“Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy's first law of equivalent exchange. In those days, we really believed that to be the world's one and only truth.” - Alphonse Elric
Growing up, I was not that much of an anime geek. I've seen some when I watched Cartoon Network religiously as a kid, such as G Gundam, Dragonball Z, and embarrassingly enough, Hamtaro, but as a kid, anime was just not my thing. I was more into western animation than anything. Today, I have a rather large respect for foreign animation, both as a cartoonist and film student, and there are times where I regret thinking that. After all, Japanese animation has had a huge leap since the early 1980s, where most of it just involved robots or mutants beating the ever-loving shit out of each other. This would later be seen as a mere stereotype and nothing else, but I digress. My view on anime instantly changed in my teens when I was introduced to a little series called Fullmetal Alchemist. In preparation for this article, I went and sat through both the original series from 2003, and its successful reboot, subtitled Brotherhood, from 2009, but before I get into that, I should mention the manga (Japanese graphic novel) that both series are based on.
Cover of the first volume of the manga.
It was originally written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa, whose work at this point also included Stray Dog, both of which were featured in the monthly magazine, Shonen Gangan, which is owned by Square Enix, the same company behind Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and Dragon Quest. The plot summary for this and the two anime adaptations are practically the same. It's the story of two boys who commit the ultimate taboo in the field of alchemy, which in this series is a science that's often confused for magic, in that it has the ability to break down substances and rebuild them as something else (i.e. gold from lead), so long as it follows the defining law: equivalent exchange. The boys, named Edward and Alphonse respectively, attempted to bring their dead mother back to life, only for it to backfire. Not only was the thing they created not human, but it causes Edward to lose his left leg and Alphonse losing his entire body. However, Edward binds his brother's soul to a suit of armor, which costs him his right arm. With Ed outfitted with mechanical limbs called auto mail, and his brother an empty suit of armor containing his soul, they set out on a long and perilous journey to look for a solution to get their bodies back to normal.
Fullmetal Alchemist (2003-2004)
Fullmetal Alchemist: Episode 2 - Body of the Sanctioned (2003)
With an epic story like that, it was no surprise that an anime adaptation was inevitable. Bones, the animation studio that was previously behind Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (or Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door) offered to turn the manga into a television series, despite the fact that at the time they asked, it wasn't finished yet. Regardless, Arakawa approved of the idea, and production began on the first series. In 2003, it would debut on Japanese television, and later overseas. In my case, it would premiere in North America on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block and dubbed by Funimation, the folks who were also behind the dubbing of the Dragon Ball franchise. Now that it's over a decade-and-a-half old, the question remains: how does the first anime series hold up today?
Well, unless you were not familiar with the series, haven't read the manga, or saw the series that came after it, the reception is somewhat divided amongst fans of the franchise. What I can say is it did have the majority of the main characters. You've got Ed and Al's childhood friend Winry, her grandmother (their aunt), the boys' teacher Izumi, and of course, the military personnel, consisting of Roy Mustang, his gun-toting partner Riza Hawkeye, everyone's favorite muscleman Alex Louis Armstrong, etc. You also have the villains, including (but not limited to) the mysterious serial killer that goes by the name of Scar, and the artificial human-like monsters known as the Homunculi, all of which are named after the seven sins of man. As for the rest of the show, it did follow the source material that was available to a point. It is the second half where it starts to differ, such as the introduction of characters that wouldn't be written into the final manga and eventually a completely different ending, most likely at Arakawa's request.
