Anime Alphabet - F is for Fullmetal Alchemist
Fullmetal Alchemist has been one of the most acclaimed anime and manga series worldwide thrice-over in the last 20 years.
(I forgot to post the text version here when this video came out, so I’m doing it now before the next episode releases.)
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
It's been just over twenty years since the debut of Hiromu Arakawa's seminal manga series, Fullmetal Alchemist, in 2001, amid the pages of Square Enix's manga magazine, Monthly Shounen Gangan; and it's been just over eleven years since its conclusion in 2010. For the same amount of time as Fullmetal Alchemist has existed I have been observing and participating in the global community of discourse about Japanese animation; and I present this video from the perspective of an anime fan from the United States, who, in being the same age as the protagonist when the anime was first shown to me, could have been considered its exact target audience--an experience of the show which I share with some of the people my age that I could find to talk about it with me--including cosplayers at anime conventions, and my sister-in-law, Hope.
((Cloud talking about the definitional life experience of reading FMA))
((Hope talking about going from Inuyasha -> Rurouni Kenshin -> FMA, being into the dark tone of the original))
I, too, as a scrawny, long-haired kid, went down the InuYasha to Rurouni Kenshin to Fullmetal Alchemist fan pipeline, because I had access to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block on Saturday nights from age 10 and onward--coinciding with the definitional period of anime's growth in United States culture which would turn the country into an influential market force shaping the way that anime has been targeted and marketed to Western audiences from that point on. These were the anime which managed to associate people who shopped at the punk-rock themed mall-based clothing chain Hot Topic with people that watched late-night Cartoon Network--somehow therein fabricating the pipeline to the existence of e-girls and e-boys. But that's a cultural miasma too dense to cut through in just the discussion of one anime series about some kids doing alchemy in a fictionalized European countryside. My name is Trixie the Golden Witch, and you're about to get a get a glimpse of the truth on this month's episode of Anime Alphabet.
F is for Fullmetal Alchemist
I warn you that I will be spoiling all iterations of this series immediately within this video. Most of you have probably already seen Fullmetal Alchemist and other videos about the series, so I'm going to try and take the most interesting approach that I think is possible, which involves talking about every part of the story right from the start. If looking at footage of this show and knowing that it's one of the most successful and popular manga series all over the world, with an anime adaptation that's been holding down a rating in the top 5 on MyAnimeList since it aired a decade ago isn't enough to make you want to give it a try, then you might as well just watch the video anyways and decide from there.
((What is the most memorable part of Fullmetal Alchemist? Clips.))
Fullmetal Alchemist enjoys phenomenal duality by having achieved massive, culturally affecting worldwide success three times over--but the first impression it left has been subverted by that which is left by the latter two successes. The manga must have already been doing fairly well with Japanese readers before the anime series debuted, running in Japan from 2003-2004; but the anime series was also a huge success with both Japanese and Worldwide audiences, with its US debut in 2004 likewise running for a year, and leading to the kind of commercial success that kept plushies of the characters in mall stores, and the manga on shelves anywhere manga is sold for years to come here. But for anyone who continued reading the manga from the point where it diverges from the original ending that studio BONES made for their first go at adapting it to animation, it was immediately evident that there was a lot more to the full breadth of the story than what the first adaptation had presented; and that eventuated into what for many, was becoming an even more engaging tale. Nevertheless, there were plenty of Fullmetal Alchemist fans who never continued with the manga, and plenty who didn't even finish the original show or its film conclusion the Conquerer of Shamballa, by the time Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood went to air in 2009.
Keep in mind that both of the Fullmetal Alchemist adaptations were launched before the manga had concluded, and that the second anime series reached its end only a couple of months after the manga. This meant that if you were waiting for the manga to be translated through official channels and released through graphic novels for you to buy in countries outside Japan, it was probably easier to see the ending by watching the last episodes of Brotherhood online than it was to get a hold of the manga's ending first. This second adaptation managed to be even more explosively popular on a global scale even faster than the previous one, and brought the manga to new heights of worldwide acclaim by drawing so much attention as a more-faithful adaptation.
((Hope describing the accuracy of Brotherhood to the manga, other people hating on the original adaptation))
But I worry about letting the success of the more modern adaptation blur the record on the most impactful aspects of Fullmetal Alchemist's story, some of which had already cemented their cultural significance both in the manga and the original anime series long before Brotherhood established its own moments of mindblowing hype. Essentially, I mean to assert here that every version of Fullmetal Alchemist deserves to be viewed as a classic in the same respect, regarldless of which one might be the best, or most original, or most complete version of the story; because they all accomplished something differently important in their own time. I can best justify this by pointing out that if it wasn't for the extreme success of the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime series, there is no way that Bones would have made the entire goddamn thing again six years later just to complete it with Brotherhood. And if not for the existence of Brotherhood, I wonder if we would've seen stuff like Hunter X Hunter getting re-adapted in 2011, or Jojo's Bizarre Adventure getting turned into what it's become starting in 2012. All of that was made possible by the manga sustaining its own popularity for the duration of its run by continuing to be good.
One big slight I have against Brotherhood right from the start is how it botches two of its first three episodes, by creating a new anime-original episode to start the show off with, and then cutting the Father Cornello two-parter down to one.
As someone who had already seen the first half of the original Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation by the time Brotherhood went to air, I couldn't shake the feeling when watching it that Studio BONES really wanted to blow through all of the stuff that they'd already covered as quickly as possible, so that they could pick up with everything from the manga that hadn't been concluded, or had been changed to fit the ending of their first adaptation. It felt to me as though the series expected its viewers to already have seen the first adaptation, and to view the need to pass through the rest of the early stuff in the story as a formality to get to the good stuff that we hadn't gotten to before. Some of the stuff that we wouldn't have known about until much farther into the manga also gets pushed forward into those early episodes to create a sense of how this version is subtly different from the first.
I hadn't caught up on the manga before watching Brotherhood, but I had read the first two volumes around when the first anime was getting popular, and I was already struck by how the anime reordered the storyline to get to certain points faster, while pushing other certain points further away--and the Brotherhood anime actually mimicked this behavior.
The manga opens with a two-chapter arc about Ed and Al's adventure to the town of Liore, which the first anime series pretty faithfully adapted into a two-part episode. Brotherhood instead opens with an original story set in Central, with many more of the recognizable faces from later into the series running around, presenting what I would call a sort of vertical slice of Fullmetal Alchemist action. It's like a vague reminder of what is Fullmetal Alchemist, that actually ends up being more over the top than most of what happens in the bulk of the story, and maybe doesn't work as well as fanservice as it seemed intended to. Whatever the case, a lot of people have just sort of written this episode off completely as nonessential in considering the series. That episode is followed, then, by one of Ed and Al's backstory, and then by a condensed version of the Liore story without as many dramatic twists and turns.
Now in fairness, the original anime adaptation also goes straight to a backstory episode in its own third episode which doesn't exist in the manga--which instead next continues with the adventure of Edward and Alphonse visiting the mining town of which Yoki is in command.
This chapter is adapted in episode eight of the original adaptation--but that show thought it more important to flesh out the extremely memorable dramatic backstory of the boys as soon as possible--and then to insert even more independent adventures of them visiting towns and helping people as anime-original episodes during the opening stretch of the show's run, when it's still bouncing around temporally through the kids' preteen years.
What's crazy about Brotherhood is that it just doesn't fully adapt chapter two of the manga at all. In fact, even though Yoki plays a bigger role in the story in Brotherhood than he does in the original show, he straight up just arrives in the story without explanation at some point in Brotherhood, and then doesn't have his story of encountering the brothers explained until way the hell later into the series as a super-condensed flashback.
Fullmetal Alchemist is an epic adventure series, although I think that its pacing causes it to get bogged down in a few places for an amount of time that makes them feel more definitional to the common memory of the series. The manga started off with several one-shot adventures that established the themes of the story extremely well, and explored the broad concepts of the conflicts that drive its worldbuilding--that there are those who will use alchemy to seat themselves in positions of authority via guises such as religious institutions and the state military, and abuse that power at the expense of the common people.
The original anime adaptation understood that Fullmetal Alchemist was fundamentally an adventure story, and thus gave Edward and Alphonse more adventures to go on. Not all of these became what I would necessarily call essential episodes--some are lame, some are entertaining, but all of them contribute to our grasp of the story's core themes by directly representing similar ideals to the Elric brothers in a way that challenges theirs. Watching these episodes in a vaccuum where you don't think of them as extraneously added to the manga, there is no reason to question them really as part of the Fullmetal Alchemist experience, as they only help us to bond with the characters even more, so that when the emotional beats of the story are hit, they hit that much harder.
