People cannot gain anything without sacrificing something.
You must present something of equivalent value to gain something.
That is the principle of equivalent trade in alchemy.
We believed that was the truth of the world when we were young.
-- Alphonse Elric

Fullmetal Alchemist, known in Japan as Hagane no Renkinjutsushi, is an extremely popular current anime. But the anime, done by Studio BONES, is only part of the multimedia phenomenon. Hiromu Arakawa's creation incorporates the anime, a manga, at least three announced games, and a plethora of products, drawing some to compare the phenomenon to .hack, which used a similar all-out approach. Heavy involvement of such large corporations as Bandai and Sony has helped FMA, as it is usually abbreviated, reach this amazing status. The 51-episode anime, which aired its last episode on October 2, 2004 in Japan, was recently licensed for American distribution by FUNimation, and it will appear on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup starting November 2004. A recently announced movie is expected to debut in 2005.

The Setting

Fullmetal Alchemist is mainly set in Amestris, a country that highly resembles Western Europe during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Ruled by the military dictator Fuhrer Bradley, the country has been involved in a number of foreign and civil wars in the years and has a large standing military.

What makes the FMA world different from our own is the use of Alchemy. With the use of a transmutation circle, alchemists can transmute matter from one form to another. But there are a couple of catches: first, the principle of equivalent trade. You must present something of equal value to gain something. And second, the ultimate taboo in alchemy, Human Transmutation, must never be performed. Other than that, alchemists are limited only by their abilities and their morals.

Obviously, the power of alchemy is very strong in the FMA world. Thus, Amestris enlists State Alchemists as part of their military. Approximately 10 years before the main FMA storyline, the people of a eastern region called Ishbal were upset with the country's use of alchemy. They considered it heresy against their god, Ishbala. Tensions were high. No one knows exactly what happened, but somehow, shots were fired and the Ishbal Civil War broke out. The Amestris military in Central City authorized the use of the State Alchemist's powers, and soon, the conflict was over and the Ishballites were nearly wiped out. The remainder were forced to live in specially designated camps. An uneasy peace returned to the land, but Bradley retained ultimate authority. This is the world of Fullmetal Alchemist.

The Story

Spoilers for Episode 3

The brothers Edward Elric and Alphonse have lived quietly with their mother, Trisha, in the small town of Resembool on the west side of Amestris. Their father, Hoenheim, left for military service when they were very young. The boys studied alchemy from their father's books and became very proficient for being so young. Aside from their father's absence, for which Ed is very bitter, the only tragedy in their young lives is when the parents of their childhood friend Winry Rockbell, doctors working at the Ishbal Civil War, are killed, reportedly by a State Alchemist. The boys go on with their studies until the day when they come home to find their mother collapsed on the floor.

Trisha Elric slowly fades and dies, and Auntie Pinako, Winry's grandmother and guardian, takes the boys in as well. At the burial, Ed and Al stay by the grave long into the night, and vow that they will perform Human Transmutation and revive their mother. They dedicate themselves to their study, spend many months in distant parts of the country training under a master of alchemy, and finally return to Resembool when Ed is 11 and Al is 10. They create the large transmutation circle and assemble the carbon, water, and other ingredients that made a adult human body. Finally, they each add a drop of their own blood and begin the transmutation.

But you must present something of equal value to gain something. The transmutation begins going horribly wrong. Ed's leg is dismantled and vanishes. But that is nothing compared to seeing his brother Al sucked into the whirl at the center of the circle, completely vaporized. Ed manages, with the sacrifice of his arm, to seal Al's soul into a gigantic suit of armor in their father's workroom where they were doing the transmutation. In his new body, Al carries his bleeding brother to Auntie Pinako's, where they recover.

Meanwhile, the State Alchemist Colonel Roy Mustang had received a letter from the boys that they sent out to anyone who might have known their dad when their mother was dying. He recognized the light from the human transmutation attempt and came to Edward the day after. He offered to let him take the State Alchemist test. Edward accepted, hoping to find some way to return him and his brother to their normal bodies. He had Winry and Pinako install a new Automail, or mechanical, leg and arm. As they left Resembool to pursue becoming State Alchemists, they burned their house. Shortly thereafter, Ed became the youngest State Alchemist at age 12 and gains the title Full Metal Alchemist. Some of the episodes involve this time of their lives, but during the majority of the series, Ed is 15 and Al, still in the suit of armor, is 14. They constantly pursue rumors of a mystical object, the Philosopher's Stone, which is said to be able to break the rules of alchemy. Their ultimate goal is to use the stone to restore themselves to their original bodies.

The Heroes

Edward Elric, the older brother, has always been very small for his age. He flies into fits of rage at the words "shorty" or "bean". However, he is also a brilliant alchemist, able to accomplish things no one would have throught possible at his age. He is usually the more hot-headed of the brothers and tends to rush into things without thinking them through. Because Al has no face to display emotions, Ed is usually very emotional, making him a very beloved character with the show's fans.

Alphonse Elric, the younger brother, is often mistaken for the Fullmetal Alchemist due to his imposing suit of armor. Actually, Al is shy, hesitant, and very good-natured at heart, all of which easily shows through his looming appearance. He is often the calming force in the brotherly duo, and is forever restraining Ed from his rash courses of action. However, he must always keep his true nature hidden, not an easy task, for if the military (aside from Mustang, who hides their secrets) found out about their forbidden actions, they would be at best removed from the military and unable to pursue their goal, and at worst locked in a lab and experimented on. He does, however, have his emotional moments, and the brotherly concern for each other is endearing to see.

