Good things come to those who wait. A much overused quote, but perfectly appropriate for Fullmetal Alchemist: Season 1, Part 1. While it essentially just repackages the first four DVD volumes, it’s a great package with lots of content and takes up far less space than the volume 1 w/artbox. Plus, FMA just happens to be a good show, so for those who haven’t seen the series but want to, this just might be the best way to start.
Fullmetal Alchemist is the classic “big quest” type of story: A hero or two go on a long journey to accomplish a goal, usually crossing a wide array of landscapes, and often getting sidetracked along the way. In this case, the pair is the Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse. They aim to find the Philosopher’s Stone so they can reverse an alchemical accident that cost Ed a limb and Alphonse a body (his spirit now inhabits a colossal metal suit of armor), and their search takes them from one place to another, where they meet all kinds of folks, both virtuous and sinister.
There’s a lot of the latter in these first 16 episodes. Right away in episode 1 we meet a corrupt priest whose “miracles” are pretty much the only hope for a deluded small town. Needless to say, there’s more to him than meets the eye, but I won’t give it away. Later, Ed and Alphonse run into a group of terrorists who hijack their train. That episode is a great showcase for the brothers’ teamwork in outsmarting their enemies.
Perhaps the most compelling antagonist in the first eight episodes is Shou Tucker, an alchemist who allows Ed and Alphonse to stay with him while they study for an exam. However, they quickly discover that he has a dark secret, one that unfortunately involves his daughter, Nina, who becomes something of a temporary sister to the duo. What Shou does is horrible, though the show gives him a genuine and somewhat understandable motive, which makes him deeper than a one-dimensional “mwa-ha-ha!” villain.
Episode 8 gives us a more typical serial killer villain, but it’s executed really well. The climax with the cleaver-wielding madman in the dark meat locker is reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs or a slasher flick: claustrophobic and creepy, with a lot of close calls.
After that high tension scene, things cool off a bit in a nice comic relief episode, with Ed and Alphonse venturing to a Venice-like city where a cat burglar named Psiren (who looks suspiciously like a nurse in the same city) is stealing all sorts of items. Despite her thieving, she’s something of a town hero because of the way her schemes have kept the folk and newspapers abuzz.
But the main series antagonists are a group of Homunculi, named after the seven deadly sins, who are after the Philosopher’s Stone for their own purposes. My personal favorite so far is the sultry Lust, who wears slinky dresses but nevertheless has deadly finger blades she uses to get what she wants. These Homunculi factor into the plot a little later, although we get some early glimpses into their freakish, murderous natures in this set.
But enough about the villains. One thing I really like about Fullmetal Alchemist is how the heroes use alchemy to their advantage to get out of troubles, even when they know it’s alchemy (or rather, the abuse of it, in an attempt to resurrect their dead mother) that caused their disfigurements. That adds a bit of depth to their characters, and the themes of life and death, and the controlling therein, are frequently explored through these two. I also liked how Ed takes full blame for causing the accident, and how he will stop at nothing to cure his brother; it says a lot about his character. Of course, given how unorthodox these two are, there are quite a few running jokes associated with them. Despite the fact that Alphonse would otherwise probably be shorter than Ed, his armor outfit makes him taller, causing confusion. Speaking of Alphonse’s armor, it’s rather amusing that he always has to warn enemies not to shoot at him, for the bullets will ricochet off his hard exterior and hit them right back.
Winry, a childhood friend of Ed’s who constructed his replacement steel arm, makes a few appearances in this set. Refreshingly, she bucks stereotypes about her gender by being a real gear head. A particularly funny scene involves her getting wide-eyed when passing a shop; the audience might assume she’s shopping for clothes, but she’s stoked about the new shop parts that have come in.
Toward the end of volume 1 some military officers who want to use Ed’s alchemy power for military purposes come into play. Though the characters of Colonel Roy Mustang, Lieutenant Riza Hawkeye, and Major Alex Louis Armstrong don’t get quite as much screen time as the two heroes, they all get the spotlight at certain points. We learn quite a bit about Roy, for instance, from the comical (he wants to rule the kingdom so he can dress all female officers in miniskirts) to the serious (as when he revisits the horrors of his past military experiences).
Visually, the show is quite nice. Being set in the past, it showcases towns full of older architecture, which is a nice change if you’re burnt out on modern-setting anime series. In addition, the fact that the Elric brothers are always on the move means no location overstays its welcome, adding for more visual variety. The animation by BONES is the standard stuff: mostly limited but far better during action scenes. However, I do appreciate how there are quite a few wild takes, such as when Ed gets upset over something. They even manage to give Alphonse some visual personality, which isn’t easy to do since he doesn’t really have a face to speak of. The audio also doesn’t disappoint. The full orchestra produces a variety of moods for the show, and ranges from lighter fare to ominous, brooding pieces. The voices for both the Japanese and English tracks are next to perfect, even if a few of the English voices sound a bit different than the Japanese cast.
The Fullmetal Alchemist Season 1 Part 1 set contains the same discs as the first four volumes, so FUNi isn’t ripping off those who bought the singles when they first came out. They come housed in an overlap case that has Ed and Alphonse on one side, Roy Mustang on the other, and an action shot of Ed on the inside. The set also comes with a silver case which contains all the informative booklets from Vols. 1 through 4, so late adopters need not worry that they’re missing materials that buyers of the single volumes received. The booklets contain staff comments and character info/art, and are a very nice addition. The box art contains a shot of Ed, Alphonse, Riza Hawkeye, and Mustang and looks nice as well.
DVD extras include everything that came with the singles: textless songs for the two opening and ending themes, production art, some Japanese commercials (including one for a FMA video game), character profiles, some music videos, and trailers. It also contains something of a surprise for me: a full episode of Spiral, another title from FUNi. I appreciate such an extra, and I’d like to see more of that, especially since not all of us are lucky to have access to FUNimation Channel. My only real complaint with the DVDs is the video quality, which isn’t always flawless. There tended to be some break-up in motion-heavy scenes. It wasn’t enough to ruin the experience for me, but it was sometimes noticeable on my set-up.
Shows that utilize the “big quest” approach can be hit-or-miss, due to the danger of constantly getting side-tracked from the main quest and losing the narrative focus, not to mention getting long-winded. Nevertheless, that sort of easy-going nature actually works in Fullmetal Alchemist‘s favor, as in every encounter we gain more insight into Ed and Alphonse; little of it feels like filler. The direction is also solid, whether it be in high energy action scenes or in emotional moments, like the flashback in episode 3 when we see the Elric’s mother die. And it manages to balance dramatic and comedic moments surprisingly well, and some entirely lighter episodes (such as the aforementioned episode 10, and a military festival in episode 13) are enjoyable. Finally, unlike a series like Inu-Yasha, Full Metal Alchemist is only 51 episodes, so it’s not a big investment, especially with these lower priced box sets. As such, this Season 1, Part 1 box comes recommended.