Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) vs. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009)

I missed out on Fullmetal Alchemist during the peak of its popularity for reasons both practical and superficial.  On the former side of the equation, I wasn't yet into anime to a large extent and I could never catch it at the start of its run on Adult Swim.  On the latter, I was kind of turned off by it because most of the people who loved it were the type of people I hated in middle school.  So my impression of the show was solely based off the snippets I'd seen in promos and bits of buzz that wandered into my ears.  From that, I had assumed it was just a simple shounen show where the main characters fought a series of escalating baddies.  And instead of magic or super powers, these people fought with alchemy, or "science magic," if you will.

To my surprise, it's actually quite a morally, emotionally complex show.  In many ways, it reminds me of Avatar: the Last Airbender, not least of which is the fact that you can look at both from a distance and dismiss them as shows for children, but upon further inspection reveal themselves to be mature in their themes and storytelling.  Fullmetal Alchemist, especially in its introductory episodes, is steeped in loss.  Following the untimely death of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric take up alchemy and ravenously devour ancient texts in an effort to use its powers to resurrect her.  However, their attempt at playing God backfires and they pay a hefty price, the loss of Ed's right arm and left leg and Al's entire body.

The beginning of the show milks the tragedy of the Elric brothers for all it's worth, but that's what makes their journey so compelling.  Along their quest to find the Philosopher's Stone, a device that will help them get the pieces of themselves that they've lost back, Ed and Al are constantly reminded of the choices they've made, not just from the parts of them that are literally missing, but from the various people they come across.  Using alchemy as a way of trying and failing to deal with loss is a theme that comes up over and over; the show is almost a Fringe-level examination of the physical cost of pushing science to its limits.

One area where Fullmetal Alchemist does skew younger is in its sense of humor.  The comedy is absolutely dire, relying on simple jokes that repeat incessantly over the course of the series.  You'll understand that Ed is insecure about being short, that Hughes loves his kid, or that people initially assume Al is the Fullmetal Alchemist pretty early on.  That doesn't stop the writers from continuing to tell variations of those jokes, the already low response from it diminishing each time.  Occasionally, the comedy is used as a shorthand way of effectively fleshing out characters.  Part of the reason why a certain character's death about a fourth of the way through the show has so much impact is because the running joke about the character is what establishes the stakes of their story.

But whenever the show threatens to fall off its axis, it always has Ed and Al's dynamic to fall back on.  Their brotherly relationship is the rock that holds everything together.  They've lost their mother, and their father abandoned them when they were younger, so now they're the only family each other has.  The fierce devotion they have to one another is what drives their quest to return their bodies to a normal state.  Ed and Al's relationship is so strong that the story stumbles a little bit when it tries to bring conflict into the mix.  Al's suspicion, and subsequent anger, about the possibly that Ed manufactured his memories just doesn't feel true to the character.  Luckily, it's a storyline that comes and goes rather quickly.

Fullmetal Alchemist is also about the surrogate families that build up throughout the series.  Though Ed and Al are orphans, they've got their childhood friend Winry and her grandmother, who are there to provide physical aid (Winry uses her skills as a mechanic to fix Ed's mechanical arm) and emotional support.  Then there's Colonel Mustang's squadron, the gang of misfits who are united by their faith and loyalty to their leader.  Even the homunculi, the artificially created humans who make up the villains of the series, are bounded by their burden, their desire to be human.  It's not just the families we're given that matters, but the families we make as well.

Like many of the longer running anime that are based on manga, the show began putting out episodes at a faster pace than the source material, and had to deviate the story from its original path.  This led to an emphasis on the conflict between the state and Ishbala, which recalls the real life Middle East.  In fact, lots of the second half of the series feels like an Iraq War allegory.  Between the excessive military occupation, the idea of a government invading land to serve their own means (finding/testing out the Philosopher's Stone), and keeping information and motives from the general public, the real-world implications just pile on.  The city of Liore also has some Middle East parallels, in that a corrupt leader gets overthrown, but that only causes more chaos and mayhem.  "Dog of the military" is a phrase that comes up over and over again throughout the show.  It's a series that explores what it means to serve a country, to follow orders even when you don't fully understand or agree with them.  Moral gray areas abound, effectively portraying the atrocities of war that are committed on both sides.

Much like Avatar: the Last Airbender, one of the best things about Fullmetal Alchemist is the deep well of empathy that it contains.  Throughout its run, there are a few characters who remain purely evil, because most of the villains stick around long enough that we're given reasons to sympathize with them.  Most of the show's most tragic arcs come from those who don't start off on the side of good.  For example, Scar is introduced as a fearsome villain, an alchemist killer with a no-mercy attitude.  But when you actually learn why he has a grudge against state alchemists, your perspective on him completely changes.  Likewise with homunculus Lust, who causes destruction in search of the Philosopher's Stone because she wants to use it to become human again.

The ways in which we strive toward humanity is at the forefront of the series.  It tackles this idea literally with the homunculi's quest for the Philosopher's Stone, and in a roundabout way with Ed's desire to get his and Al's full bodies back.  But it's also all about the ways in which we try to do the right thing, to not compromise on our morals, but occasionally fall short.  Many of the characters are struggling under the weight of past sins or present predicaments.  Nobody comes out unscathed or uncompromised.