The most obvious example of this is working was handled so perfectly that Brotherhood copied it from the original show--that is, creating a full episode out of the brothers' backstory early into the show. I think it's easy to take for granted that the manga only gives us the broad strokes of Ed and Al's backstory in the second chapter of the manga, and then doesn't fill in any more of the details until Teacher comes into the story during volume five and asks the boys to tell her everything. It's at this point that we first see how the kids practiced alchemy as children, how their mother died, and then how they were taken in and trained by Sensei and left on an island for a month to learn the truth of alchemy, and then how they secretly ran off to go try and bring their mom back to life and fucked up, causing them to lose their bodies and Edward Elric to catch a glimpse of the truth, and then how he spent a whole year in recovery after receiving his iron limbs and getting invited to the military by Roy Mustang. We learn all of the parts of this that don't involve Sensei in episode two of the most faithful adaptation of that manga, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
We also learn a lot of it in episode three of the original show, although the biggest difference is that we didn't learn about Ed's experience of the truth from the very start. I think this change marks the biggest difference between the approach of Brotherhood and that of both the original manga and its first anime adaptation. Brotherhood is the only version of the story in which the depth of Edward Elric's hypocracy in continuing to pursue human alchemy in spite of how it completely ruined his and his brother's life in the first place is completely understood from the start, instead of being implied in the way that the people that he fights compare themselves to him for a long time before we learn about it.
Both anime adaptations were better off for putting a fuller picture of the boys' backstory front-and-center in the early episodes. I think the most successful part of every version of Fullmetal Alchemist is the portrayal of these brothers' bond, and how their relationship shapes each of their fate over the course of their adventure. Focusing an entire episode just on showing the seeds of that bond and how traumatic their shared experience truly was does a huge part in endearing us to the characters, and seems so integral to caring about the story at large that I was truly shocked to realize how little of it was actually reveled in the earlier section of the manga. Brotherhood was correct to copy the original show in covering the backstory right from the start, and I think it also made the right choice in showing Edward witness the truth, not only because it made the show distinct from the original, but also because it wasn't going to take the same path the original show did of showing us so many different characters to act as Ed's foils in extra anime adventures.
Nevertheless, I think that Brotherhood tells the weakest version of the first stretch of the story of Fullmetal Alchemist ouut of any version that exists--and that the original adaptation tells the strongest version of that story. I also think it is that version of this section of the story which first cemented the impact of the franchise worldwide.
The Liore two-parter works better than the single-episode version we get in Brotherhood because it is not only makes a lot more sense as a pilot adventure coming at the start of the story, instead of weirdly inserted after the backstory in episode three, but also because it is fleshed out enough to be a memorable story in its own right. Starting the story in a desert town, which is exotic to the majority of the manga's readers worldwide and also to the visual style of the character designs, conveys the idea that this is supposed to be a globe-spanning adventure right from the get-go. It also happens to make a pretty heavy statement against the organized practice of religion, with the bad guy being an evil false religious leader, and the main character outright declaring himself agnostic in the first episode. I don't know how much impact this line had with the original Japanese audience, but it certainly resonated with a sect of skeptical kids from secular upbringings in the United States.
((Hope discusses her interest in the agnosticism of the series))
Add to this the dramatic way that the story is told which reveals each aspect of who these characters are. We are introduced to them as just a small kid in an oversized red overcoat with a cool symbol on it and a guy in a suit of armor, who can do a neat magic trick called alchemy that lets them restructure matter. But over the course of the two episodes, it is revealed how Alphonse is an empty golem, and how Edward has an automail arm and leg. These are no longer revelations in Brotherhood, because we have already seen the backstory of Ed and Al in episode two. As such, the Liore arc isn't given its original dramatic weight at all--Edward doesn't even finish Cornello by having one of his masive statues pound him into the dirt, but instead just uses one of his usual generic alchemy attacks of shooting a piece of the ground at him to take him down.
It might not seem like a big deal that Brotherhood chose to skim down the Liore story, even though it's a very memorable series opener. After all, whereas the original adaptation would choose to revisit Liore heavily in its anime-original later episodes, the town is only visited again in passing in the original manga or in Brotherhood. It's actually almost more surprising that Brotherhood even bothered to cover this arc at all, considering that it isn't the only one of the smaller adventures from the start of the manga that the anime simply choose to skip.
As established earlier, the third chapter of the manga sees Ed and Al travelling to a mining town and fucking over its asshole overtaxing military overseer, Yoki. This story is pretty similar to that of Liore in how it shows a power structure being abused by those at the top of it, and then subsequently destroyed by the Elric Brothers. The next chapter after this has the brothers on a train to Central which gets raided by a terrorist faction fighting against the government, whose approach is also found disagreeable and put a stop to by Edward Elric, and it has no equivalent within Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. That's a shame, because it's the one where Ed uses a giant faucet to fill up a train car with water to beat the bad guys--something I remembered from the original anime series, when both that and the manga were doing a lot more unique things with alchemy in their early chapters than Brotherhood does across most of its run, which mostly involves reducing alchemy to throwing the environment at one-another.
But the first anime adaptation added something important into this chapter when adapting it in episode five, by heavily involving the character I think is by far the most definitional to the original anime adaptation as opposed to either of its counterparts--that of Maes Hughes. In this episode we are introduced to Hughes as a badass secret agent climbing on moving trains and keeping contact with all of the important characters that we know about in the show so far--some of whom we still won't really meet properly for a bit longer in the manga. I think this episode alone does a massive amount to endear us to the character, as does the rest of the additional content centered on him over the first half of the older show.
Granted, that story only comes right after the completely forgettable anime-original fourth episode, which I know I've seen at least four or five times over the years including just a few weeks ago, and I legitimately still don't remember most of what happens in it. This is, for the record, probably the least-memorable episode of the entire original show, but I completely understand why there are people who went back to watch the old series after having seen Brotherhood, and just completely lost interest right here. After all, this is what we might call filler. What I wouldn't call filler is the additional content injected into the Shou Tucker arc.
In the first anime adaptation, Edward and Alphonse move in with Shou Tucker in episode six. They spend a lot more time with Nina than in the manga or in Brotherhood, while Edward studies for the anime-original State Alchemist exam, to the point that she is with them when they witness the delivery of Maes Hughes' baby--something which, I might add, doesn't happen in Brotherhood or the manga AT ALL. Instead, there is a scene of Winry witnessing a birth in Rush Valley, which was cut from the original anime adaptation, assumably so that it could be inserted much more meaningfully here. After you've had a week to think about how comfy the ending of that episode was, that's when you find out that Tucker made Nina into a chimera just like he did his wife to keep his State Alchemist licence. That shit was brutal, and the much darker, grittier visual tone of the older adaptation sold it a lot harder too--and not just because it didn't condense this whole story into one episode like Brotherhood did. I'm sure that plenty of people were still emotionally effected by the death of Nina in the manga and in the Brotherhood anime, but I would bet that there are way more people who were effected by thinking that Roy Mustang had to kill Maria Ross than there were those who got emotional about Nina during their viewing of Brotherhood--because that story was one of the first ones which Brotherhood covered that wasn't in the earlier adaptation, and it got a lot more attention in the way that it was presented by Brotherhood. Again, it's like Brotherhood was made with the expectation that you'd already gotten the emotional effect of seeing those early stories fleshed out the first time, and was speeding to get to the new stuff.
Following the Nina arc, the original manga shifts straight into the introduction of Scar, and the huge battle with him in the streets of Central that leads Ed and Al on a trip back to Risembool--and Brotherhood takes the exact same route, in spite of having skipped over some of the other chapters leading up to that point. I would argue that this is why the early part of Brotherhood gives the least sense of adventure in its early story out of any version of the story in full. Between its first ten episodes, all of them except for episode three take place in either Central or Risembool, giving the impression that the nature of Fullmetal Alchemist as a military consipracy story was more core to its identity than that of it as an epic adventure story. This is what I mean when I say that the pacing of Fullmetal Alchemist gives it a bit of a warped identity.
When you look at the manga, you see a story that starts off with semi-episodic adventures, then develops a central military conspiracy plot which keeps it relegated to a couple of locations for a short period, before the adventure continues to sprawl across the globe. The original anime is a slightly more localized, but also more consistent adventure, with the characters travelling regularly to new places throughout, and the military conspiracy undercurrent more evenly dispersed throughout the timeline of Ed and Al's adventures in the world of the story. Brotherhood, meanwhile, almost feels like a military conspiracy story which suddenly sprawls out into an epic adventure.
Much of what was added into the first adaptation was memorable in its own right, and helped to flesh out aspects of the manga that only come off as even more weightless in the Brotherhood adaptation. Barry the Chopper, for instance, is introduced in the manga and in Brotherhood as just another of the souls bound to armor guarding the 5th Laboratory alongside the one who shares expository dialog and a fight with Edward Elric. In the first adaptation, Edward and Alphonse's time spent with Shou Tucker is pushed earlier into the timeline, so that it becomes explicit that the boys came to central and stayed with him almost immediately after Ed was finished recovering from the attachment of his automail limbs. Each of theit adventures, then, are interspersed amid a period of time in which Scar first begins his State Alchemist hunting after he runs into Ed outside the Central Library in episode eight, and when the encounter with Scar as it is first presented in the manga begins in episode thirteen.
