There’s something comforting about the rhythms of anime series. Whether 13 episode series that offer up a serialised narrative akin to a feature film with plenty of hanging out, or 26 episode series that build into more substantive storylines, there’s something definitive about the way most anime establish and resolve the bulk of their storylines throughout a single season.
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood – a reboot, of sorts, of the 2003 series Full Metal Alchemist, this time more closely linked to the source manga – resists these familiar rhythms. The series runs an intimidating 64 episodes, and for the first dozen or so suggests an unhurried approach to storytelling befitting its length. I admit to feeling somewhat frustrated during this chunk of episodes which, in retrospect, amounts to an extended prologue.
It’s not that there isn’t much to recommend these opening episodes, with more than a few impressively animated actions sequences on display. Fraternal protagonists Edward and Alphonse Elric’s are searching for alchemy’s heralded Philosopher’s Stone to regain their bodies – lost or, well, abridged after an attempt to bring their mother back from the dead. Their quest, under the employ of the Amestris military, leads them on a series of adventures that, frankly, felt a little directionless. But while I can criticise Brotherhood’s somewhat meandering pacing, this prologue proved to be the set-up for a much more expansive story.
Despite our heroes metal bodies and magical abilities suggesting yet another power fantasy, Brotherhood in fact offers a relatively nuanced take on the complexities of power – starting with the aforementioned Philosopher’s Stones. Ed and Alphonse’s mission hits a dead end of sorts when they discover that the process for creating Philosopher’s Stones involves the sacrifice of human souls. Not only does this shift the focus from the Elric brothers’ personal goals to a broader investigation (namely: who’s creating these Stones, and why?), but it acts an effective metaphor for power in society. While true power doesn’t require death, it does invariably come at the expense of other’s power and autonomy. The Philosopher’s Stones come to stand in as a multifaceted symbol of this kind of power.
That’s emphasised through the figures who get to wield these Philosopher’s Stones and their awesome power. So-called homunculi – named after the seven deadly sins – possess alchemical abilities far outstripping Ed and Alphonse and make for complicated foes … particularly when we discover that one of those homunculi, King Bradley, is the leader of Amestris. Where most such stories would reveal the corruption at the top of the government as a brief precursor to our heroes’ victory, instead Brotherhood underlines the comparative powerlessness of the Elric brothers to the might of a full state military.
Don’t get me wrong – fundamentally, Brotherhood still operates as entertainment: an action anime, with extended dialogue-heavy showdowns and running jokes about Ed’s height (or lack thereof). But its portrayal of power, whether physical, alchemical or political, is rendered with the kind of perspective rare in the genre. We’re so accustomed to stories about political corruption ending with revelations and fresh slates that there’s something almost revolutionary about a show that has its protagonists shrugging their soldiers and (temporarily) getting back to work when they learn their boss is a genocidal dictator. Kinda like real life, I suppose!