It’s no great secret how much I loathe the self-proclaimed ‘super-fan’ attitude that having a greater understanding of the background, lore or supplementary material of any type of media product automatically equates to a more entitled & valid opinion over others. The Type Moon fandom is usually paraded about as the current poster child of this movement, but it can pretty much apply to anyone who twists an admirable passion towards a work or franchise into an excuse for elitism and exclusion towards anyone they feel aren’t on the same strata of knowledge. Saying that, I try to not give into cynicism and give most people the benefit of the doubt, assuming this mentality comes out of a genuine, if misguided form of affection & desire to promote something they care about, as opposed to deliberately and maliciously championing themselves as gatekeepers to ensure the so-called ‘casuals’ stay out.
Most of us have found ourselves in that position at one point or another in our lives, discovering something we love but being overly zealous in the way we’ve tried to share it with people that either didn’t care or lacked the same level of investment. For me it was Sonic the Hedgehog & The Guyver (don’t ask) as a child, Final Fantasy and Evangelion in my teens, and even as late as my twenties with Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.
Regarding FMA:B, I now see the converging factors that turned me into such a hyperactive fanboy during the course of its run. I was already aware of the franchise, having watched and loved the original 2003 series to the extent I actively sought out what was available of the manga, a rarity for me. I’d also fallen away from the anime scene for several years, so discovering the reboot shortly after it began airing awoke my interest in the medium all over again. It was the first show I’d ever live-watched on a weekly basis, and it didn’t take long for me to search out other opinions online, stumbling across forums and the aniblogging community. Not only had I found something to embrace, but also people to share and discuss it with.
Looking back at some of my old posts now is a pretty embarrassing experience. It’s not that I was rude or combative, but there were certainly a lot of “Well actually” and “in the manga” responses. In a few cases articles were made in response to the rare complaints I had with the series, which almost entirely concerned deviations or skipped portions of the manga. In regards to criticisms that could be traced back to the source material, I either found excessively convoluted rationales to justify the concerns or ignored them entirely, dismissing them as the result of excessive nit-picking. Self-awareness has never been my strongest point.
Now, flash-forward over five years to another shounen adventure story by FMA author Hiromu Arakawa and now suddenly cracks are beginning to show.
I’ve done quite a bit of grumbling about this season’s The Heroic Legend of Arslan, both publicly and internally since it began airing. The show certainly doesn’t make the best first impression with its competent, but visually uninteresting presentation and scene direction, while the poorly crafted copy/paste identikit cgi model soldiers used in the scenes are frankly embarrassing to watch, especially considering the previous output of the studio (SANZIGEN) behind them. Of course aesthetics are rarely the most important aspect of any production when compared with story, plot and characterisation, which is where I was the most excited. I mean this was based on a series of novels written by the author behind Legend of the Galactic Heroes, one of the most well-regarded anime ever made, adapted into a manga by the person behind Fullmetal Alchemist and Silver Spoon. With such a pedigree behind it, I had assumed we’d be in for a sure-fire hit, and while Arslan certainly isn’t a disaster it also feels far less than the sum of its parts.
A quick disclaimer here; I should make it clear that I’ve never actually read the original Arslan novels (although I’ve seen the early 90’s ova based on it) so I’m honestly not in a position to fully gauge how much of my problems lie with the original work or the new adaption. In all likelihood I’m being unfair to compare two of Yoshiki Tanaka’s works and expect the same story. LoGH was a long-running space opera, while Arslan is rooted in classic historical fantasy (based on Persian mythology) tropes, so there’s no reason to expect a comparable level of characterisation, subtlety or world building. However, the more I’ve seen of the adaptation, the more I’ve begun to notice Arakawa’s fingerprints all over it and many of the stylistic markings in the show are not only recognisable, but rather unflattering or detrimental to its narrative. I’ve seen them before in Fullmetal Alchemist, a show I had previously considered near perfect. Arslan has essentially forced me to acknowledge and accept problems I’d previously refuted.