Additionally added into the backstory part of Ed and Al's early adventures is a bit in which he quits being a state alchemist after seeing what happened with Nina. However, when he and Winry both end up kidnapped by a local serial killer named Barry the Chopper and thoroughly traumatized, Ed decides to take up the mantle of the State Alchemist again for the sake of self-empowerment, and begins the adventure from the place that the manga would have implied it to have begun. Establishing Barry the Chopper earlier in the story not only gives a shitton more weight to his unexpected revival a little bit later into the show, but also made for an incredibly memorable episode in its own right.
((Hope talking about how Barry the Chopper was her favorite character.))
I'm sure it won't sit right with everyone that Barry the Chopper is presented as dressing up like a woman in order to lure other women into his orbit and kill them--but that kind of twisted setting is also what makes him fascinating to some viewers--and the scene in which he torments Edward is presented extremely well as a horror scene. We really see Ed for the child that he is when he's flailing around with an arm missing scared out of his mind, and the vocal delivery of this scene in both the Japanese and English dubs of the show were very memorable parts of this very famous role for both actors Romi Park and Vic Mignogna.
This isn't a storyline that it was necessarily wrong not to include in the Brotherhood anime, but it also doubtlessly contributed to the overall impact of the story for many viewers, and still contributes to their overall impression of the franchise, regardless even of its canonicity to the version of the story which they most appreciate.
((Hope talking about how the edgy parts of the story don't matter as much to her now.))
I don't think the episode about Mirage is necessarily all that important either, but I do think it's entertaining and unique, and helped to endear me to the series as a whole the first time that I saw it on Cartoon Network. I think it was the energy behind these adventurous side-stories which was being put forth into the early video games based on the show as well, with memorable transmutations from the early manga and the first anime series appearing in some of those games which didn't even make it into Brotherhood. Suffice it to say that while Brotherhood didn't need all of these anime-original episodes, nor even all of the adventure stories of the early manga in order to be great, as evidenced by its enormous popularity independently of those, it still may be true that those early adventures have enhanced the overall experience of Fullmetal Alchemist as a franchise.
I certainly feel that this is true in particular of the additional content pertaining to Lt. Maes Hughes. While the first thirteen episodes of the original FMA adaptation add a ton of stuff to the story, the next twelve are much more faithful to the manga, with only a bit of elaboration upon the events which would also comprise the fifth through tenth episodes of Brotherhood--but I think that that elbaboration also adds a hell of a lot to the story. When Maes Hughes died in episode ten of Brotherhood, I barely felt any reason to care--he was just some bit character who talks about how much he loves his daughter all the time in that version of the story. But in the first show, he's with us all the way from episode five up through episode twenty-five--a period through which Ed and Al basically grow up with him as one of their biggest personal influences, who protects them from the shadows by assigning people to protect them, and ultimately gets killed by poking his nose too deep into the mysteries surrounding them.
Moreover, his killer, Lust, is much more built up by this point in the original series as well. In all versions of the story it is clear that the homunculi, especially Envy, have had their hands in many of the dramatic events that have driven human history in recent centuries; but the first adaptation also introduces a handful of other characters chasing the power of a philosopher's stone who Lust becomes involved with in the early episodes. She also explicitly kills Doctor Marcoh less than halfway into the show, whereas he ends up coming back and remaining as a pretty important character throughout the whole story of Brotherhood.
Hughes' death was shocking and impactful in the original show because it was the first time a character we were really supposed to care about was killed by what, for the most part, seemed like the show's main villain up to that point; and it took a whole twenty-five episodes to get there, amounting to half of the original adaptation. Moreover, its aftermath is one of the most compelling sequences in the whole series--when it is revealed that Roy Mustang intends to become the Fuhrer, and that Hughes had dedicated himself to pushing Roy up through the ranks by working under him. This is followed by Riza Hawkeye pointing out to Roy at Hughes' funeral that he had taken everything involving the Elric brothers onto himself to his own downfall in order to keep Roy focused on everything else. Because we know more about the world and story of Fullmetal Alchemist and have spent a considerable amount of time with these characters in episodes like the anime-original one where Edward and Roy have a sanctioned battle that tears up the town square, the effect of this death on everyone surrounding Maes Hughes is felt more strongly, in my opinion, than any of the deaths which occur in the entirety of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
It is from that point forward, however, that the two adaptations truly begin to seriously diverge, and to create their own memorable moments completely independently from one-another. Ed and Al's trip through Rush Valley, reacquaintance with Teacher and the reveal of their extended backstory, as well as some of the stuff to come later with Greed and his team of chimera, and some things to do with the identities of the homunculi and Van Hohenheim, are consistent between both adaptations and the original manga; but the seeds divergence are planted around when Frank Archer is introduced in the original show, and when Lin and his friends are introduced in FMA: Brotherhood. Keep in mind that this break happens around episode thirty of the original show, and only around episode thirteen of Brotherhood--meaning that the overwhelming majority of the content present in the manga and in FMA Brotherhood is missing from the original adaptation entirely; whereas the original adaptation only adds enough additional story to make up another third of its length--meaning that a significant amount of what it added into the story was done before that major divergence.
One of my favorite scenes in all of Fullmetal Alchemist is completely original to the 2003 anime. In both the manga and in brotherhood, the visit to the 5th Laboratory is briefly revelatory, but ultimately amounts to a fight with a couple of souls attached to suits of armor who reveal that prisoners were used in experiments to create homunculi and philosopher's stones within that laboratory, and that Lust and Greed are involved in keeping this place a secret from others, as well as that it's possible for Edward to have manipulated Al's memories when binding his soul to his armor, leading in the next chapter and episode of those versions of the story to Al having an existential crisis and briefly questioning his entire reality, which is one of Al's most memorable story beats from the early run.
Everything about the 5th Laboratory is fleshed out in so much more detail in the original anime series than in other versions of the story that it has always stood out to me as one of the single most memorable arcs. First of all, as I previously discussed, Barry the Chopper had already been one of the most memorable anime-original parts of the story, and was therefore automatically more interesting when reintroduced than he could've been in either other version of the story. Next, the staging of Ed's fight against the pair of brothers in their own suit is so much more weighty and dramatic with the darker tone and more cinematic storyboarding of the original series. Add to this that when Lust finally executes the older brother, it isn't immediately after his battle with Ed like in the manga and Brotherhood, but instead immediately after reintroducing Shou Tucker, who has become a chimera working within the laboratory for the homunculi as a means to develop the science to bring his daughter back to life in what to him is her ultimate form--the one that survives in his memories--while helping to explain to Ed his situation of being forced to create a philosopher's stone right here on the spot, right after having learned that philosopher's stones are made with human lives--and without even knowing that they have gathered a room full of prisoners, including Zolf J. Kimbley the ally exploder, in the room above.
When Kimbley performs his favorite activity of making people explode, he ends up disrupting Ed's transmutation circle and revealing to him the truth of what he has been building--but as Ed will eventually tell us outright, he truly considers that this room full of prisoners would not have been too steep a price to him to bring his brother's body back in that moment.
This whole series of dark reveals and reincorporated elements that were more powerful for how they were more thoroughly established in the show made this an incredibly gripping set of episodes during the original show's run. But the biggest payoff we get here is actually in the characterization of Maria Ross. For the period leading up to Ed and Al's adventure into the fifth laboratory, we see this character acting as the only sensible motherly figure in the kids' lives, who notices how unsupervised and endangered they are with a level of concern above the capability of the other military personnel assinged to them besides perhaps Armstrong--all of whom are allowing them to continue with their research in their own way. She thinks she has finally put the kids to bed before they sneak out to go on this adventure of discovery, and the hours it takes for to find out where they are and get there amount to nearly three episodes--three weeks worth of dramatic content in the original show--which all comes to a head when Edward Elric accidentally steps into some of the red liquid and his alchemy starts going out of control--until Maria Ross finds and embraces him, calming him down and getting him out of there.
I think it is integral to our sympathy with Edward Elric that we continue to consider him as merely a child, in spite of his incredibly genius aptitude for alchemy and adult-level decisionmaking power within the world of the story, because Edward fails too many times on his way to understanding the truth about alchemy to forgive him if we considered him an adult. Every iteration of the story reveals around here that the boys have had their actions controlled to a much greater extent than they could have imagined by the will of the Homunculi and the state government, and we start to get a sense of their placement within the historical context of alchemists at their level as the story goes on.
((Edward coplayer on why she loves Edward. Cloud on why her favorite character is.))
The original anime adaptation gives by far the most fleshed out portrait of Edward and Alphonse as children, in spite of the fact that it has fewer backstory events to flesh out their mother and father during the time that they were children.
