Oct. 3, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the Japanese television premiere of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime — that is, the first one.
See, shortly after the original, there was a second Fullmetal Alchemist. This 2009 series, subtitled Brotherhood in its English-language release to avoid confusion with the earlier one, hewed much closer to the original manga. All three versions share the same premise and initial set of characters: In a world where those with enough scientific knowledge can physically transmute matter into new forms, young brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric attempt to use such powers to resurrect their dead mother. The transmutation goes badly and both boys are mutilated when it backfires; Ed loses an arm and leg, while Al’s soul is grafted to a suit of armor. Each series follows the pair on their quest to create or obtain the legendary Philosopher’s Stone so that they can restore their bodies.
The first anime (which I’ll refer to just as FMA) took that story in a drastically different direction from where the manga and Brotherhood ended up, which alienated many fans. However, FMA’s hated story changes are a major reason I find it the superior adaptation. In my opinion, pulling off something different from but as equally thought out as the source (sometimes more thought out) is more interesting than the way Brotherhood mainly just animates the manga.
It all started with an unusual decision from animation studio Bones when it started making FMA. At the time, Hiromu Arakawa’s manga was not even two-dozen chapters into its run. The staff, led by director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shō Aikawa, thus faced the dilemma of quickly running out of story to adapt. This was hardly a novel issue; it’s the reason behind the sometimes-infamous “filler” episodes and arcs in shows like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto, wherein studios create new storylines to stall for time until there’s enough fresh manga to tackle. Contemporary shows based on manga are more likely to eschew this tactic, with titles like Attack on Titan and Chainsaw Man simply taking hiatuses.
Bones did neither of these things. With Arakawa’s encouragement (and her notes on lore and story plans), Aikawa and the other writers took the extant plot of Fullmetal Alchemist and steered it in a different direction. Roughly speaking, the first half of the anime’s 51 episodes follow the first six volumes of the manga, while the back half incorporates parts of the next two volumes but with significant recontextualizations, ultimately building to a completely different ending. Years later, Brotherhood began production (also at Bones) as the manga was heading into its final arc, and director Yasuhiro Irie, lead writer Hiroshi Ōnogi, and the rest of the crew had no issue following it nearly beat for beat.
Brotherhood has since supplanted FMA in the minds of many. On average, it’s rated higher than the first show by users on sites like IMDb, Anime News Network, and MyAnimeList — in fact, it’s the top-rated anime series full stop on all three of those sites. In the United States, Brotherhood is easy to purchase or rent in multiple forms, while all physical releases of FMA are out of print, and it is not currently legally available to stream anywhere. Beyond the quantifiable evidence, casually perusing various comment sections, social media sites, and Reddit threads reveals a considerable tilt toward Brotherhood. Notably, when Game of Thrones was trudging through its disastrous final season in 2019, comparisons to Fullmetal Alchemist ran rampant in certain corners of the internet. While the specific circumstances were different, both series grappled with the problem of making up a new conclusion to an unfinished story they were adapting. Opinion is not monolithic, and there have been various defenses of FMA over the years. But it’s often acknowledged that Brotherhood is “generally considered” the better adaptation.
An equivalent exchange
Popular sentiment casts FMA as an ignorable curio or a cautionary tale, rendered redundant by Brotherhood coming along and “doing things right.” But why is fidelity considered a virtue unto itself? To be sure, the manga is great. Arakawa conjures an original and imaginative world, and adroitly balances action, humor, and drama. But holding up Brotherhood as the better show just because it closely followed the manga takes for granted that there was nothing to improve upon. Instead, it means that many of the manga’s flaws are also that show’s flaws.
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, in pretty much every version.]
Chief among these is that Arakawa’s character development is often simplistic. She gives some nuance to nearly everyone (even minor players, which is no small feat given how large the roster grows), but such nuances tend to be limited to one or two layers. Once you know anyone’s deal, not much usually happens to change it. That serves Arakawa’s aims well enough; she’s concerned primarily with telling an engaging adventure. But eventually nearly everything becomes subsumed into a single protracted citywide battle that takes up around the ending fifth of both the comic and Brotherhood. The various conflicts are engaging, to be sure, but the overall effect can be numbing, and it’s more about how cleverly the good guys can plan and fight than about what they’ve learned and how they’ve changed over the course of the story. For its part, FMA’s climax revolves around the Elrics facing the accumulated consequences of their actions throughout the series, as they finally get the Philosopher’s Stone but aren’t able to use it, and come to a head against adversaries and situations that force them to change if they’re to survive. It’s sometimes dinged for being too “talky,” but I find the main villain calmly dismantling Ed’s whole worldview to be much more compelling than all the more familiar cataclysms of the final battle in the manga and Brotherhood.