The overflow of themes and ideas Fullmetal Alchemist has is matched by the vast array of characters, an ensemble it has an excellent handle on.  There are so many varied and distinct characters in the bunch, and the show has a way of bringing back people who seem minor and then making them vital to the overarching plot.  It speaks to a larger point, which is that it's much better paced than most anime with 50 episodes.  That's probably because the show keeps its "filler" episodes clustered in the beginning, which helps you get a better sense of the characters, so you'll be fully invested once the plotting intensifies.  But even in the later stages of the show, it's able to incorporate some experimental episodes, such as the one that focuses on what Mustang's squadron does in their downtime (Avatar parallel #457: "Tales of Ba Sing Se").  All throughout its run, Fullmetal Alchemist mixes tones -- it could do light or funny or dark or somber -- but the narrative stays cohesive.

The conclusion of the series, which brings all of the ongoing storylines to a head, stumbles in a few crucial ways.  It's not an unqualified failure, but the final couple of episodes are by far the weakest of the series.  They are just way too overstuffed and, without giving away any specific details, they introduce some over-the-top, idiotic ideas.  Plus, for a show that's so grim and uncompromising, the ending feels very cheap and unsatisfying.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was created, in part, to make up for that ending and the fact that the original 2003 series went off in its own direction in the second half.  Now, with the manga complete, Brotherhood would be able to follow its source material to the letter.  So this 2009 sister series benefited those manga purists who were infuriated by the original, and if fans of the previous version found something to like in it too, then it'd be icing on the cake.

The biggest problem with Brotherhood is that it assumes that viewers have already seen Fullmetal Alchemist '03.  Of course, almost everybody had seen the latter, but the choice to simply barrel through the story in the first 13 episodes doesn't make for an enjoyable viewing experience.  In that early stretch of episodes, it feels like a soulless imitation of an anime I liked quite a bit and didn't need another version of.  There's so much emotional shorthand that not only make the beats work less in the present tense, but hurt future moments that lean on the foundation laid in the beginning.  The origin of the Elric brothers doesn't have one-fourth the power that it does in the original series, there are crucial scenes and episodes centered on Maes Hughes that are cut out, and Colonel Mustang isn't given enough scenes with the Elrics to establish their relationship.  Most of the humor in Fullmetal Alchemist was already execrable, but Brotherhood injects even more lazy and sometimes egregious (Izumi vomiting blood gets played for laughs!) comedy.  Most of all, the first arc is just plain boring.

Many of the characters end up feeling poorly handled.  Where Scar was an intimidating, but soulful character in the original Fullmetal, he comes off like the generic "badass anime villain" throughout most of Brotherhood.  A character like the first Brigadier General gets killed off before we even get to know him.  The 2003 Fullmetal had the intelligence to devote an episode to Barry the Chopper in his murderous human form, so that his reappearance at the 5th Laboratory as a hollow suit of armor has more impact.  Brotherhood just introduces him at the 5th Laboratory and fills in his backstory with a crudely animated sequence.  However, the show's biggest transgression comes from the writing of the homunculi.  Here, they are far less complex and thematically resonant than in the original series, where they were given backstories and motivations beyond an evil plot.  Brotherhood seems content with having them be manifestations of Father's sins.  So when Lust dies in the 2003 version, it's tragic because we've seen her origin and desires; in the 2009 version, it's simply a triumphant defeat of the bad guy.  And the less said about the Greed 2.0 storyline, the better.

Thankfully, there are a few saving graces that make it easier to get through the first half of Brotherhood.  It boasts much higher production values than its predecessor, across the board.  Even when the story drags, episodes immediately light up when an action sequence rolls around.  They're excellently paced, choreographed, and directed; a marked improvement on the already great action from the original series.  It takes a while to get used to the art -- thinner lines, rounder faces, manga-styled designs in the comedic moments -- but the characters designs are so unique and interesting that they can translate well to any style.  Many of the voice actors from the original reprise their roles, and like Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood has a superb English dub.

At 64 episodes, 13 more than the 2003 version, Brotherhood has more room to expand, and it does so with great success.  In Fullmetal Alchemist, it was almost as if "the state" was the only real piece of land that existed other than Ishbal, whose location was unclear, but felt like it was somewhere nearby.  Brotherhood actually gives "the state" a name -- Amestris -- and gives it bordering nations with names and actual people who inhabit it.  Sometimes that leads to the inclusion of characters like Prince Lin and Princess May from Xing, a fictional nation heavily based on China, who are completely annoying and uninteresting.  But more often than not, learning more about the world of Brotherhood improves the show.  It's no surprise that the series actually starts to become good around the time that Ed and Al travel to the North.  Those episodes feel like we've had our eyes opened to a whole new world, complete with its own mythology and way of doing things.  It reminded me of The North in Game of Thrones: frighteningly cold, gigantic wall that stands as a barrier from dangerous enemies, misfits and sinners charged with protecting it.