Looking at the story of Edward and Alphonse in a linear fashion, they were a pair of savant brothers with a unique aptitude for understanding alchemy, likely based on the genetic advantage of being born from a man who has been using alchemy to keep himself alive for hundreds of years. Their mother dies when they're very young, so they track down the best alchemist that anyone they know has ever heard of to beg her to train them. This woman, teacher, has already lost her own child to a birth malfunction and then failed to bring them back to life using human alchemy, unbeknownst to anyone but her husband. Her relationship to alchemy is extremely troubled, and she believes it can only even remotely be used responsibly by people who could survive purely on an understanding of the circle of life and how equivalent exchange exists within nature without using alchemy before they even try to start learning it. In service of delivering this understanding onto the boys, she drops them on a deserted island and makes them survive for a month while her husband antagonizes them, as a test to see if they can understand the truth--and the answer they give, "one is all, all is one," is satisfying to her. Nevertheless, after completion of her training and without telling her, the boys went and attempted human alchemy on their mother and failed.
This reveal in the manga and the first anime adaptation is when we truly understand the depth of these boys' failure, and especially that of Edward Elric, who not only identified something resembling the truth with his brother on the island, but was also shown a significant amount more than most people will ever see pertaining to the truth when he opened the gate--yet he still continues in pursuit of a stone that might subvert the laws of equivalent exchange, as though those laws weren't the absolute foundation of reality.
In Brotherhood, we uniquely know this about Edward from near the beginning of the story, and so we launch very quickly into establishing how far above his head the miliary conspiracy in which he is involving himself goes. The other anime, meanwhile, spends twenty-six episodes thoroughly fleshing out the lives of these boys from ages like ten through fourteen before fully justifying to us why they understand alchemy so much better than the average person at such a young age. Even if they might have been given incredible kung-fu training, and continued to maintain peak form since coming to appreciate their new physical conditions, Edward Elric is still a terrified eleven year-old child when he only has one arm to fend off Barry the Chopper. He and Al are still naive when they fall for Mirage's sob stories, and are literal children when they watch Nina get killed.
When Maria comes up and hugs Edward, there is a sense that he has unwittingly gotten exactly the thing he's really looking for at the bottom of it all, which is the embrace of his mother. Ed and Al didn't have a father in their lives and lost their mom before they were ready to imagine a world without her, and so they dedicated everything about their lives to getting her back. When trying to do that took even more from them, it drove them to the realization that the best they were ever going to hope for is at least fixing themsevles--and there was no getting back the image of a life with their parents.
But each version of the story is careful to remind us that Ed and Al do have a home and an option to abandon this journey that puts so many lives, including their own, at risk. Winry is always waiting with open arms in Risembool, and at one point dramatically asks Edward, is it just that you really don't want to live your life disabled that badly? Edward of course is driven less for his own sake, but for that of his brother, whose situation is so much worse. And yet, each version also establishes how Alphonse is actualy more capable of living with his changes and would be more willing to stop the adventure if not for the fact that he knows his brother will never give up, and he wants to support him above everything else. Both of these brothers are ready to sacrifice themselves to the needs of the other, and thus they are equally culpable to their own state of being and effect on other people--although we are always reminded how as the older brother, Edward's role in effecting Al's development keeps him feeling somewhat personally responsible for whatever happens to his brother, regardless of how much the experience is shared by the both of them.
Ed and Al should know better than anyone how unlikely it is that there is a way to subvert equivalent exchange as the mechanism behind alchemy, but they also have a closer understanding than anyone else to how it could be plausible. In each story they come to different and, in my opinion, equally interesting conclusions about the truth of how equivalent exchange works which we will get into later; but from the very beginning of their journey, the Elric brothers have had one of the most unique understandings of what ought to make a sorcerer's stone possible--and yet it isn't until they find Dr. Marcoh's research that they reach the conclusions they were too afraid to consider from the beginning--that it could only be done through the massive sacrifice of human lives.
It is because they are children, though, and not because they are scientists, that the Elric brothers do not consider the possibility that the people who have figured out the secrets to human alchemy have simply hidden it, or that the pursuit of a philosopher's stone, when not under supervision of the government, can easily get you killed. Ed and Al have a lot of philosophical and technological knowledge about the workings of nature, but they are totally unprepared for the complicated world of humans, having grown up entirely under the supervision of like two other people in the backwater town of Risembool. Roy Mustang is the one who invites them to become a part of the real world under the supervision of himself and his direct underling, Hughes, because he is an extremely powerful, influential and ambitious man who sees the insane potential of the young boys and wants to keep them close to the chest--but no one under his command truly has time to take care of these kids, and the first people that they get shacked up with end up being Shou Tucker and Nina, so government's attempts to protect the boys aren't really going all that well--which is what compells Roy Mustang to give them random busywork adventures away from the bullshit going on in central and with Scar to keep them alive.
Armstrong is the first person to encounter the boys that behaves like somewhat of a parental figure, in that he frets for their safety and becomes emotionally invested in their well-being--but he is also kind of a single-minded and bumbling caregiver, and has his own extensive responsibilities within the military. That is why it comes to the duo of Maria Ross and Denny assigned to the boys by Hughes to be the first people specifically tasked with watching over them--and Maria is the first to take this responsibility really seriously, actually becoming aggravated at the way that these children are being allowed to overexert themselves by everyone else. That's why she has to be the one to come in and finally settle down Edward Elric during his alchemical overload; and it makes for a more powerful scene than her simply arriving to carry Edward off after his encounter with Greed. I think the storyboarders of the anime-inspired Avatar the Last Airbender must have agreed, because this scene is echoed very closely in the one where Katara hugs Aang in order to stop the overload of his Avatar powers.
Having said all of that, Maria Ross basically disappears from the story of the original FMA adaptation after a more prominent living mother figure shows up in the form of Izumi-sensei. Maria Ross ends up being the subject of an even more dramatic scene early into the part of the manga that goes beyond the first adaptation, as her death at the hands of Roy Mustang is faked in a dramatic twist. As crazy as this scene might have been, I don't think it had as much meaning in the grand sceme of the story or in playing into its central themes as the scene with Maria in the fifth laboratory had in the original series.
I have shared now the reasons why I consider the first thirty-five or so episodes of the earlier Fullmetal Alchemist anime adaptation to be more impressive than both the story of the first few volumes of the original manga and the first thirteen episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood--but from that point on, the first adaptation diverges heavily enough from the story of the manga and Brotherhood that they can't be talked about so purely by comparison anymore, and so I would like to wrap up my thoughts about the rest of what happens in the first anime adaptation before I move on to talking about the rest of the manga and the Brotherhood adaptation.
I think the anime's writing staff continued to pull ideas from the manga as it progressed alongside the anime's run for as long as they could, while introducing original villains Frank Archer and Dante, as well as the anime-original versions of Sloth and Wrath (with King Bradley eventually revealed as Pride in this version), to bring the anime to its planned conclusion--which makes its own statements about the underlying themes of the story apart from where the manga and Brotherhood end up going. This can best be expressed through examining Greed's place in each version of the story.
In both takes, Greed's gang kidnaps Alphonse Elric because Greed just wants to have him, being a life form he aims to understand and possibly emulate in keeping himself immortal. Greed gives a speech about how greedy he is, and then Edward and Izumi track them down and start an all-out battle against Greed's squad which leads everyone to fighting in the sewers, while Alphone carries around the snake chimera girl inside of him. I want to take a bit of time to address how I think this arc is handled excellently in every version of the story.
I think that Hiromu Arakawa's aesthetic sensibilities and the way that she paces her drawings leads the Fullmetal Alchemist manga to have the loudest, most traditionally shounen manga feeling out of all versions of the story. While it is still very dark and serious, and deals with some pretty big ideas and a sweeping story with tons of characters and plot points to keep track of, it still focuses mostly on a page-by-page basis on showing characters in really badass moments. The dialog is emotional and the characters very intense in all versions of the story--but I think that the writing is most consistent with the visual tone of the series in the manga, where all of it conveys the impression of trying to be Badass first and foremost.
I will also argue, however, that Arakawa's art suffers the most when she tries to draw highly physical action scenes--which is probably why she wanted to draw alchemy action and deliver a more heady dramatic story in the first place. Where I think the manga excels in showing the characters personalities htrough their expressions and conveying emotional tone through panel layouts, I think the actual anatomical detail and sense of flow in her action scenes is lacking in comparison to what studio BONES is able to provide in all version of their animated action scenes. For this reason, the scenes are differently badass in both of the anime adaptations from how they are in the manga, making it a great case study of the strengths of each version of the story.
What made the original anime adaptation most special was the sense of realism in its setting and character development, and the darkly horrific tinge added to the extremely traumatizing events of the story by its more desaturated color palette and cinematic shot . In this arc, however, even Brotherhood takes on a much darker tinge than the imagery in the manga by way of its own muted color palette to sell the sewer environment, and the sense of weight and momentum given to the movement of the characters by the animation during the more physical fight scenes.
