Gabe Finally Watches: Fullmetal Alchemist (2003 & 2009 Versions)

Fullmetal Alchemist was always one of those shows I’d see constantly advertised back in the day, but was never really interested in actually seeing since I had my fill of shonen titles for a lifetime at that point. But not wanting to feel completely lost as Toonami started re-airing episodes, I figured I’d finally get myself educated on the series. And with hulu having both the 2003 and 2009 versions of the anime, I really had no excuse not to backtrack at this point.

For the fellow uninitiated, Fullmetal Alchemist tells the story of Edward and Alphonse—two kids that lost part (well, “all” in Al’s case) of their body upon performing the ultimate taboo in alchemy of trying to bring the dead back to life. Wanting to make things right and get their full bodies back, the brothers travel the world in hopes of finding the Philosopher’s Stone, which is essentially the cheat code of the alchemy world.

Surprisingly enough, although the 2003 series is a mere 51 episodes (disgustingly short in comparison to other shonen titles), its low episode count wasn’t due to the manga being finished and thus the series not being bogged down by filler episodes. On the contrary, the author was still in the middle of writing the manga and allowed the anime staff to work independently from the source material. While this still resulted in something of a mixed bag in terms of story, I will say that nearly every other aspect of the anime was spot on.

The number one rule in alchemy is that of equivalent exchange: in order to receive something, you must give something of equal value. Not only was this rule mentioned at the start of every episode, it was also heavily laced throughout the plot of the 2003 series in terms of small things like payment for goods and more plot specific things, like sacrifices for the sake of creating something else. Such a detail is that much more meaningful when the latter part of the plot turns this rule on its head, having established the viewer’s mindset of one thing already only to have it completely ignored in a plot twist of sorts.

The 2003 series also did an excellent job of establishing its cast and shuffling between each group of characters, reintroducing them only when fitting. Unlike certain other cast-heavy shows like Bleach, FMA actually takes the time to not only introduce a cast of quirky characters, but give them enough of a backstory early on to make you care for them and thus make them feel that much more important when it comes to the series’ overall plot. The entire crew at Central (think an alchemy version of the army), while quirky, isn’t so one dimensional that viewers don’t see them as integral to the plot in any way. Similar things can be said to the rest of the cast in the series, all coming off as fully fleshed out, making their leave from the plot and eventual reintroduction (something that happens a lot in this series, to my pleasure) that much more meaningful.

Sadly, good theming and handling of character and character interactions can only bring a series so far. As mentioned, I was painfully disappointed in the turn the series takes as it begins to deviate from its source material. Having never even read the manga, I was still able to pinpoint where the anime staff started to write the story for themselves mainly due to the general disjointedness of the plot in the latter half of the series. Both hero and villain motives were getting rather muddled, and by the time I finished the series, I was left with more questions than answers. Even when a follow-up movie made to tie some loose ends was made, I still felt short changed in terms of the series strong beginning and mediocre ending.

Thankfully, another series was made.

2009 marked the start of the second Fullmetal Alchemist series (titled the redundant “Hagane no Renkinjutsushi: Fullmetal Alchemist” in Japan, and the slightly more distinct title “Fullmtal Alchemist: Brotherhood”). With the manga finally wrapped up by this point, a second crack at the series was taken.

Totaling at 64 episodes, Brotherhood wasted little time establishing its plot and separating itself from its 2003 counterpart. While the first 14 episodes were essentially re-tellings that the earlier series already covered, enough minor changes were made in those episodes that led to major changes later on.

While the theming of “equivalent exchange” was downplayed from the past series, Brotherhood’s plot more than made up for it. Heroes and enemies alike had a much clearer goal in mind, with all of their actions serving as an additional step towards that goal. And like the older series, an equal amount of time was taken in shaping each character that made up the cast, really making you feel for them when they hit harder times and cheer for them when they try to work past impossible odds.

Once the final arc of the series starts developing, minor cast members start popping up in some of the most unexpected places that really gives a feel of the end nearing. Even with the final arc taking place over the course of a day or two, there’s never any feeling of the plot being stretched too thin. Every character has a specific role to carry out for the finale, and once you’ve reached the last episode, you’re really given a feeling of accomplishment—that you really got something out of all the time watching the series, which is really the best thing you can get out of anything made for entertainment purposes, really.

The consensus I’ve heard from most is Brotherhood is the better of the two series, but the original series does a better job drama-wise when comparing the earlier episodes that both series touched on. Though I’m pretty sure that’s the uber-fan way of telling you to watch both series. My opinion: of the two, Brotherhood is definitely worth your time and money.

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