One big issue I have with the Arslan adaptation is how it simplifies an incredibly nuanced and thought-provoking tale into a clear good vs evil struggle. Outside of the opening episode there’s very little effort made to try and balance the two sides of the conflict. Sure, there’s definitely a case to be made regarding the Kingdom of Pars’ attitudes towards slavery, while the king is portrayed as a bloodthirsty and violent figure, but in most other walks of life the inhabitants lead an idyllic, peaceful life. Meanwhile, all attempts at depicting the opposing Kingdom of Lusitania as a fair, but flawed theocracy are almost immediately abandoned when the majority of the soldiers, generals and clergy are depicted as corrupt, inept or sadistically fanatical.At this point some may question the connection to Fullmetal Alchemist; after all, that franchise tends to get a lot of credit for its thematic connections to real life events, such as the Ishbal/Iraq war parallels. However, I feel most of accolades sent its way are due to the 2003 adaptation (particularly Shō Aikawa’s role as the head writer). The nods in the manga and Brotherhood adaptation are arguably there, but surface level, window-dressing for well-worn story arcs (eg. Scar’s journey for revenge). The different civilisations that briefly show up in the series tend to be rather broad stereotypes of real cultures (The Chinese, Russians, etc). You can also see a difference in how the 2003 anime portrayed the homunculi and their leader, next to the stripped back characterisation of the manga/Brotherhood, with the former’s characterisation feeling way more multifaceted and in-depth next to the fairly singular quirks and insecurities of the latter. Such depictions seem anathema to how LoGH presented its key players and suggest that underlying issues in the original text have been enhanced by someone incapable of giving them the weight and detail they need. The elements exist to create a balanced and multi-layered story, but in the wrong hands we’re left with a tale seemingly too heavy and complex for person writing it. Humour is another area that Arakawa’s been criticised for in the past. While series like Silver Spoon shows the capability for solid jokes in a more relaxed setting, she’s often been accused of having either poor-timing or just bad material. The constant stream of jokes about Ed’s height in FMA has often been touted by detractors of the series, and while I recall shrugging off such complaints previously, looking back at the manga the placement of comedic & dramatic story beats often does come across as clunky and disconnected. You get this in Arslan as well with scenes of the prince being all moe and naïve, or Narsus painting talents painfully interspersed between moments of violence and death. The humour in both works has this uncomfortable sense of not paying attention to the wider context at any given time, eg. a scene during the occupation of Pars’ capital has a character originally perceived to female led away by a male guard, with the assumed intent of rape, yet shortly before we get to see the Queen, who by all intents has been treated as a prize to be a won throughout her entire life, become the object of lust by Lusitania’s king to comical effect.
Additionally, here are also clear issues of balancing between character skillsets and ‘power levels’ in Arslan, with the strength of any given character often dictated by plot convenience rather than actual ability. Silvermask is shown to be a super capable warrior, able to fell master swordsmen in fell swoop or beat back the combined strength of Daryun and Narsus one moment, but is constantly required to retreat in the most contrived circumstances the next. I’d initially thought this area was one of Fullmetal Alchemist’s stronger points, but the more I thought back, the more I realised the same issues applied. More monstrous Homunculi like Envy, Sloth, Gluttony and especially Pride are constantly shown to be terrifyingly violent and capable killing machines, but are often made to tone back their strength & intelligence when fighting key characters. Meanwhile supposedly human characters like King Bradley can somehow run up walls, fly through the air and dodge bullets in real time. Being a more fantastical show, FMA can pull this transition off a little smoother, even if it still comes across as lazy and poorly thought out writing, but in a story rooted in greater realism such as Arslan, there’s this unpleasant feeling it can never tell whether it wants to be a historical drama or batshit shounen action series at any given point.Now admittedly while signature traits can be spotted, any of the above complaints could be levelled at plenty of manga in circulation right now. It takes considerable skill to avoid such pitfalls, with most works appearing to operate under the logic that audiences will tolerate (or perhaps not notice) discrepancies under an acceptable level, or by being so absurd that tone and balance is outright ignored (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is a good example of this). The point isn’t to single out Arakawa’s work as being bad, because I don’t believe that to be the case. However, in acknowledging the flaws in her writing, I’m now able to partly remove the rose-tinted lenses over Fullmetal Alchemist that had rendered it immune to any form of criticism, finally being able to see it as a piece of entertainment rather than an object of worship. Basically I’m saying that The Heroic Legend of Arslan has caused the death of the FMA super fan within me.
That might a sound a little sad or depressing but it really isn’t intended to be. My feelings towards the manga & anime haven’t drastically changed despite no longer being able to treat it as an unimpeachable work. Many of my favourite anime (Evangelion, Simoun) are clearly filled with problems, but being able to acknowledge them doesn’t automatically damn those shows into oblivion. Maybe some of the magic has worn off, but now I can approach FMA without kid gloves and look at it in all sorts of ways I’d be incapable of doing before, which is a far more rewarding exchange. I’m also able to better address why I find Arslan such a frustrating experience, acknowledging a sense of disconnect between source material and the lighter shounen manga house style, rather than focusing solely on the lacklustre presentation. Despite the shared faults, FMA largely nails the story and sense of wonder from exploring a new world, meaning unlike Arslan, the former is still able to captivate me.
Ultimately, it’s a case giving up something to gain something even more valuable. You could even say I’ve surpassed the rules of equivalent exchange ^^
Dear lord, that sounded forced.