When watching Fullmetal Alchemist or Brotherhood, the most memorable part of Greed's introductory speech is likely to be the over-the-top manner in which his different voice actors delivered the monolog--however, in the original manga, it is without a doubt the way that Arakawa draws his face and the way that the panels are framed across those pages that makes it stick out. The anime couldn't have quite captured the feel of these pages without having to emulate the framing of a manga page for that scene, which wouldn't fit with the more naturalistic-feeling sense of cinematography that either version of the anime is going for. Nevertheless, even if the words and their delivery are only as memorable in the anime as the illustrations are in the original, the action animation of Brotherhood certainly sticks out more than the depictions of the fights between Armstrong, Edward, Teacher, and her husband, aginst Greed and his team of chimera in the manga. The action animation is excellent in the original series as well, although this scene doesn't quite end up building to the same satisfying conclusion that it does in Brotherhood or in the manga, which is partly because of the fact that this arc's conclusion dovetails into some reveals which were too far afield of what the anime series was already in the middle of setting up with Dante, Sloth, and Frank Archer for it to have any room inside of that anime adaptation--and so the ending of this arc was completely changed to its own satisfying, if less consequential conclusion in the long term of the story.
You see, in the manga and in Brotherhood, Fuhrer President King Bradley and Armstrong show up at Teacher's place to interrogate them about how to find the Elric brothers, and end up finding their way into the brawl with the Greed gang before Bradley just absolutely mows his way through all of them. Really, the point of this arc more than anything was to establish the extreme danger and multifarious ambitions of the King, who we now know to be a homunculous working for the mysterious Father, who sacrifices his older brother Greed for Father to consume. Most of that doesn't happen in the first anime adaptation.
Greed, instead, is drawn to Dante's mansion, where it turns out that some of his bones are being kept--and we learn that if a Homunculus is in the vacinity of their original body, then it makes it harder for them to maneuver--only after an incredibly badass fight between Green and Edward. This was one of the first animation cuts I remember from the sakuga AMVs I started seeing in like 2007 from now-legendary BONES resident fight animator Yutapon. Ed ends up having to kill Greed, which actually kind of fucks him up because Ed and Al have managed to hold the high ground on never actually getting pushed to murder anyone in the story up to this point, so it has a little bit of emotional impact, but really the Greed storyline ends up getting wrapped up like more of a side-plot in the original adaptation. I don't even think they bother to show how the fighting between everyone in the sewer turned out--we are just to assume that the Green team lost just like their leader did.
Eventually, however, the anime writers did find an excuse to get the snake girl back into Alphose's body so that King Bradley can stab her inside of his chest--but the context is incredibly more contrived in the anime series, as if the writers had made a last-minute decision that they were going to include the twist that Bradley was one of the homunculus into the story, and couldn't pass up the iconic piece of traumatizing horror experienced by Al on the way to introducing it--although this honestly gets brushed past pretty quickly in the manga, with more concern given to how having blood splashed on his seal has caused Al to remember some of his memories from being inside the Gate. Brotherhood's take feels a lot more grim, with how it lingers in that detailed and darkly-lit setting as Bradley lays down the law with Al. It seems almost impossible for BONES not to add a ton of dark polish to the story of Fullmetal Alchemist, even when they are much more closely reflecting the brisk shounen tone of the original than the comparably somber and brooding first anime.
Suffice it to say that Greed's fight with Ed was part of what made the first anime adaptation legendary, while the stunning realization of Bradley's true power was a legendary moment in the manga and in Brotherhood; however, the implied consequences of this revelation extend much farther into the world of Brotherhood's story, because so much more of that was to be established beyond that point in the story. By this point in the first show, it is about ready to start tying up a lot of its loose ends.
The mechanism which the writers constructed for this purpose is unfortunately the character Frank Archer. Frank Archer is easily the worst thing about the original Fullmetal Alchemist, basically showing up after the death of Maes Hughes to contribute wherever necessary to the evildoings of the milirary in place of whatever justifications hadn't yet been cooked up by those setups in the manga. What I mean by this is best-observed with his insertion into the Greed arc. In the first FMA, Frank Archer is the one who goes with Armstrong to Teacher's house in search of the Elric brothers inatead of King Bradley. The same thing happens as with Bradley, with Frank is interrogating the husband instead; but whereas Bradley came off as oppressively charming in this scene, Frank is always portrayed as a miserable creep. It's for this reason that it doesn't sit right for Armstrong and the Husband's muscle-based bonding to convince either of them that they ought to be acting out the demands of slimeball Frank Archer--I just don't believe either of these characters would back that guy up in the way they might back up King Bradley,
The writers hadn't gleaned enough yet about Hohenheim's personality to wring much interest from him, so he ends up feeling like a sort of half-baked character only included in the story because he would've been too big a loose end not to tie up before the end. This anime series doesn't introduce Father, and doesn't hint at the existence of a hulking Sloth, because it has already been building the Fuhrer's secretary as this show's Sloth; and doesn't introduce the characters from Xi in the very next chapter as the manga and Brotherhood do--nor does it ever, for that matter.
In fact, by talking about the Greed arc as though it came directly after the arc with Teacher like it did in the manga, I've completely forgotten to mention the short anime-original arc in-between in which Teacher returns the boys to the deserted island, and they discover a feral child that turns out to be the homunculus Wrath in this version. He also turns out to be a composite creature of Teacher's malformed child whom she thought she had offered up to the Gate, and Ed's arm and leg which he thought he had rendered to it likewise. We learn from his existence that in this version of the story, ALL of the homunculi were born from attempts at human transmutation--which I actually think is a pretty badass twist. In the manga and in Brotherhood it will soon be revealed how the homunculi are formed in the emergent establishment of a more central big bad villain to the entire story in the form of Father, who controls the homunculi directly. In the first anime, some of the Homunculi are working in more direct service of Dante, but others are killed for having gone against her. Dante is only really revealed as the main villain and characterized in the very last stretch of episodes--up to which point the mysterious homunculi remain the driving force of all villainy and curiosity. Trying to understand why Lust and Envy are up to what they've been doing has been the mystery forming the backbone of practically every encounter in more than forty episodes of this anime by the time we learn how they are made--and even then we only know specifically how this anime's Wrath came to be, and, through process of elimination, that the character who's been hinted at to be both Sloth and also a reincarnation of the boys' mother is in fact both of those.
After the Greed arc, the Elric brothers find out that the Ishbalan people were apparently close to discovering how a Philosopher's stone is made, and may have clues into how it could be done without having to sacrifice people; and so they go back to the town of Liore, which has not only become a civil warzone which the government is trying to keep a cap on while the Sins tempt them into starting a repeat of the Ishballan massacre, but also an Ishballan hiding place where Scar currently resides.
To make a long story short, Frank Archer and Kimbley team up with the Homunculi to try and start shit between the military and the people of Liore which can cover up their creation of another massive philosopher's stone. Scar kicks Kimbley's ass, but Kimbley turns Alphone into a time bomb that can only be stopped by changing the material composition of Al's body while Ed is somewhere else. Scar basically decides, fuck it, there is no one in this entire world I respect more than Alphonse Elric, and we've evacuated a bunch of our people so it's mostly soldiers left, so I'm just gonna sacrifice myself and everyone else here to turn Al into the Philosopher's stone. And so he does that.
I this is completely bonkers as a plot development from the perspective of Scar as a character just deciding to sacrifice everyone in radius to turn a kid into a philosopher's stone as though that couldn't possibly go wrong or lead to any further problems before peacing out; but I also think it's a really awesome idea, and a solid-gold transmutation of the implicit body horror behind Al's character. This is a kid who's done better to conquer his feelings of dysphoria between his mental and physical experience than his brother that only lost and arm and a leg and has them prosthetically maintenanced--and yet he is still prone to bouts of utter existential dread about the nature of his humanity, and now turned into a living alchemy bomb that his own brother is worried about even touching. That's brutal--and with a full-scale philosopher's stone finally extant in the plot, it's only a matter of time before someone tries to use it in a way that lets the story come to an end.
We also end up getting a backstory around here on the woman that Lust was to Scar's brother before the Ishballan massacre, and learn that her motivation is just as simple as the Elric brothers--she wants to become human, and wants to see if a philosopher's stone can do it. It's unclear to what degree any other homunculus shares this goal like Lust expects them to, but in the end she is killed by Dante for defiance not unlike Greed. After learning this Gluttony basically goes insane, if he wasn't already--Sloth is I guess just sacrificed to the gate outright, while Envy is revealed in his original form to be a child that Hohenheim and Dante had together when they first started their research, who had died, and then Hohenheim had performed human alchemy to try and bring him back and failed, and then left Dante--which I suppose led the first-born homunculus to favor his mother and despise his father, not unlike Edward himself.
The homunculi remain fairly interesting characters through to the end, but truly do have to become very distinct from their counterparts in the manga and in Brotherhood for the show to be able to deliver satisfying conclusions to that central mystery. Some of the answers are more interesting than others--I don't think Sloth ever really manages to be an intriguing or memorable character in her own right beyond having been made out of the kids' mom, and her personality is so different from the mother's that Ed doesn't feel much hesitation in considering her an enemy.