The second half of the series improves leaps and bounds upon the first half, starting from that portion in the North and leading into the action-packed finale arc.  Its biggest strength is to be found in Roy Mustang's progression as a character, which is so satisfying that it's hard to imagine why the original didn't go in that direction.  (The likely answer is that this part of the manga wasn't finished yet, but his arc in Brotherhood feels so logical that all roads would seem to lead to it.)  He becomes the show's richest, most complex character, a man who wants power but also has a desire to remain good while doing it, and slowly realizing that that may be untenable.  His actions also factor into the finale's political intrigue-filled coup, which amps up the tension tenfold.  Great action sequences occur across multiple fronts, with deft cross-cutting between them all.  It's gripping, exciting stuff.

Brotherhood pulls out every happy ending imaginable for its conclusion: Mustang gets his eyesight back, Ed and Winry basically end up together, Al gets his body back, Havoc gains the ability to walk again, there's a new Selim.  All of it is a little too pat, but it's an otherwise sweeping, grandiose, and very moving closer.  While it ends up being more successful than the ending of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), it's hard to deny that both finales are thematically fitting for their respective series.  FMA '03 was more about loss, so the ending was a bittersweet one, forever reminding us that sacrifices are necessary.  For Brotherhood, which was always a more traditional story, the ending is more hopeful.  The latter is very much about the cycle of violence that humans inflict on one another, which is what the homunculi capitalize on.  So the ending is humanity finally breaking that cycle and making steps toward peace.

Ultimately, I preferred the original Fullmetal Alchemist as a complete experience.  It's more consistent, darker, and more nuanced than Brotherhood.  The latter has its own unique pleasures, they just take longer to appear.  If you want a faithful adaptation of the manga, go with Brotherhood; if you like liberal adaptations, FMA 03 is the one to go with.  Of course, you can always just kiss 50 hours of your life goodbye and watch both like I did.


  1. Finally reading this...I know...

    I watched the original Fullmetal Alchemist around the time it was airing in the United States, and I watched Brotherhood when it was airing in Japan, so I have quite a bit of distance between the two (though I've rewatched both several times).

    The original was a huge part of my teenage life (and also the way I met one of my ex's) and had a tremendous impact on me when I was younger, so I have a huge connection with it. I personally feel that filler episodes beside, the first half of Fullmetal Alchemist, combined with the rest of Brotherhood after the Greed arc splits things, is the best version of this story. There are things I admire about the second half of the original series, but so much of it seems like unoriginal storytelling (bringing back various characters instead of introducing new ones, such as Tucker/Nina and the Tringham brothers randomly) or shoehorning in elements of the manga's storyline (The fuhrer's true face).

    That being said, at many times I vastly prefer the tone of the original series, which is much darker at times, and while some elements of the ending are indeed, quite terrible, I feel like Conqueror of Shamballa helps make up for some of these elements (surprised you didn't mention it here?). Also curious about your opinion of the Sacred Star of Milos.

    Now Brotherhood, on the other hand, in my opinion has a far superior story on a structural level that is far more calculated and prepared. The first 13 episodes are indeed literally the show just skipping through the original material as fast as possible, but honestly I don't blame them because I'm guessing the only had the go-ahead to make 64 episodes (which is why some elements of the end-game are seemingly rushed). After that 13 episode sprint though, I think the series makes a tremendous transformation into the sweeping epic that Brotherhood became; and while I agree that the Xing section of the story is rather weak, I disagree about the homunculi in some aspects. Sloth from the original series is certainly a better character than the beast from Brotherhood, but I personally feel that Lust's struggles in the original series bogged down her as a character, though she is certainly more emotionally complex in the original series. I personally feel that Pride is a far more interesting and inventive addition to the homunculi than the original series' version of Wrath though. While it tied Izumi to the storyline more, Wrath was a drag through much of the original series.

    Moving into the endgame of Brotherhood, I completely agree with you about Mustang's amazing storyline that occurs. Those episodes with Envy and him are among the best in the entire series and is the best climax the series has in my personal opinion.

    Overall, I like both series, and I feel that taking the first 32 episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist (minus some of the weaker filler additions, and accounting for some of the changed lore from the original series) and combining it with the other 51 episodes of Brotherhood makes the best possible Fullmetal Alchemist.

    By the way, Envy is a guy.

    1. Oof, I definitely meant Lust in that one sentence where I referred to Envy as a "she"!

      It seems like alot of people prefer Brotherhood and I think you bring up some good points. I especially agree that the best version of the story is probably some mixture of the two series. But if I had to pick one or the other, I'd go with the original series. I like the looser storytelling and I really love the second half (aside from the ending, which is pretty bizarre and bad). Plus, I think the original is tighter thematically, which is why the bringing of characters feels crucial to me and not unoriginal.

      I actually haven't seen either Conquerer of Shamballa or The Sacred Star of Milos yet. I should get on that, since I think they're both still on Netflix.

    2. That surprises me that you haven't seen at least one of the movies because a lot of people consider Conqueror of Shamballa to be the true ending to the original series (though it certainly has it's own problems).

      Sacred Star of Milos is more of a general anime movie with an FMA flair to it but I enjoyed it for what it was.