Hagane no Renkinjutsushi is one of those iconic anime that dominates the community for a while. It made a big impact as a manga, gained a large fanbase when its anime begun airing and reached its peak once it was licensed and (very badly) dubbed.
Like Shugo Chara, it’s an anime based on a monthly manga that ends up taking the ideas and characters of the manga and rewrites the story (unlike, say, Naruto or One Piece, which are mostly direct translations from page to screen, with throwaway ‘filler’ to waste time if material runs out). Also like Shugo Chara, it’s one of the rare series I feel works as a companion piece to a very different manga as an alternate timeline, rather than as a replacement.
Besides, since then, a new animated series has been made, going back to the manga faithfully.
The story is complex and very well constructed save for a few small issues. Two boys, the Elric Brothers, live in a world where alchemy exists – the ability to transmute one material into another, as long as there is ‘equivalent trade’: all the right materials in place to be rearranged. Something cannot be created from nothing. One day, these boys attempt to bring their mother back from the dead, using all the raw materials used in a human body – but they do not take into account the additional element of human life, and the alchemical reaction claims not only all the materials they provided, but one of Edward Elric’s legs and his little brother Alphonse’s entire body.
In something of a trance, little Ed manages to save Al’s soul in exchange for his own arm, but not his body, so the younger brother ends up a real ghost in a machine – or, more specifically, a suit of armour. Two years later, Ed’s arm and leg have been replaced by metal prosthetics, and the brothers get involved with the military in order to further their search for the Philosopher’s Stone, which will grant unlimited power to any alchemist who wields it, and get their bodies back.
Hagaren’s greatest strength is perfectly balancing the serious (with moving deaths, some shocking psychological traumas and issues of racial prejudice) and the comic (Ed’s ‘automail’ prosthetics have stunted his growth and given him a complex; Barry the Chopper has a great grasp of bathos; Alex Louis Armstrong the musclebound nobleman is about the funniest character I’ve ever seen). With some incredible action sequences, it is original, intelligent and immensely enjoyable. Though occasionally cheesy and sometimes a bit artificial in its portrayal of how people think, nonetheless it comes very highly recommended, and I genuinely would recommend watching the first series before the remake.
(Expanded from original impressions, 21.2.05. I originally wrote that Mai-HiME was a manga first, which is not true. Movie impressions here)