The actual ending of the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series is very complicated and difficult to talk about, because it involves several characters giving confident speeches about things that I'm pretty sure are incorrect in the context of the series--and so it could potentially lead to some argument about what is or isn't true regarding the laws of alchemy.
Everything comes to a head in this underground town which had previously been sacrificed to create a philosopher's stone and was fed into Dante's body to keep her alive. She gives a big speech about how equivalent exchange obviously isn't real because life isn't fair, and people are always losing shit and gaining shit disproportionally who don't deserve it. I find this to be a very strange argument because it hinges on the idea that there is a deterministic system for judging morality which has to maintain equilibrium, which has never been presented as part of the system of alchemy. This just seems to be Dante's warped justification for why she gets to be unyieldingly evil--but it's provably untrue by the fact she won't accept how her body keeps deteriorating more every time she reincarnates.
If the fundamental principle of equivalent exchange can be boiled down to "all is one, one is all," then the conclusion which Sensei came to after failing the human transmutation of her child and witnessing some of the Truth, is that alchemy is dangerous because we don't really understand the full breadth of what is included in "ALL." As Edward famously points out in the first episode, the components that make up a human body are easy to come by in abundance--but the components that make up a soul are impossible for us to ascertain.
Everyone who sees a glimpse of the Truth becomes totally sure that human alchemy is, in fact, possible--but also that they can't figure out how the equivalent exchange works without, they think, getting another glance at the truth. By some convoluted means I don't understand, Dante uses Rose's baby, whom it's implied she was impregnated with when the military snatched her off the street and raped her because series composer Shou Aikawa is an unimaginable edgelord, to open up the gate and send Edward through it so he can figure out what's the deal with that thing anyways.
As it turns out, our own very world of Earth in the aftermath of World War I is on the other side of the Gate, and Edward meets his father there, who is relieved at the idea that equivalent exchange doesn't exist--even though I'm still pretty sure that isn't true. What seems to be revealed by the ending of this show, and expanded on in the Conquerer of Shamballa, is that these two worlds are tied together by a poleric system of equivalent exchange--and so when you start messing with shit you don't really understand like soul data, the equivalency is felt on the other side of the coin in the world where alchemy isn't even apparently possible.
What gets Edward resummoned to his original world is that Wrath tries to use the philosopher's stone to bring back his mother, and ends up instead getting his arm and leg sacrificed back into the gate, which I guess makes it so Edward can re-emerge... honestly the logic for a lot of this stuff doesn't seem as important as trying to wrap up the story. Envy ends up stabbing Ed through the chest, and since Alphonse can see that Ed isn't quite dead yet, he's like fuck it, this is an acceptable level of human alchemy that I can deal with and sacrifices himself to the gate to bring Ed back to life. However, I guess because Ed has now seen enough of what's on the other side of the gate to understand how the equivalent exchange system between them works to some extent, he then opens the gate and trades himself over to the other world, in exchange for Alphonse getting his body back in his original world. We are also told that the rebirthed Alphonse has no memories of the four years of his life that he spent inside the armor suit, and is only physically as old as he was when he lost his body, implying that those four years had to be given up in the equivalent exchange. Again, the point seems to be mostly that the rules are too big to control.
So in the Conqueror of Shamballa movie, Edward is hanging out in 1917 Germany, where an anti-Jewish sentiment is growing, and the version of an Alphonse that he's been hanging out with is just a young rocket science getting scouted by a dangerous regime. Meanwhile, Alphonse in the original world keeps having dreams where he takes control of a suit or armor in the world where Ed is living and helps him out for a little bit--which is in fact actually happening from Ed's perspective. By the end of this very complicated movie, there's a bunch of other transmutation self-sacrifice fuckery and the finishing off of Envy and Gluttony that all eventuates in the real-world Alphonse getting killed right when Edward comes back there, having saved his own Alphonse--and then that Alphonse sends himself to the real world as well so that he can continue adventuring with Edward, even if it means abandoning his home world and the practice of alchemy. It's I guess what you'd call a bittersweet ending, but Ed and Al at least have their bodies back and a new lease on life to hopefully not just get killed immediately during World War II.
I've skipped over a lot of things about the ending of the original FMA to highlight the good stuff, but I can't let us off the hook without talking about Frank Archer. You see, Frank had half-died in the creation of the Philosopher's stone at Liore, but he comes back with a vengeance by storming HQ with a mostly cybernetic body on a mision to kill Roy Mustang and anything else that happens to be around. Frank Archer has always existed purely to antagonize whatever character needs something to keep them busy for a second, and he manages to do that for a variety of characters in the episodes of his rampage. I have to imagine that the writers were already planning to use this character to give a final battle to Roy Mustang before they decided to go forward with doing the plotline of Bradley being a homunculus and using him as the final boss for Roy to fight.
I can't say I'm impressed with the results of Roy's "storm the president's house by myself" plan, nor with the dramatic twist of Frank Archer showing up right as Roy is leaving the house and right as Riza is running up to murder him from behind, to shoot Roy in the face, so that we can think he might be dead for about fifteen minutes before we see him with an eyepatch. In the movie, we learn that Roy has basically given up all his ambitions and taken a small-time post in his state of grief for Edward or something. Honestly, I think the writer hated this character. I didn't even mention before how in this version of the story, Roy Mustang actually killed Winry's parents and nearly shot himself over it. Winry learns this and has a whole arc of being unsure what to do about the fact that she simultaneously fucking hates him, but also respects him because Hughes had dedicated his whole life to pumping the guy up. This never really gets resolved--it just simmers in the background for a while--but I thought it was a neat detail that doesn't make his lame ending any more satisfyng to me.
I think that there is a lot to like about the first Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation even in its extremely dense and different ending and in the film conclusion, just like there is a lot to love about the series up until that point--even if all of it could be considered flawed for any number of personal reasons. Here and there are boring, forgettable episodes, bizarrely written over-emotional character interactions (like everything involving Winry, particularly in Rush Valley), plot twists that have no purpose but to be edgy, and some incredibly shitty anime-original villains. I always thought Dante sucked for showing up so late in the game, wearing the skin of a forgettable side-character whose design looks like a meme as the final boss of FMA (especially doing this weird Anthy-and-Utena dress look with Rose at the end), and having little personality beyond being endlessly self-serving and evil. Had she and Frank Archer not stolen as much time from the rapid-fire resolutions of the stories of each homunculi, I think those parts would've had more impact as well. Some of the ideas unique to this series, like the homunculi being born of failed human transmutations and Alphonse getting turned into a Philosopher's stone, are pretty fun; and the idea of sending the characters to our world at the end was absolutely bonkers in a memorable way. I definitely think that the extra care and detail given to fleshing out the early part of the story allowed me to first be endeared to its main characters in a way that I don't think either other version of the story would've accomplished as my first exposure to it.
I don't know who in their right mind would've made it this far into this video never having seen any incarnation of FMA and who is still considering giving it a try, but if I had to tell you where to start, I would pick the first anime series. I know there are plenty of purists who would likely suggest that reading the manga first is always going to be the best experience, and I certainly wouldn't think it wrong to choose that instead--but I think it also becomes harder to appreciate the original show once you've already seen the how much farther the manga ends up going past what that show covered, and that a lot of what it fleshes out just wouldn't seem like it mattered all that much in the grand scheme of things to someone who knows where the story is supposed to go later.
If you approach FMA as if it wasn't supposed to go anywhere later, I think it is still a pretty enjoyable show--as well it had to have been to have had the international acclaim that it already did before the manga or Brotherhood became popular worldwide. It did make a degree of sense for Fullmetal Alchemist to have an ending in 2005, when the manga was still ongoing and BONES had no expectation of being ordered to make more of it beyond the fifty-two episode run; and the ending isn't the worst thing in the whole world, though it certainly isn't the best, and I think mostly everything for the first thirty-five episodes is some of the very best Fullmetal Alchemist media that exists. To me, it's an 8/10 show that ends up becoming maybe more like a 6/10 after it runs out of manga content to adapt.
By comparison, I would consider Brotherhood a straightforward 7/10. It's true that there's a lot more to the story of FMA than what the first show covered, and thata lot of it is great, and that a lot of it is kinda mid, or just drags, or doesn't stick out in my memory as anything all that interesting. Aside from how it bulldozes through the early part of the story so it can start introducing new characters, I find the presentation of the anime series to be flat as compared to both the original show and the manga--which in fairness are pretty tough competitors to be up against.
As I've established before, I think Hiromu Arakwa's strengths lie in very emotive character art and use of layouts and pacing between panels to create a constantly noisy and exciting manga. It's usually a pretty frantic page-turner, with plenty of action that I think translates extremely well to animation in both adaptations, even though neither anime adaptation is nearly so committed to being "fun" and "badass" as the shounen manga which they adapt. The first show goed for a realistic sense of grit and somewhat cinematic storyboards, which bring the story to life more through its worldbuilding and characterization than through its action. Brotherhood, copying the manga most directly, is therefore more dependent on maintaining the sense of constant excitement and action that the manga has--and there I think it very often fails.