In some ways, Brotherhood’s faithfulness actually shortchanges the manga. The best example of this is how it tackles the parts that were already covered by FMA. The anime blazes through eight volumes of plot in just 14 episodes. Introductions to most characters and the foundation for the whole series is handled in a nearly perfunctory fashion. Ōnogi and the other writers on Brotherhood faced a metatextual problem just as daunting as the one the first show had. But they opted for a shortcut: Knowing most viewers would already be familiar with the world, characters, and plot beats, they took that context for granted rather than make something that could stand on its own.
What strikes me most about what FMA does with the narrative is not just how much it changes, but how well those changes work. Rather than do what Game of Thrones did — follow the books until it couldn’t, and then make up the rest based loosely on what the author made available — the writers planned out what new directions they’d take, then restructured the narrative so that everything would flow seamlessly. Vitally important anime-only character Lyra, for instance, is initially introduced via an episode that adapts an early manga chapter, so that she feels like an organic part of the world and not a sudden intrusion when she returns many episodes later amid the new plot.
Some of the spins FMA puts on the material are flat-out more intriguing than anything Arakawa writes. There’s no better showcase for this than the main villains of the series: the homunculi, a group of artificial beings named after the seven deadly sins who look human but aren’t, functionally immortal and able to alter their bodies in terrifying ways. In the manga and Brotherhood, they were created by the main bad guy, Father, and act as his minions for a frankly rote “I will become all-powerful” shonen scheme. In FMA, the homunculi are the unintentional results of human transmutation. Rejected by their creators for not being the loved ones they were attempting to bring back, the homunculi form a twisted sort of family and want the Philosopher’s Stone so they can become “real.” They are embodiments of human failure and, fully cognizant of this, they’re haunted by the memories of the people they were made from but unable to actually be. This is such a self-evidently richer concept that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t what was originally intended. It’s disturbing, riveting, and exponentially more dramatic than the way Arakawa treats these characters. Lust, a one-note femme fatale in the manga and Brotherhood, becomes a tragic figure fighting a losing battle to burn her past.
Granted, not everything works. One change FMA makes is to have fan-favorite lovable asshole Roy Mustang be the one who killed the parents of the Elrics’ childhood friend Winry. That’s incredible, full of dramatic potential… and not followed through on nearly as much as it could be, or ever even properly resolved. And then there’s one of the most-cited grouses: Toward the end, it’s revealed the show takes place in a universe parallel to our own, and it ends with Edward trapped in our world. (The follow-up movie, Conqueror of Shamballa, also takes place mostly there, and you spend much of it wishing we could follow the familiar characters we know and love instead.) That’s a lot to cram in at the end, and I can’t fully defend it. Revealing that alchemy in the show’s world is fueled by the energy released by death in our world is a resonant take on the wider themes about how “equivalent exchange” often means someone must suffer for another to prosper, but a lot about it feels like brainstorming-under-deadline stuff. And sometimes “Uhh, it’s alchemy” is used as an easy excuse for some truly wild shit to go down in a way that Arakawa never allows, which besides being slapdash storytelling can also raise continuity questions or even errors. (Exposure to red water can make an alchemist into a god? That should probably come up more than once.)
‘You can’t gain something without giving something in return’
But in purely cinematic terms, FMA is simply better made than Brotherhood. It’s interesting to scrutinize the stylistic distinctions between the two shows; while only about four and a half years separate them, they came out amid notably different environments. FMA is one of the best-directed anime of its time, produced in the wake of the form’s artistic flourishing from the late 1980s through the ’90s, as the industry was transitioning to digital workflows. Brotherhood, meanwhile, came out once that transition was completed. It looks more polished, with fewer static elements and a more varied color palette — there’s certainly much more freedom to render movement during action beats. But the pacing of scenes, framing of shots, and editing are much more considered in the original anime.
Take the episode “Sealing the Homunculus,” where Lust’s death is illustrated by a shot in which the camera lifts upward while Wrath raises his blade over her head, until the frame is looking at the ceiling. Then the shot rapidly pans back down to Wrath standing over Lust’s body. The death blow is not literally seen, but made ominous and visceral through cinematic means. Brotherhood “looks” better, but FMA looks better. And that’s before getting to qualities like Michiru Ōshima’s indelible orchestral score, or the generally much more invested voice acting (both for the original and dubbed versions of both shows).
