T. and I took a long break from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood once we got to the end of season three. While we really enjoyed the first two seasons, by the time the action moved to Fort Briggs it felt like things were getting more and more complicated, and – being unfamiliar with the manga – I worried that the show would end up losing its way and never resolve the central drama. Well, I’m glad to have given the fourth season a chance, because not only did it feel like a marked improvement on season three, but it moved the overarching story forward in a satisfying way and at a good old pace. I’m now excited to see how things wrap up in the fifth and final season.
This may sound strange, but one of the things that encouraged us to return to Brotherhood was the fact Netflix changed the way they listed the show from “64 episodes” to a proper season/episode listing. Knowing where you’re at in the narrative arc is quite important in long-form storytelling, and it really helped knowing we would be starting again at the beginning of the penultimate season: we had appopriate expectations for pacing, character development, and so on. Brotherhood’s third season had expanded the scope of the story considerably, so we were delighted (and, I must admit, surprised) to find that major mysteries were resolved quickly and in a satisfying way, and that the overall story was likewise allowed to make progress.
One of the good things about taking time to build a story and develop characters is that, if you do it right, the payoff can be epic, and make the whole wait worthwhile. The problem with this is that so many shows have failed to live up to their promise that audiences get burned out and lose faith in this kind of storytelling (this is known as the Chris Carter Effect, with reference to the X-Files; Lost is another good example). In contrast, Brotherhood’s fourth season is well-paced, and its lore manages to be both interesting and coherent, which is no mean feat.
If you’re not familiar with it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very well-regarded and successful anime adaptation of a manga, which follows the brothers Edward and Al Elric on their mission to recover their bodies after an experiment with alchemy went badly wrong. (Edward just lost a couple of limbs, but Al lost his entire body and now has to go about in an enormous suit of armour, which contains his soul.) They soon get pulled into a much larger conspiracy, and the show starts off dark in tone and quickly gets darker; but it also has a penchant for comedy, and some really heartwarming camaraderie as well. Confusingly, it’s actually the second anime adaptation of the manga, with the first being called simply Fullmetal Alchemist, without the subtitle. Brotherhood is widely regarded as being much better. The first “adaptation” was done before the original manga was finished – a bit like Game of Thrones!
Brotherhood has a strong central cast of characters and there is great chemistry between the likes of Edward, Al, and Winry, and Mustang and Hawkeye. It’s testament to the potential of long-form storytelling that, by season four, Brotherhood has put together a whole stable of lead characters, any one of whom could carry a lesser anime (Al in particular is a real hero); but there are half a dozen stand-out leads in this one show. Even the supporting cast of Homunculi and Chimeras get their chance to shine here, too. I think it helped our enjoyment that we decided to watch this season in the English dub, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles. Although I’ve always tried to watch anime series with the Japanese voice track (because it’s more “authentic”), I can’t understand the language, and in Brotherhood I get the impression the English voice script is different (and superior) to the English subtitles. You also benefit from some characterful performances from great voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Troy Baker.
Fingers crossed that season five will prove to be as entertaining and satisfying as Brotherhood’s fourth season. If so, it will definitely go down as one of my favourite anime series.