There's a piece of background music in Brotherhood that just about drove me completely insane on my latest rewatch of the show, and I'm sure that some of the more music-sensitive viewers are cringing in awareness already. It's this very repetitive dramatic buildup song which layers on more and more instruments and builds to an incredibly obnoxious siren-like climax during almost every single tense sequence in the entire goddamn show; and aside from being overplayed and sounding terrible, it also makes the flow of every tense scene completely pridictable, because the editing tends to be timed around the music--which also means that the characters talk extra-slow while the camera does a lot of panning to match the length of the music. All of this slows down the pacing of the series considerably compared to the manga, which--while very long and fairly wordy for a shounen action manga, is still nonetheless a brisk read by comparison.
Not every sixty-five episode anime necessarily feels its length the way that Brotherhood does--at least up until it suddenly rushes to climax for the last fourteen episodes. Some of the problems I have with the story as a whole do spring from the original manga, and I think there are plenty of substantial additions to the story made by its adaptation in Brotherhood--such as a multitude of incredible animation cuts, a really interesting color aesthetic, and another reason to listen to Romi Park and Kugimiya Rie, who are two of my favorite seiyuu--but I can't confidently say that I think it is a better experience of the story than reading the manga is, nor do I think it's as good of an actual TV show and piece of cinema as the first anime adaptation.
After the Greed arc introduces us to Father as the leader of the Homunculi and King Bradley as one of them, I think there is a definitional shift out of the period of the story establishing central mysteries, and into answering questions about what's really going on--leading to the feeling as though the whole rest of the manga is one incredibly long climactic battle to get each character to the other side of their arcs as promised when their goals were first established. We will be introduced to fleets of new characters in bursts throughout the manga, such as the characters from Xi around this part, and later the Northern military division members--but these characters are thrown straight into the thick of participating in huge group battles alongside all of the other main characters at an ever-increasing number of crash points over the course of the series.
Basically, Fullmetal Alchemist develops an arc structure pretty similar to most other long-form battle-focused shounen manga, in that it continually spends periods of time setting up reasons for why as many of the main characters as possible are about to find themelves involved in a massive battle, which then has consequences for certain characters at the discretion of the author's feeling of donness with them. There is one arc which involves Barry the Chopper's original body getting inhabited by a spirit that it feels out-of-synch with and going on a rampage, with armor-body Barry chasing after him amid all kinds of other brief fighting encounters between opposing characters before it all culminates in Roy Mustang supposedly executing Maria Ross--which is a very memorable thriller moment, even if it doesn't ultimately mean much because Maria Ross is really just in hiding--but it was definitely the one part of this arc I actually remembered having happened.
The next process of encounters ends in Lust sort of leading herself to her own demise. She seemingly thought she could lure a bunch of the main characters in and destroy them all at once, but her plan backfires ang Roy Mustang ends up charcoaling her. (I don't know if Arakawa has a feish for Roy Mustang destroying women with fire, but she sure did end two arcs in a row that way). I don't think Lust ended up being nearly as complete or memorable a character in this version of the story for dying here like that; again, though, this is merely the climax of a several-chapter arc of other characters having battles. There are always reasons for everyone but the dead to retreat from these encounters, but it starts to become very routine that you're going to see most of the relevant characters fighting in almost every arc, because at this point the manga is most dedicated to creating dramatic encounters between as many of its characters as possible that reinforce their reasons for wanting to deal with one-another until the time comes for them to finally, indeed, be dealt with.
Let me skip straight to the next part of the manga which I found to be especially interesting, both in what it revealed in the story and how it contributed to its central themes. Edward, Lin, and Envy are all swallowed by Gluttony, who has unlocked Gaping Dragon mode and, we learn, has a Kirby-like meta-universe inside of his belly. Apparently this was the product of Father trying and failing to create his own truth gate, and instead creating a place described as "between reality and the Truth that doesn't exist." How Ed determines they can escape, then, is by opening the truth gate once more, and using it to traverse back to their own reality. Straight-up, I have no idea how this makes any sense as something to assume, but it ends up working, so at the very least some inlking of the idea that different dimensions are accessible through the Gate was also kind of established in the manga.
This realization comes after Ed learns of Envy's true form, which is the product of a compression of a huge city full of people into a huge philosopher's stone. Envy psychologically torments Ed by forcing him to confront the pleading souls inside of his body, but in the end assures Ed that these souls are dead and can never be human again so that Ed will use them in exchange for their ability to access the gate--which Ed does.
My favorite thing about this scene is how it reveals the undercurrent of insecurity running through all of Envy's actions which contributes so much to his hatred of Ed. Envy doesn't want to be seen for the miserable product of unyielding evil that his true form was born as--and so spends all of his time transforming into different people. The main form he chooses is purposefully androgynous--and we are even told by Ed in this chapter that the hermaphroditte is the alchemical symbol of the perfect lifeform in the image of God. Envy wants to be his own symbol of aesthetic perfection, and is probably driven insane by Edward's insecurity over being small when he is so clearly insecure about being large (or perhaps truly for being even smaller in his truest form). I think it's pretty obvious what Envy is doing calling Edward a chibi all the time while choosing to be only a couple of inches taller than him. When Envy ceases tormenting Ed, it is because he's annoyed that someone he sees as a lower life form is expresing pity for him, when he's dedicated every aspect of his persona to making sure that no one ever does that.
In the wake of their collaboration comes another of the most memorable scenes in the manga and in the Brotherhood adaptation, when Edward gets a moment in transit between the gates to see his brother's body alive inside the gate space, and points his finger through the door in a promise to return.
I wasn't too surprised when this scene and the scene of Al getting his body back were answers when I asked people what the most memorable part of Fullmetal Alchemist is. The definitional answer to that question seems to be the existence of its two main characters.
((More interview answers about Ed and Al.))
Ed and Al's relationship is special because it was constructed from the outset to be the strongest bond we could conceptually imagine between two people. Ed and Al were already close in age and raised by a single mother from the start, and so they ended up doing pretty much everything together because they were the only people around to do it with--and since Alphonse wanted to follow whatever his brother was doing, they both ended up getting into alchemy together from a very young age. Their mother's death is the worst imaginable trauma that could've befallen them at an age when they might be capable of taking care of themselves--and they are taught how to do this in the harshest way possible. Then, they manage to get ahead of themselves and make their own lives worse in a way that defines the next five years or so of their lives. There's really no rest for this pair, and since they are both so desperate and deeply committed, it is very easy to be sympathetic to their ambitions, even as the show gives us every reason that what they're doing could possibly be wrong on its way to letting them find a way to do it right.
The first show never quite gave us what was implied as the win condition of the story, of Ed and Al getting their bodies back and the chance to live out their lives. It kind of happened in Conquerer of Shamballa, but in the most deliberaly back-handed way that it could. The moment where Ed points at Al in through gate in Brotherhood is practically our reassurance as viewers that this time, it's totally going to happen for real. That promise being made so powerfully in the imagery and then delivered on so well at the end of the story has stuck with people, I think, more than many of the abundant small details which kept the story interesting in places along the way.
If I had to pick a core theme out of Fullmetal Alchemist besides equivalent exchange, I think it's about how the sins of the father wind up effecting the child--or perhaps the exploration of how authority entails an abuse of power that is almost unavoidable in a world of the blind leading the blind. Ed and Al's lives are what they are because of the corruption that is systemic in every power structure governing their world, and all of the worst problems with their world can be traced to one entity known simply as Father.
Most of the main characters in FMA are either ambitious figures attempting to succeed where authority fails, or assistants to those ambitious people--like Riza Hawkeye, Lan Fan, and Alphonse Elric. Al is the closest one of these characters comes to being a functional stand-in for the person that he's following--but the most important difference between Ed and Al's personality is that Alphonse might be content to abandon the journey to restore his body if Ed had been willing to give up on it. It's only that Ed would never give up on it. Alphonse is the one who has made more peace with his circumstances, because in Ed's mind, Ed was the most in charge, most at fault, and who suffered the least consequences. There can be no equivalence of exchange for him until he gets his brother's body back--and so to can Alphonse never imagine abandoning the brother who sacrificed an arm and a leg just to keep his soul in this world. Even though there can be no exact equivalency between them, it is their operation from the viewpoint of equivalency which makes them such a powerful combination, of whom either one would protect the other's life as if it were their own.
Following Edward's re-emergence from the gate is a battle to establish the power level of Father, the reveal that Father is keeping Ed and Al alive for a deliberate purpose, and also the placement of Greed's soul into Lin's body, leading to his own inner conflict from there on. All of this is really fun stuff, but once again it mostly involves changing the circumstances of the characters so that they can have an arc about something that doesn't really add very much to the overall message of the series beyond what we've already got. In fact, that's pretty much how I'd describe the entire rest of the story from that point on.
