Pop, but Not Pap

Fullmetal Alechemist is a cool summer breeze

Summer is here. The sun beats down, increasing our risk of premature aging and skin damage. A number of insects come out of dormancy, waiting to sting us or suck our blood. Blooming flowers fill the air with potentially deadly pollen and other irritants.

“It’s a beautiful day out; you should spend more time outside!” our parents claimed. Roughly translated, this meant, “My stories are on, and you’re hogging the TV. We’re counting the days until school starts again and this nightmarish occupation is over.”

Fortunately, the entertainment industry understands. It loves us and wants to keep us safe, so it dedicates its considerable resources to giving us reasons to stay inside. Publishers call forth their most lucrative authors to give us diverting prose about crime-solving lawyers, romantically challenged single people, and trainee wizards. Game designers give us a wide range of species to kill in a variety of imaginative scenarios.

Movie producers abandon any efforts toward respectability, unleashing films that make audiences of every level of critical discernment think, “Well, that might be cool. And the cinema’s air-conditioned!” Comics publishers flood the market with line-wide crossovers that will change everything. (Don’t worry. It’ll change back eventually.)

These benevolent corporate interests know that summer is about diversion. They know the season makes us more receptive to passive entertainments of all sorts, but they understand that we’d rather the movies and comics and books didn’t stick with us for very long. We really just want reasons to be out of the heat. Creative brilliance is all well and good, but thinking is hard when it’s this hot.

Even with this understanding, many entertainment providers err on the side of the lowest common denominator. Sure, we’re hot and cranky, but we haven’t completely abandoned our standards (just mostly). It’s the difference between good junk food and bad; we’ll drink the powdered lemonade if it’s all that’s in the fridge, but we’d still prefer fresh-squeezed if someone else is willing to make it.

So it’s a particular pleasure when someone hits it exactly right, presenting a property that’s popular and easily consumed and just plain good all at the same time. It can be constructed from utterly familiar ingredients and follow an instantly recognizable formula, but throw in enough verve and craft, and all will be forgiven.

Viz has presented the manga equivalent of fresh-squeezed lemonade with its launch of the English translation of Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s already enormously popular in Japan, with the high-selling manga spinning off into anime, video games, and other subsidiary products. Viewers of Cartoon Network have been gobbling up episodes of the anime since its debut in late 2004. Square Enix released a game version in January with the sequel due in July. And Viz recently announced a line of novelizations of the property.

You can be forgiven if that kind of ready-made cottage industry makes you a bit suspicious of the actual quality of the founding property. Many an omnimedia empire has been built on a pretty crappy cornerstone. That’s not the case here, as creator Hiromu Arakawa has concocted a solid fictional world peopled with well-developed characters pursuing meaty (but not too meaty) goals.

Fullmetal Alchemist follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, gifted young alchemists who have already paid a terrible price for abusing their abilities. An attempt to bridge the gap between the living and the dead left elder Edward short of an arm and a leg and left Alphonse’s soul trapped in a monstrous suit of armor. Edward works for the corrupt government and Alphonse clanks along with him. All the while, they search for the alchemical means to restore Alphonse’s body.

The brothers are instantly recognizable types. Edward is the pragmatist, following his own fluctuating morality with a cynicism and temper that belie his boyish appearance. Alphonse’s monstrous physicality contains a sweet, gentle soul, and he’s often the story’s Jiminy Cricket, gently chastising his ends-justify-the-means sibling. Arakawa doesn’t particularly stretch those archetypes, but she invests them with more than enough depth and heart to make them stand-out examples.

The first volume features the Elrics in a variety of familiar pit stops in a fantasy quest structure. They visit a town in the thrall of a quasi-religious leader and investigate his intentions. A stop at a remote mining town puts them into conflict with suspicious locals and the corrupt government type who’s bleeding the town dry. And they stumble across a hostage crisis on a train.

As the story unfolds, Arakawa judiciously reveals details about the protagonists’ histories, their dynamic, and the world they live in. Teasing hints of underlying subplots emerge as she begins defining a corrupt culture where alchemy is viewed with profound ambivalence. Some see it as miraculous, others as a significant danger. Some resent Edward for using it in service of the government, and he might even be inclined to agree with them if he weren’t so prone to fudging rules himself.

Arakawa uses events to reveal character. An encounter with a young woman who wants to raise her lover from the dead resonates with the brothers as she struggles with issues of faith and morality. The chapter in the mining town illustrates how the brothers respond to a question of what’s right versus what’s expedient (or lucrative). The train caper illustrates their various approaches, direct or sneaky, to dangerous situations.

Arakawa’s visuals are definitely easy on the eye. The world of Fullmetal Alchemist borrows period elements and invests them with bits of the futuristic and the fantastic. Again, there’s nothing spectacularly new about that blend, but it’s done here with real polish and energy. Action sequences are kinetic and exciting, whether they feature a pitched alchemical battle or a race along the roof of a speeding train. Varied backgrounds are rendered in more than enough detail to create a sense of place. Characters are expressive and specific, from the Elric brothers to the third thug from the left.

It’s definitely a genre piece — episodic chapters of a deeply personal quest set against a backdrop of fantastic abilities and a somewhat dystopian culture. But in this case, familiarity doesn’t come close to breeding contempt. While there’s nothing singularly imaginative about Fullmetal Alchemist, there’s absolutely nothing lazy about it either. Arakawa is a skilled storyteller, and she spares no effort in giving a sturdy old structure a fresh coat of paint.

Arakawa offers nothing more or less than an exceptionally well-crafted action movie in manga form. Fullmetal Alchemist is a welcome reminder that popular doesn’t have to mean witless and suspenseful doesn’t have to mean grim. And as we all slog through summer looking for relief and diversion, what more can we ask for than a blockbuster that deserves the title?