One sequence neatly encapsulates how FMA elevates both writing and direction compared to its brother works: the Tucker incident, which over the years has become one of the most famous anime tearjerkers ever. The broad strokes are the same across the different series. Ed and Al befriend Shou Tucker, an alchemist renowned for creating hybrid animals called chimeras. As they pay him multiple visits to use his library for research, they grow close to his young daughter, Nina. Then, one seemingly ordinary day, Tucker presents them with his new chimera, one that can talk like a human. Both boys are impressed until the beast says something Nina had earlier, causing Ed to realize that it is Nina, irrevocably fused with the family’s dog. Driven to the breaking point by his desperation to provide results for military higher-ups, Tucker has done the unthinkable. Based on what had been said earlier about how Tucker’s wife “left” him, Ed intuits that he in fact turned her into a chimera as well. The brothers are devastated, and shaken by Tucker’s insistence that they aren’t all that different from him, that their broken bodies are irrefutable evidence of their own attempts to play god.
In all three versions of the story, this is a crucial turning point. Occurring early, it asserts how far Fullmetal Alchemist is willing to take the bleaker possibilities of its premise, as well as how much it will test the Elrics’ conviction to help rather than harm people with their abilities. And the way FMA elevates this sequence in the episode “Night of the Chimera’s Cry” demonstrates all its qualities I’ve discussed here.
In the manga and Brotherhood, the Tuckers are introduced and then tragedy befalls them in the same chapter/episode. But as part of their clever drawing together of story threads that had been separate in the manga, the writers of FMA have the Elrics stay with the Tuckers starting in the previous episode while they study for a military entrance examination. Their backstory is doled out at a slower pace, in between other things that might at first seem more important. “Night of the Chimera’s Cry” turns the story into a mystery, with Ed deducing what happened to Tucker’s wife, and his and Al’s fateful final visit to the chimera lab arriving as the horrible confirmation of what he (and the audience) have pieced together. The shuffling of events, and the addition of things like a conversation between Ed and Tucker in which they commiserate on their shared burden of knowledge, shape the entire episode to build to its awful conclusion, making it even more potent.
In the manga and Brotherhood, this scene takes place in a ground-floor study illuminated by light from outside. But here it’s set in a basement lab full of deep shadows cast by harsh orange lamplight. Test animals and chimera scream from cages, while scrawled alchemic runes cover the ceiling and walls. When the Elrics descend the stairs, it’s like they’re entering hell. There’s much more use of deliberate and prolonged silence from the soundtrack, as well as pauses in the dialogue as Ed relentlessly steers the conversation toward Tucker’s confession. And it’s after that confession that Aikawa, Mizushima, and their collaborators (most notably storyboarder and episode director Kenji Yasuda) establish their penchant for intensifying the manga’s more disturbing qualities. The scene continues past where it does in the manga and Brotherhood, with Al asking a new question: Why would Tucker sacrifice his family when the point of all he was doing was supposedly to provide for them? His answer is depraved: “I fully understood that no matter what I did, my life would be ruined. I could either do it with the science or without. And so I chose science to see if I could.” These words truly burrow into Ed in a way they don’t in the other versions, spurring a near breakdown as he pummels Tucker.
Most agonizingly, Ed briefly contemplates trying to fix Nina himself before being talked out of it, accepting he doesn’t know enough to separate the chimera. He has not fully internalized alchemy’s limitations, despite the brutal lesson he already received from his attempt to bring back his mother. And this isn’t the last such encounter that will confront him with his own shortcomings.
This is often a knock against FMA, that the Elrics don’t “realistically” change when they “should,” as if personal growth is a simple matter of human beings logically internalizing the correct instruction from everything that happens to them. This is indeed how characters develop in the manga and Brotherhood, and it works well enough for them. FMA is just more open about how messy and haphazard growth can be. The manga and Brotherhood affirm the Elrics’ avowal to put equivalent exchange into practice as a life philosophy. The primary demographic is young people, and there’s nothing wrong with modeling an idealized worldview, but such messaging is inherently limited. The 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist repeatedly reinforces that life isn’t fair, and sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do to balance out the bad. It’s messier, more idiosyncratic, and less consistent, but executed by skilled artists with a bold vision, which ultimately made it more beautiful and impactful. It’s less comforting, but more honest.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is available to stream on Netflix. Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) is currently unavailable to stream.