Fullmetal Alchemist began as a manga (Japanese comic book), then was adapted to television with a different story. The program was so successful that they made another television program called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which follows the manga's original story. Therefore, there are two different Fullmetal Alchemist programs. This description is of the first program, but they are both excellent.
Fullmetal Alchemist is an anime series set in an alternate version of Earth, in the early 1900s, in the nation of Amestris (which is probably somewhere in western or central Europe). In this world, mankind has technology similar to that of our world in the same era, such as radio and simple automobiles (but not airplanes).
However, there are two major differences. First, the science of alchemy is possible. Second, mankind has invented automail, extremely advanced prosthetic limbs made of metal.
In this parallel world, alchemy is the art of converting, or transmuting, matter from one form to another, almost instantaneously, as if by magic. An alchemist can also change the shape of matter without changing its composition, and can repair broken objects. For example, in one episode, an alchemist transmutes water and trees into a paper balloon filled with hydrogen. An alchemist can do almost anything if he has the knowledge and the raw materials.
Most alchemists need to draw diagrams called transmutation circles on the ground or on the surface of another object, as the circles amplify the alchemist's power. These circles might also be permanently drawn on gloves worn by the alchemist, or tatooed onto his body. However, some alchemists can perform alchemy without transmutation circles, for reasons that are explained in the show.
Examples of using alchemy in response to danger are: warping a gun or tank so that it becomes unusable; turning a piece of metal into a gun, complete with bullets; creating a door in an otherwise solid wall; forcing the floor or ground to sprout a wall suddenly in order to use it as a shield; forcing the ground to split open beneath an enemy; and forcing material to sprout out of a wall suddenly some distance away to strike another person.
Alchemy is governed by the law of equivalent exchange. This law simply states that in order to gain anything, something of equal value must be lost. This is a physical law of alchemy, but the series also contains philosophical passages which discuss the possibility that equivalent exchange is a spiritual or metaphysical matter, as well.
The government of Amestris employs alchemists. These are known as state alchemists, and they have access to knowledge which others don't. However, some of the general population look upon state alchemists with disgust, calling them "dogs." Each state alchemist is a military officer, and is given a nickname by the government, such as "Flame Alchemist," "Crimson Alchemist" or "Strongarm Alchemist," as befitting his skill and personality.
The government forbids alchemists from transmuting anything into gold, currency, or other valuable metals or gems.
Although alchemy deals with matter, human souls are objects which can also be affected by alchemy. Souls can be attached to external objects, or, in extreme cases, moved from one person to take over the body of another. Such things can only be accomplished by highly advanced alchemists, and are very rare.
Alchemy which is used to cure diseases or to heal wounds is perfectly acceptable. However, any other alchemy which meddles with human bodies, and any alchemy which meddles with a human soul, is considered dark alchemy, as it is abominable. One form of dark alchemy is the act of resurrecting a dead person, or human transmutation. Another is the act of merging a human being with another living creature to create a chimera – an act that cannot be undone.
All dark alchemy is forbidden by the state – at least officially. The penalties for committing dark alchemy are harsh, including death.
There is apparently no known way of resurrecting the dead, but that doesn't stop desperate alchemists from trying, if overcome by grief, or need, or insanity, or if the alchemist is simply arrogant enough to think he has the skill to do something no other alchemist ever has.
When an alchemist attempts to resurrect the dead, the result is a homunculus (plural: homunculi). The homunculus is a physical copy of the person the alchemist was trying to resurrect, but any resemblance ends there; the homunculus is a separate life unto itself, with (theoretically) no memories of the original person.
Homunculi are sentient and have feelings, and each develops a bizarre, particular superpower. Their wounds heal quickly, even wounds which would be mortal to humans, and are almost impossible to destroy. They have no souls, do not age, and most of them cannot perform alchemy.
The most important vulnerability a homunculus has is that if it comes near a part of the original body from which it was copied, then it is severely weakened, and if a significant part of the original body from which it was copied is destroyed, then the homunculus is destroyed, as well. Any piece of a homunculus's original template body is simply referred to as his or her "weakness."
Alchemy also has a legend. Some alchemists think it is possible to create a Philosopher's Stone, or that one has already been created and is hidden. A Philosopher's Stone is the Holy Grail of alchemy; anyone who possesses it can perform alchemy without having to abide by the law of equivalent exchange. A Philosopher's Stone can also reportedly bring the dead back to life.
The series follows two boys, brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric. Their father was a great alchemist, but abandoned the family when the boys were very young. Even so, they read their father's books and papers and quickly became talented alchemists in their own right. When Ed and Al were 10 and 9 years old, their mother died of an illness. They loved their mother more than life itself, so two years later, after finishing their training under another teacher, they foolishly tried to resurrect her.
The result was a disaster. The dark alchemy was so dangerous that, in accordance with equivalent exchange, it took Ed's left leg and Al's entire body. In a desperate attempt to save Al's life, while there was still time, Ed used his own right arm, sacrificing it, in a human transmutation which attached Al's soul to an iron suit of armor which happened to be standing in the room.
Their attempt at resurrection also created a homunculus which looks like their mother, although they don't find this out until many years later.
The boys' neighbor, Mrs. Rockbell, a specialist in automail, made prosthetic limbs for Ed's left leg and right arm. But there was nothing anyone could do for Al, whose body was now a large hollow suit of iron armor.
