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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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04/07/2005 Archived Entry: "Manga review: Full Metal Alchemist, vol 1"

Full Metal Alchemist, vol 1
Story and Art: Hiromu Arakawa
Publisher: VIZ

Review by Chad Denton

As is often the case with such things, Hiromu Arakawa's Full Metal Alchemist first became known in the United States through the anime, even though in its native Japan it first appeared as a manga published by Square-Enix, best known as the producers of the "Final Fantasy" and "Dragon Quest" video game RPG series. In fact, to my knowledge, the manga comes to American shores not only after the anime has gone through about half of its 51-episode run on Cartoon Network's Saturday night Adult Swim line-up, but after two video game adaptations have been released.

Full Metal Alchemist takes place in a world not unlike early twentieth-century Europe except that what's called alchemy, the ability to manipulate matter and energy on a very fundamental level, is considered a science. Like any science, alchemy has fundamental laws governing it, the most important being the First Law of Equivalent Exchange, "To obtain, something of equal or greater value must be lost." The story follows two young alchemist prodigies, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who hoped to bring back their beloved mother from the dead using forbidden alchemistic techniques. Unfortunately, they failed to bring the right ingredients to the exchange and Edward not only literally lost an arm and a leg (which were replaced by metallic limbs, hence his nickname, the Full Metal Alchemist), but Alphonse lost his entire body, forcing Edward to use alchemy to seal his soul to a massive suit of armor. Together the two young brothers are trying desperately to find a way to reproduce the Philosopher's Stone, a semi-legendary object that might help the two brothers restore their bodies, a mission that leads them to join their country's military's alchemy branch. However, the two boys are far from the only ones after the Philosopher's Stone and a beautiful but sinister woman who calls herself 'Lust' seems very interested in the young alchemists' progress.

In volume one, there are three story arcs: in the first, the Elric brothers stumble upon a prosperous desert city ruled by a man who claims to be able to perform miracles. Edward instantly deduces that the man is using alchemy to set himself up as a miracle-worker, but does he really have the people's interests at heart (the short answer: no) and is he using the real Philsopher's Stone? In the second, the brothers are assigned to a dying mining town, which is being bled dry by a corrupt officer in the military they serve. And in the third, the brothers just happen to be in the same train as an important military official, which just happens to be hijacked by a terrorist group.

The most striking thing about Full Metal Alchemist is the unique approach it takes to fantasy, at least compared to most American output in literature and comics. This isn't a world of gods or faeries or elves; it just so happens that the dominant 'science' there resembles what we would call magic, but beyond that the Full Metal Alchemist universe's conception of alchemy follows a set of logically consistent laws. It's refreshing to see an ambitious epic fantasy that bypasses the J.R.R. Tolkein route completely. Also the focus isn't on the structure of the world that the characters of Full Metal Alchemist inhabits, but on the characters. For better or for worse, young Edward Elric, who for most of the story is fifteen, acts exactly like you'd expect a cynical teenaged child prodigy with great power to act, while Alphonse is an open-hearted, idealistic child trapped in a monstrous bulk. Like the premise itself, the theme of responsibility and accepting the way one's life is runs through the stories. At the center of all, the Elric brothers constantly seek to undo the damage caused by their hubris. It's also wonderful to see a fantasy epic stray away from villain-hero cliches: while it's easy to tell what side the villain of the first story arc, Father Cornello, is on, the story's military leaders aren't automatically corrupt or untrustworthy, which is definitely a nice change of pace.

The art is quite good, although if you're not used to the conventions of manga one might find the sometimes cartoonish expressions and reactions of the characters to be jarring, considering the serious tone most of the volume carries. The backgrounds aren't very detailed, but the character sketches are fantastic with a great deal of variety and individual detail given to even the smallest player. Likewise the dialogue is crisp, drawing out character details in just a few panels, and the plots are simple but enjoyable, mixing fantasy tropes (a false prophet armed with a ring that grants him special powers) with modern scenarios (government corruption and political extremists hijacking a train).

Fans of the anime won't be disappointed, as the stories closely resemble the anime they inspired, but with different plot events, more detail here and there, and other minor changes (for instance, the order of stories in the manga and the anime's episode order already appear to be different). It's a refreshing and exciting effort and hopefully one that will get the attention it deserves here in the U.S.

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