life. Right in time, however, Mustang and his troops arrive to save the day. During this ensuing tirade by Scar, we learn that he believes he is an instrument of God, and he deals divine judgment to unholy alchemists. In addition, he’s a member of a persecuted race that the government tried to systematically wipe from the face of the earth. The action lets up as Ed, Al, and Major Armstrong head to repair the damage caused by Scar. They realize that no matter their power, alchemists are still human. When a mysterious killer starts stalking state alchemists, no one can escape his vengeance.

The theme of the comic was established by the quote found on the first page of the first volume: “One that does not sacrifice anything cannot achieve anything.” This quote stands out through its demonstration of the author’s main idea of the book, recurring throughout the first two volumes. The theme is that the idea of alchemy, unlike magic, follows the law of even trade. This theme was seen immediately as the Manga started. Due to their attempts with human transmutation, Edward and Alphonse both paid dearly, one losing an arm and a leg; the other became a soul locked into a body of living iron. Edward becomes a State Alchemist, referred to as “a dog of the military”, in order to use the extensive resources available, such as replacing his missing limbs with automail.

Other characters apart from the brothers also experience this law, such as Shou Tucker, the Life-Binding Alchemist. He sacrifices his family and ethics in order to achieve in his research. This theme contributes to the overall work by sending a message or moral to the readers as there is no argument in this series. The theme’s lack of subtlety, as one clearly sees it on the first page of the series, along with its frequency and continuity in the volumes makes it effectively unforgettable and perceptible to all readers.

Arakawa undertakes an open narrative style in this series as the reader is omniscient, as well as many of the characters. He includes great battles, clever twists, interlocking plotlines, and memorable characters that will stand up for what they believe in, whether good or bad. These volumes provided a satisfying balance of all those elements, and do it in a style that is visually exciting while still being easy for the eyes to follow. Whether it involves an all-out brawl, an urban gunfight, or some careful sneaking through the underground, the events in this series continue to move with forward momentum—a momentum that will ultimately lead to the group branded by the symbol. The game is in full swing and the final goal is in clear sight, but how our heroes are going to get there is anyone's guess.

As for visual elements, the style of Fullmetal Alchemist is semi-realistic and detailed. While no one could mistake the drawings for real-life pictures, we see shading, three-dimensional images (well, two-dimensional images with depth), strands of hair, and shadows. Sometimes, to better depict emotions, the comics switched to a very simple style. The flat, outlined, basic drawings contrasted sharply with the rest of the panels and served well to send a message that is difficult to put into words. In our opinion, the simpler drawings portrayed emotions and ideas more effectively than detailed drawings because the reader could relate to the images easily. As Scott McCloud noted, an undescriptive character can relate to a larger audience. These “breaks” from the typical drawing style provided comic relief and helped us relate to the characters.

We also noted a lack of focus on scenery. We are always given a general idea of the setting, but most of the panels do not have a background as a realistic-style comic might. Instead, the characters are usually surrounded by shading, representing the lighting. Close-ups of the characters’ faces and interactions allow more of a focus on the plot rather than specifics about location. We liked this technique because, with fewer details, the comic was fast paced. Sometimes, if a graphic novel is too detailed or too realistic, the reader becomes overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information to take in. The use of symbols to portray emotions is an element of Manga implemented in this comic that we really liked. Flowers represented cuteness or sentimentality; water drops depicted sweat, exasperation, or exertion of effort; little clouds showed panting, sighing, or heavy breaths; four-pointed stars showed up around a person who was feeling confident or proud of themselves; and little hearts appeared at the ends of speech bubbles when Edward Elric was being particularly sarcastic or cheeky. These small indications help us understand how a character is feeling or being influenced in addition to the typical clues presented by facial expression, etc.

Yet another visual element is the use of runes and symbols for alchemy, each alchemist with their own. The Elric brothers have a symbol that appears on Edward’s clothes and Al’s armor that looks like a cross fused with a question mark topped with a crown and wings, and Colonel Roy Mustang, the “Flame Alchemist,” has a symbol of triangles, a salamander, and fire encircled by a double ring on his gloves. These symbols are really cool because they give each of the main characters a crest that reflects who they are. For example, the Elric brothers are on a quest to find the truth about the philosopher’s stone in an attempt to regain their bodies, so their emblem resembles a question mark.

Graphically, FMA is not exactly stunning, but it is original and expressive. Arakawa has a gift for showing movement, with very subtle motions coming across just as easily as massive fight scenes. The characters' facial expressions are not to be missed either, with Edward having some of the funniest reactions whenever somebody mentions his short height. But what really earns FMA its place as a famous Manga is the story.

FMA's story is, to put it bluntly, one of the most engaging and well thought out that you can read. The reader can easily connect and sympathize with the Elric brothers. The first volume may seem a little formulaic, but don’t let that fool you. The story quickly goes through a series of twists and turns that will leave you aching for the next volume to see what happens. Arakawa's story telling is equaled only be his characters. There are no two dimensional characters in these pages. Everyone has a range of complex emotions, hidden feelings and ulterior motives. Edward and his younger brother Alphonse are mentally and physically unlike most early teens – both have uncanny statures and dabble in alchemy. While Al’s alchemy skill isn’t quite as good as Ed’s, he makes up for it with his attitude. Unlike his emotionally unstable brother, Al is the voice of reason that keeps everything in check. Together the two brothers make an unstoppable duo.

If that’s not enough, there are some fun extras at the end of every volume. A few short comics, notes from the author and a sometimes tasteless, but still funny "In Memoriam" for any characters that died in that volume. All this wrapped together in a wonderful package that any fan of great stories, Manga or not, should have on their shelf.

Full Metal Alchemist (Volumes I & II):

Publisher: Bandai

Price: 19.96 for both books together (9.99 each)

Review By: Sumana Vardhan, Cindy Angpraseuth, Bobby Baginski, & Luke Nayak

1 comment:

Michael Hancock said...

Your breathless enthusiasm for this series shows from start to finish. Your descriptions of characters and episodes are specific, detailed, and evocative. We come to understand your appreciation for Arakawa's art and your even greater love for her narrative. The final paragraph comes to a somewhat clumsy halt with two consecutive sentence fragments, but the rest of your review truly shines. Let me know what you think of later volumes if you continue to read this series!