The boys burn their home, abandoning their past, and set off to become state alchemists, and later search for the Philosopher's Stone. Having learned their lesson about dark alchemy, they no longer want to resurrect their mother. They truly regret what they did, and now they just want to restore their bodies back to normal.
The entire series follows the boys' journey to heal themselves, as well as their search for the truth of their father's fate. Along the way they meet an entertaining cast of characters, many of whom are not what they seem. Ed becomes the youngest state alchemist ever when he passes the test at the age of 12, and he uses the state's resources and his military rank to search for the Philospher's Stone. Within the military, he is partially protected, yet partially manipulated, by his immediate superior, Colonel Mustang, who has ambitions of his own.
Mrs. Rockbell's granddaughter, Winry, also a specialist in automail, is their best friend and a possible love interest for Ed. Winry is very feminine, but also partly a tomboy who adores nothing more than buying new mechanical tools, taking things apart, and re-assembling them. Together, they do battle with various factions which also want the Philosopher's Stone, and not necessarily for good purposes.
One faction is a group of six homunculi, including the one which looks like the boys' mother. Each homunculus is named after one of the seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth and Wrath.
A seventh homunculus named Greed is simply a force unto himself, with his own psychotic agenda, and he despises the others.
In a twist on the state's practice of assigning appropriate nicknames to alchemists, the names of the homunculi fit their personalities, looks, or abilities.
The group of six homunculi, some of whom want to become human, are controlled by a malicious, unknown enemy. This person collected and named the homunculi after each was born (including Greed, before he struck out on his own), and has promised to turn them into humans once he or she has the Philosopher's Stone. However, not all of the homunculi believe their leader will keep this promise. Some of them don't care.
Some of the homunculi also begin questioning their existence as the memories of the people they were copied from start to surface. However, instead of embracing these memories and the feelings which come with them, their reaction is to aggressively wipe out anyone or anything which reminds them of a past life, in order to affirm their own identities. Therefore, Sloth, who was born from Ed and Al's attempt to resurrect their mother, develops a special hatred of the two brothers.
Wrath, in particular, has a fascinating origin, and a strange and powerful connection with Ed.
Wrath, Envy and Sloth harbor deep hatred and resentment of the Elric brothers, but each for a completely different reason.
The boys' search for the Philosopher's Stone is also hampered by Scar, a serial killer who is hunting down all state alchemists in revenge for a massacre they committed upon his people in a war several years earlier. Although Ed was only a child when the war happened and had nothing to do with the massacre, as a state alchemist, he is automatically on Scar's list of people to kill, and Ed becomes one of the few people to survive Scar's attacks.
As the story twists and turns, and as Ed becomes disillusioned with the military and its dark secrets, Ed develops a bizarre sometimes-enemy-sometimes-ally relationship with Scar as they learn about each other's history. At times, their goals temporarily coincide, or they find themselves facing common enemies.
Scar recognizes Lust, and is pretty sure he knows where she came from.
Ed and Al love each other dearly, and each places the other's needs above his own. They are highly talented alchemists, and Ed's skill is so good that he can perform alchemy without a transmutation circle. During a fight, one of Ed's favorite tricks is to temporarily transmute his metallic right arm into a blade. This is especially useful because the woman who completed Ed and Al's training after their mother died also taught them martial arts, claiming that they had to train the body in order to train the mind.
Ed and Al need all their training, their wits and their friends on their journey, as they uncover corruption, horrific scientific experiments, the stunning and deadly secret behind the Philosopher's Stone, and finally the astonishing energy source of the science of alchemy itself.
When the series begins, Ed and Al are 15 and 14. As a state alchemist, Ed's nickname is the Fullmetal Alchemist. This nickname is partially based upon the fact that he has two metallic limbs, but in the original Japanese, the name also carries the connotation of describing someone who is stubborn. (Since Al's body is a large suit of armor, people sometimes think that Al is the Fullmetal Alchemist, which irritates Ed.)
Ed's main weakness is his quick temper. He is especially sensitive about the fact that he is short, and any jokes about his height quickly get him riled up. Al, a year younger and a little more naive, is the more level-headed of the two and better in hand-to-hand combat, but Ed's mind is slightly sharper and cleverer.
The series consists of 51 half-hour episodes, followed by a feature film sequel. It is exquisitely and gorgeously animated, with wonderful music to fit the mood of the animation, especially during scenes of poignancy and great beauty.
The multiple plots interweave in delightful and astonishing ways. The homunculi, Scar, Greed, the military and the Elric brothers wage a five-way war, with several people changing alliances when convenient. Almost everyone, at some point, questions their purpose and their past and reveals their personal agendas. Ed and Al often think up clever moves during fights, and some delightfully ingenious answers to some tricky situations. The writing is fast and clever, yet slow and beautiful when it needs to be. One of the hallmarks of great writing is a story which is witty, yet has moments of emotion and depth in the middle of all the humor, without being sappy, and Fullmetal Alchemist often fits this bill. The characters are fascinating, memorable, and three-dimensional, and their histories are slowly revealed to be connected to one another in surprising ways. The political ambitions, and corruption, of some of the military officers threaten the status quo. Relationships are made, tested, and shattered.
With over 30 regular speaking roles, the series contains true emotion, depth of characterisation, complex and beautiful drama, tragedy and sadness, clever stories, fascinating plot twists, breathtaking animation, kick-ass fight scenes, and mind-expanding science fiction concepts.