For me, personally, I have a bit of a bias for the first series. It is the series that introduced me to the franchise, and I fell in love with it ever since. The animation, though not as clean or as eye-pleasing as the reboot series, still holds up today. The overall story is still action-packed and engaging, especially for newcomers, and it's one of those series that touches upon some rather controversial subjects, such as racism, war, poverty, government, and most importantly, life and death itself. It also gets pretty emotional at times, as there are a couple episodes that did manage to get me teary-eyed (shut up). All of this practically makes it a solid fantasy action drama, and it did get people talking. So all in all, despite its differences from the source material, I still gotta give it respect.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010)
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: Episode 20 - Father Before the Grave (2009)
But then we get to the reboot series, entitled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which launched a few years after the original series ended. Once again, the series was produced by Bones, and because the manga was finished at this point, they were able to adapt it in its entirety, unlike the original. When I first saw the first episode on Adult Swim, like the original series, I was hooked right from the get-go. Compared to the original, the animation got a huge overhaul, making it look more like the equivalent of a Studio Ghibli flick at times as opposed to a regular TV anime (standard animation, not a whole lot of movie-grade special effects), and due to the fact that most people nowadays own a widescreen TV, it's now in 16:9 format as opposed to the standard 4:3. Oh, and did I mention that this series is a lot more graphic with its depiction of violence?
Most of the original cast of characters also return, but we also have an introduction of new characters that further broaden the overall world the franchise is centered around, as we eventually get to learn a bit more about the lands that surround the one mostly takes place in. Such characters include an outsider prince named Ling Yao and his two bodyguards, a young girl named May Chang and her (very small) panda, and Armstrong's older sister, Olivier, whom I should mention is a total badass. There are also a couple new villains added to the roster, and a few of the Homonculi names, or the characters themselves, were changed in this version (i.e. Sloth, who was in the form of Ed & Al's mother in the original is now a giant walking behemoth in this series).
I won't lie when I say that this series definitely surprised the hell out of me when I first watched it via Adult Swim, though I would eventually get around to watching the series on Netflix (unfortunately, with the last bunch of episodes missing), and then on DVD much later. After all, I loved the original series, and because several years passed since that series ended, I was curious as to knowing if they could deliver with the reboot. To tell a long story short: it did and then some.
Back to Back
A lot of people who have watched both the original series and Brotherhood have stated that the latter is a major improvement over the original, and for valid reasons. As for myself, looking at both series as a whole, I kind of feel the same way, but on the basis of story and progression. I won't discuss how the animation in Brotherhood outshines the animation seen in the original series, because both series have completely different styles done by mostly different people. The way they tell the story is what I worry about when comparing both series. With that said, while the original show did tell a decent original story with Arakawa's blessing when they had no more source material to work with, it's still one of those cases where it further proves that the author themselves are the better storytellers. Not to mention that there were a couple of times in the original where an entire episode was basically just filler.
As for Brotherhood, granted, some of the episodes from this series are practically second takes of what we already saw in the original, but it's when you get to the fifteenth episode where it begins to diverge into the source material that the original could not cover at the time, because it was still being written. I see it as one of those scenarios where in one version, the characters take one path, while in the other series, the characters choose a different one, thus re-writing the story to adapt. It would then be up to the viewer themselves to decide on what they think has the better payoff.
In my case, even though I have much respect for the 2003 anime, after all, both series are two of my favorite TV shows, period, I still feel that Brotherhood told the story better and had the better payoff.
There is much more I could bring to the table about this series, such as the video games (two of which I own for the PlayStation 2 made by Square), the OVAs (which I've never seen), and the two feature length movies, one of which served as an ending to the 2003 series (The Conqueror of Shamballa from 2005), while the other took place somewhere in the middle of Brotherhood and was more of an original story (The Sacred Star of Milos from 2011). But I really wanted to focus on the two anime series that aired on television and mention the manga both were based on, because if I were to bring the other stuff up, this article would've been too long and you would be here forever.
To conclude, while I would suggest to you which one you should rather watch like some other guy, I'm not going to do that. Really, it's up to you on which one to check out first, but if you want my recommendation: if you're new to the series, check out the 2003 anime first, then after you've had a break from that, watch Brotherhood. If you've already watched Brotherhood, you should at least give the original series a look and vice versa. Both series are often considered high recommendations from critics, and they are often considered some of the best that Japanese TV animation has to offer since Cowboy Bebop.