I cannot say, as I did years ago, that animation is a maligned art form in America. The success of Pixar, Dreamworks and the rebirth of Disney have proven me wrong. Avatar: The Last Airbender spawned The Legend of Korra—both being beloved series which address contentious and mature topics.
Still, it remains true that an animated work must be—or pretend to be—a family affair to succeed in the American market. Avatar and Korra aired on Nickelodeon and almost never show deaths on-screen. Pixar’s themes may be mature, but rarely does it show blood. Overt sexuality is unheard of.
Foreign animation, Japanese in particular, can be a treat in that it lacks these domestic limitations. I recently took the chance to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, a series which aired in 2009-2010. Though it is “old news,” per se, it remains an example of the power of animation as a medium.
Fullmetal Alchemist is the tale of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. Genius alchemists from youth, the siblings naturally turn to that art upon the death of their mother in order to revive her. They fail, and in the process Edward loses his arm and leg, while Alphonse’s body vanishes entirely. With Ed fitted with prosthetic limbs, and Al’s soul bonded to a suit of armor, the brothers set out to find a way to restore their bodies. In the process, of course, they wander into the midst of a larger plot.
This show is unlike almost everything produced in America. Its genre is technically shounen, meaning it is written for boys ages 8-16, but its soul is much older. The protagonists live in a fascist country guilty of a recent genocide. Many of the heroes live with the guilt of their crimes during that period. Questions of ethics present themselves as a recurring theme. Most American animations deal with very small issues: personal freedom in relation to family, earning the respect of one’s peers, the importance of honesty, and so forth. Fullmetal Alchemist is about sin and redemption.
The series also approaches these themes in a manner at once philosophical and symbolic. Edward and Alphonse, when trying to transmute their mother, find themselves whisked to an empty, white expanse and confronted by blank reflections of themselves. When Ed asks who this creature is, it grants him a cryptic reply. It could be God, Truth, or Ed himself. Each of the series’ myriad characters espouses their own conflicting philosophy, and the battles which eventually embroil the nation are as much battles of ideas as they are matters of life and death.
The only American productions I know which do anything similar to Fullmetal Alchemist are Avatar and The Legend of Korra. The creators of both series modeled them after Japanese animé to an extent, so the resemblance is understandable. Still, both series had to keep up appearances in slots intended for children. While their subject matter remains very mature, they could not address death, loss, or human cruelty as directly.
Fullmetal Alchemist, by contrast, does not shy away from graphic violence and directly addresses those themes. It explicitly explores some of the reasons we do such horrible things. It presents intense moral dilemmas without obviously correct answers. Its older core audience allows the show permits greater apparent sophistication, instead of implying everything from beneath the surface.
And, of course, there is the animation itself. Fullmetal Alchemist’s animation style is far more realistic than most American fare. Particularly in major CGI productions, American animation tends to have a highly fluid and bouncy feel to it. This no doubt originated with Disney animation, and influenced modern styles. Fullmetal Alchemist employs crisper motion. In the last twelve or so episodes, where the series receives an increase in production value, the effect is sublime. While the characters are very stylized, the way the animators draw them in the final episodes will fool you into thinking that they are real people.
While a lot of good work comes from American studios at the present—indeed, some of the best work in film—I would like to see Stateside studios attempt something more akin to Fullmetal Alchemist. Other than new seasons of The Legend of Korra, I doubt such an experiment will happen right away. The problem with the United States is that the major animation studios are few. This leads to a great deal of homogeny in the market. Japan, on the other hand, can produce such a range of animation, catering to such a variety of demographics and tastes, because of its greater number of studios and differing cultural attitudes towards the medium.
America faces a chicken-and-egg problem in creating a greater diversity of animation: we don’t have more variety because people have specific expectations of animation, but people won’t want other kinds of animation until a studio can show them how it is done. However, the medium remains one with the power to tell great stories. In time, those stories will be told for adults, and not only families.