Plot and Pacing in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

by eternal on March 31, 2010

There has always been something about the shounen genre that pushed me away from it. This is partly due to some complicated gateway experiences, but for the most part it’s thanks to the tradition itself. Quite frankly, action is not something that I would normally go for, and it would take a masterfully animated fight scene from Kara no Kyoukai for me to justify watching a show solely for the action.

While my problem with the genre is an issue of personal taste rather than an objective complaint, I’ve been consistently amazed by Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood over the past year. I’ve delayed shows like To Aru Kagaku no Railgun and Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu to make room for FMA – a series that, theoretically, shouldn’t appeal to me in the first place. After almost 50 episodes of pondering, it occurred to me that Brotherhood strikes the most important element of the shounen genre with perfect precision, and that there’s a good reason behind my ability to watch a shounen without any stylish swordfights.

The explanation of that last statement is as obvious as it gets: I can watch an action show without stylish swordfights because FMA isn’t an action show in the first place. Contrary to my first perception of shounen through the multi-episode battles of Naruto and Bleach, I don’t think the genre relies too heavily on combat to draw in its audience. After all, the technical aspects of shows like Brotherhood might be good, but they’re generally pretty vanilla. The stylistic choices in each mangaka’s character designs would vary, but most shounen adaptations are fairly straightforward. The BGM, direction, and animation serve their purpose without drawing attention to themselves. They get the job done without masquerading as high budget action flicks.

FMA is a clear example of this style because in terms of screen time, the fights are relatively short. They’re well-located in terms of story pacing and they rarely feel unnatural, but if you add up the time spent in combat for each episode, it won’t be enough for the average person to justify watching it just for the action. Seinen films and series’ like Ninja Scroll and Samurai Champloo focus on stylish, well-choreographed combat – FMA focuses on a different hook to capture its audience.

I did say that FMA isn’t particularly stylish, but this has to be one of the most memorable OPs I’ve ever seen.

To summarize it in a word, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood thrives on its plot. Note that I’m talking specifically about plot and not any sort of overarching theme. Like all good works of fiction, there are some parallels and motifs in the story that can potentially be tied together into a single, unifying theme, but I doubt that’s the point of the show. Every passing episode tells me that the shows greatest strength is its ability to make you want the next episode.

FMA overcomes one of the biggest problems in the shounen genre by making smooth transitions from arc to arc. When the characters teleport from one place to the next, and when the villain of one week becomes insignificant when placed side by side with the latest antagonist, nothing feels unnatural. Instead of asking myself what happened to the Elric brothers’ dramatic, personal struggle to atone for their sins and reclaim their bodies, I ask myself which Homunculi will transform next. Even when iconic characters like Roy Mustang leave the limelight, there’s not enough time to be disappointed. The show fires its latest plot twists at the viewer with enough ferocity to keep you from thinking twice, but without falling victim to the good old Code Geass trainwreck effect.

The amazing thing about FMA is that even when I lose sight of the underlying meaning – if there is one – I can’t help but end every episode while looking at the clock and asking myself if I have time for one more. Instead of being an action series for teenagers, Brotherhood feels more like the anime equivalent of the suspense novel: whatever plot holes and inconsistencies turn up are insignificant in the face of the excitement promised by the next chapter. Thankfully, the series hasn’t tangled itself in a web of poorly thought out plot twists yet – if anything, it’s proven that a myriad of characters and narrative threads can coexist in a single TV show while remaining relatively easy to follow.

In the past, I found it hard to appreciate shounen anime because they seemed to fail on two accounts: the story was too shallow to be taken seriously, and the action was either too sparse, repetitive, or littered with in-universe jargon and “power level” terminology for me to care. While this isn’t a problem for all shows in the genre, Brotherhood is making me realize that I was simply missing the point. I feel as though I can understand /a/’s Bleach hypothesis threads as an equivalent to /jp/’s Umineko ones. The thought of a hardcore sci-fi/seinen fan watching teenagers’ prime-time anime entertainment is no longer alien to me.

Above all, I know that this is the show that I’m most likely to watch when I should be going through the old Gundams or tossing together a new blog post.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

BashZeStampeedo March 31, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Really FMA, Durarara and Bantorra are the only currently-airing series I’ve seen this season that seem to have any idea of plot structure or cohesion. Woto and Railgun just sucked when they tried to be plot-based, Kakushi and Bund didn’t focus enough on their “plots”, and Kobato barely held itself together by switching to a serviceable plot-arc.

Not being a teenager anymore I welcome plot-driven anime, because I feel slice-of-life anime tend to be quite awful, especially when they try to be too basic and focus on one theme like a sappy romance or inane action. I am far more forgiving of plot-driven anime, because stuff like Kimi ni Todoke or BakaTest is the low-hanging fruit of entertainment. It takes a real effort to achieve something consistently engaging like FMA.


ETERNAL April 17, 2010 at 3:18 pm

I find myself enjoying non-plot-driven shows more often than not, but it does take real effort to create and execute a good plot. Personally, I’d rather a show do what it’s good at rather than try to be plot-focused, because a lot of the time, shallow stories that could potentially be fun end up falling apart when they try to take themselves seriously.


Aorii April 1, 2010 at 9:38 am

Frankly, FMA is just a shounen-ified political/military drama, where the schemes and strategic planning are set as the backdrop to a your-teenage-hero-here adventure. Instead of focusing on the bigwigs, factional power struggles, troop displacements, and informative espionage, we focus on… our heroes busy beating the crap out of the bad guys while every puzzle pieces conveniently falls into place around us with only passing mentions at how it happened. When the major players on the field are superpowered individuals make use of the Stormtrooper Effect, then well… SHOUNEN!


ETERNAL April 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

It’s definitely shounen, but my point is that the plot is exciting enough to make me forget about the flaws, like a good suspense novel. I wouldn’t go into FMA expecting a deep story, but I was surprised when I found that the fast pace and crazy twists of the show were more appealing to me than the action or the characters. I used to stay away from shounen because I hated most of the tropes, but FMA makes it exciting enough that the Stormtrooper Effect doesn’t even bother me.


coburn April 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Hmm, as a fan of shounen-as-genre I’d be inclined to argue that a lot of the best stories in the genre come from more or less junking the niceties of plot and just finding some excuse for dumping everyone you’ve learned to love into a series of delightful battles. But, as you say, FMA is very effective at managing the transitions between its festivals of conflict. I guess the key is that a lot of action shows get the balance between build-up and reward wrong – but to understand why FMA-the-anime succeeds you probably have to look to the manga.

A central distinction between FMA and the standard model is that it is a monthly manga whose individual chapters are twice the length of a weekly story’s. That has a big effect on the pacing and makes it more naturally adaptable to anime.

[I suppose the obvious plot-centric shounen would be Death Note though.]


ETERNAL April 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I would probably have to read more shounen to comment on your first point, but one of the reasons why the typical formula of focusing on combat rather than story doesn’t work on me is because the tropes usually clash with me. I find it hard to suspend my disbelief at some of the implausible scenarios that turn up in shounen through the usual teenage heroes, careless villians, and good old plot armour. I’m sure there are some series that do it well, but much like how a lot of reasonable anime fans can’t watch shows like Clannad, most dark, combat-heavy shounen lose their impact on me unless the battles are incredibly stylish. Also…

A central distinction between FMA and the standard model is that it is a monthly manga whose individual chapters are twice the length of a weekly story’s. That has a big effect on the pacing and makes it more naturally adaptable to anime.

For something so simple, this makes perfect sense. Thanks for the tip!


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