Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith
If you’re a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, you’ve undoubtedly had the “Which is better?” conversation when it comes to the anime series. With two adaptations of one story, Fullmetal Alchemist fandom tends to be split down the middle—between those who prefer the original anime and those who prefer the newer adaptation.
The difficulty of starting an anime series adapted from an unfinished manga means that you either have to incorporate filler episodes (as per Bleach) or veer off in your own direction. This was the conundrum faced by Seiji Mizushima when he began directing the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime (hereafter referred to as FMA), which was faithful to the manga for the first half of the series before deciding to diverge from the unfinished manga’s storyline for the remaining half of the story. The full 51-episode series ran from 2003 until 2004, finishing with an ending that had very few similarities to the ending in the manga.
And then, in 2010, the manga finished. And people realized the direction that author Hiromu Arakawa had intended to go all along.
With the final publication date looming, studio Bones decided to produce a faithful anime adaptation of the manga’s storyline, this time directed by Yasuhiro Irie. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (hereafter referred to as Brotherhood), the second attempt at translating Arakawa’s work onto the digital screen, began in 2009 and ended in July 2010, culminating one month after the final manga was published.
There were difficulties faced in Brotherhood that FMA didn’t have to deal with—for instance, how were they to deal with the first half of the series, which had already been faithfully adapted for the original anime? The result was perhaps a little too abstract: Irie rushed certain scenes in the beginning, gave more prominence to different events, and made it slightly more confusing for brand new audiences.
The first anime spends a lot of time at the outset explaining why the Elric brothers are on their quest—why they want to find a Philosopher’s Stone to bring back their missing body parts (or, in Al’s case, his entire body). Why they made the decision to try to bring back the dead in the first place. Why their childhood was as harrowing as a Stanley Kubrick film.
Brotherhood, rather than repeating these events, shortens them and, unfortunately, limits the character development of certain key players, such as the lovable Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes and his adorable daughter, Elicia.
Once you pass the point of divergence, though, Brotherhood really comes into its own. The story develops into an intense nail biter of a series and you can feel the darkness and intensity that is missing in its younger counterpart. Brotherhood does much more justice to the struggle with politics and ethics that Arakawa features so prominently in the manga, whereas the latter half of FMA feels flat and almost child-like in terms of character growth and development.
FMA’s second half takes conflict little further than ‘bad versus good.’ It introduces Dante, a former lover of Hohenheim’s who uses Philosopher’s Stones to jump into new bodies when one ages in an attempt at immortality. The story revolves around people wanting Philosopher’s Stones and using one another to get them—there’s also some back and forth about Ed being killed and Al bringing him back and Ed being sent to a different dimension. It’s entertaining, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind the final struggles of the story. All of the inherent philosophy about being one with the universe and ‘The Truth’ disappear and the end of the series is inconclusive.
And the ending is the biggest problem. The entire series shows Ed and Al striving to reclaim their bodies and end the problems of homunculi and military conspiracy and deceit, but very little of these problems are actually concluded. You have to watch the Conqueror of Shamballa (2005) to get some sense of an ending, but even then things aren’t tied up that nicely.
I was reading the manga series when I started watching FMA. And I loved it, up until the point of divergence. As I continued reading the manga and delighted in characters such as Major General Armstrong, Ling Yao, and the ongoing development of ‘Father,’ the FMA anime continued to disappoint. Arakawa’s tale, so beautifully crafted in the manga, began dissolving into a dumbed-down version of something that had such a promising beginning in the original anime.
When I started Brotherhood, I did worry that I’d have to sit through a significant number of episodes before I saw anything new, but they managed to make it unique for those who had read the manga and seen FMA. It wasn’t an ideal beginning, because it’s always a challenge to try and do the same thing with a unique twist, but it was good enough.
After a mildly rocky beginning, the rest of Brotherhood lived up to every single one of my expectations, including the final tie-up of almost every loose end. There was greater meaning in every action and consequence within the Brotherhood series. Rather than good versus evil, we were faced with ethical quandaries and characters that consistently toed the line between being good and being selfish. The problems—and thus the story—were bigger. More overwhelming than just two boys trying to get their bodies back.
I’ve heard and read many arguments saying that FMA is superior simply because it’s different from the manga. After all, who would want to watch a series that’s identical to a manga?
The answer is: almost everyone. If a story is good, it’s normal to want to enjoy it through different media. It’s why novels are adapted into films—why comic books are adapted into video games. The mistake of FMA was in taking something so fully developed (and developed so well) and attempting to make it someone else’s. It might have been entertaining to watch, but it lacked the substance of the manga once it started veering off onto its own course.
And yet, the first half of Brotherhood isn’t perfect, either. It isn’t as true to the manga as FMA and it drops too many things to be superior.
My final verdict? I’ll make it easy on you. Combine the first half of FMA with the latter half of Brotherhood, and you’ve got the perfect anime adaptation of Arakawa’s Hagane no Renkinjutsushi vision. And, if you’re still debating the merits of both and want a full story without rushing, inconsistencies, or useless characters, here’s a recommendation: read the manga and experience for yourself the reasons why people even have this debate in the first place.