Some of the characters we meet alon the way like Arsmstrong's sister Olivier have cool designs and leave an impression with their pesonality, but don't end up adding all that much conceptually to the story. I would consider Olivier a good fit for the story in that she foils Roy Mustang with her position within the military and runs an uber-tight loyalty-driven ship that has a different culture from the main sect of the military we've gotten to know in Central; but it's hard not to shake that these characters only existed so that there could indeed be more characters and locations in the story. I wouldn't be surprised if Arakawa had planned from early on to eventually go visit the Northern part of the country on this adventure, but by the time she actually got there I think she had overplayed her hand by introducing Father and revealing so much of what's going on at the top of the military conspiracy beforehand.
Too much of the story now feels like it's just filling in the details on how the answers we already know about what's going on are justified, and checking all the necessary boxes to get our characters from the position of vaguely understanding what's going on to having the ability to do something about it. A bunch of this process centers, for instance, on identifying Selim Bradley as Pride, and dealing with the terror that he brings underground in the country-spanning tunnel system that Sloth is digging to make an Alchemy circle out of the entire country of Amestris.
Each of those characters are cool reveals in and of themselves, and a lot of what happens from here on out is conceptually entertaining, but it just doesn't do anything to change the understanding of the story that I already had from what was implied in its earlier half. The only bit I would consider particularly necessary is the backstory of Hohenheim and Homunculus which kicked off all the events of the story, and which will play into how Father is defeated in the end.
Between that backstory and that ending is a preposterously massive series of final battles between all of the important characters. Some of these are plenty entertaining, like Scar going up against Wrath for some reason, but don't usually stand out as defining moments for the characters. By far the best thing to come of this whole climactic battle gauntlet is the scene of Roy nearly finishing off Envy, before every person he truly cares about surrounds him to talk him down from doing it--even though every one of them has as much reason to hate Envy as Roy does. Everything between Ed telling Roy that he can't be a great ruler with that expression on his face, and Envy's long rant about how Roy would've been right to kill him, building to his suicide over the thought that the most pathetic creature in his world--Edward Elric--has the gall to feel pity for him--is really good. Envy, to me, is the real bad guy in both versions of the FMA story, and nothing involving the people pulling his strings in either version is nearly as interesting as the way this character was portrayed.
I really do suspect that the later part of the manga may have been defined more by what kind of characters Arakawa wanted to draw than it was by making total dramatic sense. There is a point at which Ed helps out a couple of guys who were working for Kimbley, and the two of them along with a couple of chimera guys all just sort of slip their way into the story as extra fighters surrounding Ed and Al for the last couple of arcs, seemingly just because Arakawa needed even more large buff men to draw. Given the nearly-memetic way that these four are characterized, I don't think Arakawa even concerned herself with trying to make characters introduced so late into the game have as much impact as those who'd been around from the start--and basically everyone that's ever been in the show and hasn't died yet finds themselves clashing against someone else during the final climactic battle. Again, though, fights like Sloth vs. Armstrong, while cool to look at, don't change anything about how we will look at those characters from then on, other than that Sloth is dead.
There is one really great moment during the final battle, in which Alphonse Elric is sent beyond the gate and has the opportunity to reclaim his body, but decides not to yet because that body wouldn't be strong enough to actualy participate in the fight--and so he runs off, promising to come back. Even if this might be exactly what we'd expect from Alphonse, to see him actually faced with the opportunity and turn it down to go back to fight for his friends is as definitionally Alphonse as it can get.
After Father is dead, Hohenheim offers to let Ed sacrifice him to get Al's body back--but Ed figures out he can do one better, and instead sacrifices his personal access to the gate, and therefore his ability to perform alchemy, in order to get Al'd body. The notion of this is about as happy a thing as could acceptably make sense for an ending to the series, and from there we have extensive and usually satisfying resolutions for all of the characters. Again, though, all of this just feels to me like tying loose ends in the most obvious ways.
Something which did interest me is this story's answer to the logic of equivalent exchange. We learn more about the idea that there are multiple approaches to alchemy with their own understanding of its logic from Mei Chang, and in the end Alphonse resolves to learn more about how those different understandings can be cross-referenced to improve alchemy, even stating that his current thinking on the matter is that the key to alchemy may be in actually submitting more to an exchange than what you expect to receive in return. I certainly think it's a more mature way to view life, as you never know what really equivocates the rearrangement of matter in its effect on the rest of the surrounding matter.
Most of the characters and events that I found to have the most impact in the story of FMA had theit biggest effects immediately upon establishment. We understand all of what makes Roy Mustang cool by the time of Hughes death--and so until the completion of his arc when he spares Envy's life, he is mostly just in the story to continually be a badass whenever called for. Likewise with Scar, who is an awesome character in concept alone, as a retribution-seeking victim of genocide with an arm that brings destruction slowly getting humanized by the other characters in the story; but again, this just means that he's in the story being a badass until the conclusion of his arc--which in this version involves having killed Winry's parents, beem forgiven by her, and then killing Bradley and purifying a transmutation.
I guess I mean to say that everything I really liked about Fullmetal Alchemist was established pretty much by the time we got the full backstory on the brothers from Izumi-sensei, and that the rest of the story from that point in both adaptations feels like kind of a formality. I am not surprised that lots of different characters from this show are popular with different audiences, because most of them are aesthetically cool and have enough unique details to their story that they might resonate more strongly with different readers--but a lot of the broad metaphors they represent are the same. There are a whole lot of characters that weren't strictly necessary to this story to make it compelling or deliver on its themes.
Personally, my favorite character is easily Izumi-sensei, followed by Alphonse, Edward, Maria Ross, and Armstrong, even though Roy Mustang and the lovable Riza Hawkeye steal a lot of the best scenes. Envy was by far the most interesting villain, and both versions of the story had their share of iconic moments that linger in my mind. I probably would've completely forgotten about Lan Fan coming back with an automail arm and elbow-dropping Gluttony in the brain if that one cosplayer I talked to, Radiominmay, hadn't cited it as her favorite moment in her current re-read of the manga--and so I cannot discount the moment-to-moment entertainment value of the manga and the massive number of parts that different viewers might connect with--but for me, those were only the parts I've discussed already.
Hopefully this isn't too unsatisfying a conclusion to reach about a franchise I've just spilled so many words on, but frankly that would best reflect my own feelings about the story of Fullmetal Alchemist. I really do think that the series is first and foremost, an assortment of really awesome ideas built on a very resonant thematic framework which does a great job establishing its world and mysteries before taking its sweet time answering all of the questions its raised, with long-winded explanations for why people happen to be in the places that they are and what they hope to accomplish, bookended with ridiculous amounts of big action scenes.
I've hardly even talked about the obvious reasons that Fullmetal Alchemist was able to catch on so heavily in the West, such as its European setting and characters, or the fact that they're drawn brawnier and thicker than those in most anime and manga. I also think it is more particular to Western tastes to see a big, complicated story with lots of characters and moving parts pare down to a satisfying conclusion. By this I mean to say that it's much more common for manga to be designed in the name of continuing forever, and then rushed to conclusion as soon as they run out of ideas. FMA could possibly be accused of this, but it really does spend more time winding its story down than it does winding it up. At sixty-five episodes, telling a story that eventually accomplishes its original stated goals with definitive resolution for every character, I think Brotherhood appeals to a desire for media closure which seems to be more pronounced with Western anime fans.
Fullmetal Alchemist is so specific in the ways that it most succeeds that it's not so easy to trace its direct influence on works to come. Fundamentally, it is structured like a typical shounen action manga, and yet it conveys such a different tone and establishes such unique rules and mysteries that it doesn't quite feel like any other show. I think this might be the very best reason to watch Fullmetal Alchemist--that for all of its formality in structure, it has so many rich ideas for how to detail its story that something in it is almost bound to have a little bit of impact on anyone that can connect with it at all. I certainly resonated with the characters from the first time I saw the show, and enjoyed each version of the journey to some extent, even if I've lost a lot of interest in the show after being exposed to it as many times and over as long a period as I have. I completely understand why it's had as much impact as it has, including on me when both the original show and Brotherhood first became viewable to me, but I do not think the story could ever have so much impact on me again, as I can boil the parts of it that really matter to me down to such a small percentage of the story.
I am sure that most of you will feel differently than I do about this series and have your own explanations for those feelings, which I will be interested to read about in the comments. If you haven't already seen the other episodes of Anime Alphabet, each of them has promised sequels to come when those videos reach certain view counts. I've done all the discussion of Fullmetal Alchemist that I think I will ever care to in this video, but if this video reaches 50,000 views then I will look into Hiromu Arakawa's next popular manga series and anime adaptation, Silver Spoon, and make a video about that. The next episode of Anime Alphabet is going to be about another military drama full of pretty boys, but this time it's set in space--I'm talking about Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu, or the Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Look forward to that on January 4th, and check out my music channel Branches of Ygg where I review albums, inverview artists, and post my own music as well. Support my work and get access to hidden articles and podcasts on goldenwitch.substack.com or by contributing to my patreon, and never forget: anime forever.