Auntie Pinako, likely the only person in Amestris whom Ed could call "shorty", runs a Automail shop with her orphaned granddaughter Winry. These family friends are constant sources of strength (and, in Ed's case, spare parts) when the brothers are at their lowest point.

Eventually, the boys' teacher, Izumi Curtis, is introduced, and number of other "good guys" are met along the way. But the anime has a tendency to have character's motives not be what they seem and to have characters whom you expected to play one-episode parts suddenly return much later, so trust no one.

The Military

Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist, is the first member of the military we are introduced to. With his ignition glove, he create walls of flame at will, making him a dangerous foe in battle. He is dedicated to rising in rank, aiming to one day hold the rank of Fuhrer.

Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes is quite an interesting character. One the one hand, he seems a goofball who cannot stop talking about his wife and his precious daughter Elecia. But on the other, he is actually a courageous, intelligent, and skillful soldier. Though not an alchemist himself, he became fast friends with Mustang during their service in the Ishbal Civil War and has dedicated his life to pushing his friend up in the ranks from beneath him. Later in the series, he helps the Elric brothers seek out the truth of the strange involvements of the military with the Philosopher's Stone.

Major Alex Louis Armstrong is the massively muscular Strong Arm Alchemist who has a tendency to rip off his uniform and have little purple stars flash around his head. A powerful force in the Ishbal Civil War, he has for some reason not been promoted from Major, the rank all State Alchemists begin at. While in the beginning he seems mainly like comic relief, as the story goes along and the plots delve deeper another side of Armstrong comes out.

Brigadier General Basque Gran is the Iron Blood Alchemist and was in chrage of State Alchemist operations in the Ishbal Civil War. A giant, war-loving man, he seems to have some suspicious connections with the Philosopher's Stone.

Fuhrer Bradley, or King Bradley depending on the translation (I somehow doubt the official translation will be Fuhrer), is the mysterious military dictator of Amestris. He wears a patch over one eye and has a tendency for appearing at unexpected times. His motives remain very mysterious, as do those of his secretary, Juliet Douglas.

There are many other members of the military that we meet. Many, like Risa Hawkeye, are Mustang's loyal subordinates from Eastern City. Others have motives not too certain. Some, like the disgraced criminal Crimson Alchemist Zolof Kimbley, simply radiate evil. With every episode, the situation with the military gets more complicated and deadly.

The Villains

Scar is a Ishballite, as evidenced from his dark skin and red eyes. He is named that for the large, X-shaped scar on his forehead. With his strange arm covered in alchemical symbols he has been murdering members of the military, especially State Alchemists, in Central City. Soon, he becomes a big enough threat that the entire military, including Edward and Alphonse, are forced to take action.

The Sins are the true villains of Fullmetal Alchemist. They are Homunculus, created humans, seemingly invincible. We are first introduced to Lust, a curvaceous woman with cold, calculating plans, and Gluttony, a strange, dim-witted, disturbing creature who does most of Lust's dirty work by eating those she wants to eliminate. Gradually, the rest of the Sins are introduced, and their interests in the Philosopher's Stone and the Elric brothers are made clearer.

The Episodes

The very titles of the episodes may be considered spoilers. If you make a node of one of these episodes, please let me know so I can indicate it.

  1. One who challenges the Sun
  2. Condemned Body
  3. Mom
  4. Transmutation of Love
  5. Dash! Auto-Mail
  6. State Alchemist Qualification Exam
  7. The Night the Chimera Cries
  8. Philosopher's Stone
  9. The Silver Watch of Dog of the Military
  10. The Thief Psiren
  11. Gravel Earth - Part One
  12. Gravel Earth - Part Two
  13. Flame versus Full Metal
  14. The Right Hand of Destruction
  15. The Ishbal Massacre
  16. Lost Thing
  17. The House Where the Family Waits
  18. Marco's Note
  19. The Genuine Truth Behind Truths
  20. The Guardian's Soul
  21. Crimson Glow
  22. Created Humans
  23. Heart of Steel
  24. Affixing Memories
  25. Farewell Ceremony - Note: after this episode, the anime and manga plots diverge significantly.
  26. Her Reason
  27. Teacher
  28. One is All, All is One
  29. Innocent Child
  30. South Headquarters Assault
  31. Sin
  32. The Deep Forest's Dante
  33. Kidnapped Al
  34. The Theory of Greed
  35. The Reunion of Fools
  36. The Sinner Within Me
  37. Flame Alchemist / The Fighting Lieutenant / The Mystery of the 13th Warehouse
  38. With the River's Flow
  39. Eastern Civil War
  40. The Scar
  41. Holy Mother
  42. Without Knowing His Name
  43. The Stray Dog Has Run
  44. Light Hoenheim
  45. Corruption of the Soul
  46. Human Transmutation
  47. Homunculus Sealed
  48. Farewell
  49. The Other Side of the Door
  50. Death
  51. Rebirth (unconfirmed)

The Summary

Fullmetal Alchemist's popularity can be atributed to many factors, aside from the gigantic corporational pull it has. First, the animation itself is clean, pristine, and of amazing quality. The transmutation effects specifically are beautiful and amazing to watch. The character design is wonderful; even though half of the characters are in the same uniform, you will never have trouble distinguishing them thanks to both their looks and their personalities. But more than that, it evokes many powerful emotions in people. The many different episodes run the gauntlet of human emotion. You never know if the episode you are about to watch with be a side-splitting comedy, a frightening mystery, an intriguing plot-driven story, or an incredibly-emotional tragedy (Episodes 7 and 25, I'm looking your way). I highly recommend it, and, as it is one of the most popular current fansubs, I'm sure lots of other people do as well.

Personal viewing
Note: use of "Fullmetal" instead of "Full Metal" was based on the Japansese logo and the official site for the American version,