Sunday, March 05, 2006

Full Metal Alchemist

So I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but it's been hard. So here goes.

Toonami kicks ass.

There, I said it. Saturday night on Cartoon Network has become appointment viewing for me in almost the same way that Thursday nights on NBC was twenty years ago. I like Naruto, I like One Piece, I love Justice League Unlimited. I even like Zatch Bell. And then, an hour after the Toonami block has ended, comes my current favorite Japanese show, Fullmetal Alchemist.

Here's the deal with anime in general: a lot of it is crap. And even the stuff that's good is, like, formulaic good usually. It's very striking visually, often doing dynamic things with layout and moving cameras (part of the striking look of the Matrix films is the attempt to recreate an anime look in live-action, with the time-shifting and the camera swirling around the characters, going from wide-shot to extreme close-up and back out to wide shot in one take).

But the thing you figure out if you watch a lot of this stuff, as I have, is that a lot of those things that originally drew you, that amazing audacious visual invention, is actually pretty ordinary. The bold artistic splashes - the crescendo of sound followed by a silent pause at the climactic moment, the split screens, the calm, quiet characters who can explode into sudden, stylized violence - these things are commonplace, even cliched. And if you can get past the "ooh-aah" factor and really look at the story, you realize that most Japanese writers are as bad as Americans. For all the hype about Japanese story sophistication, for the most part, it's not better, just mediocre in a different way.

And then there's Fullmetal Alchemist. Like most shows, the early episodes are a mixed bag, combining clumsy humor with rip-roaring magical action. But once the deeper storyline gets going, this becomes one of the best animated shows I've ever seen. There's no easy way to summarize the show, but it revolves around two brothers who study alchemy in a fantasy world. Their alchemy is different from that of our world, but it revolves around a single law, the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which is the magical equivalent of the Laws of Conservation of Mass and Energy. The brothers want to reverse a ghastly mistake they made when they were younger, a mistake that has left both of them scarred in unique ways. Along the way, they are drawn into conspiracies and political intrigues that will change the course of their nation and perhaps the world.

The show has the usual Japanese eyecandy - gorgeous production values, appealing character design. And like a lot of other shows, it has a huge story arc with an epic feel, punctuated by kick-ass action sequences. But unlike most shows, it plays on several levels at once, combining profound philosophical and ethical questions with complex character development and intricate political maneuvers. There are few shows that can excite me, touch me, viscerally creep me out, and get me thinking about the big questions, all in one episode. This one does, with very few missteps.

I only wish they would put out an affordable all-in-one boxed set. There are 51 half-hour episodes, which equates to 25 1/2 hours. That's one season of Lost. If they put out a boxed set of Fullmetal for the same price, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

No comments: