One of my fondest and strongest anime memories was attending the London Expo back in 2003 (or 2004, I can’t remember) when Fullmetal Alchemist was first being released in the UK. I sat in the ExCeL Centre’s little screening booth and watched the first episode and instantly saw a whole new world of potential opened before me. I’d never seen anything like it before, and nothing’s ever struck me that hard or deeply since. The whole experience was just thrilling. I knew it didn’t follow the manga all the way through, but seeing as I didn’t own any of that, it wasn’t my concern, and I (rather callously, considering I’m a writer myself) dismissed the original author’s work, considering the anime I saw to be all I needed. Admittedly, I slightly preferred the anime’s artwork too, but anyway.
So when I heard they were essentially making the same series again, I was a little puzzled, a little annoyed, and all but dismissed it, thinking I knew the story already and didn’t need to bother watching it all over again for a few minor changes. That is, until I was bought Volumes 1 and 2 for Christmas last year…
Round 1: The Plot
The setting is the same – in a pre World War I-era fantasy world, a power exists that grants its users great and dangerous abilities – Alchemy. Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, mastered that power and sought to resurrect their dead mother, at a deadly cost. With Edward losing his arm and leg and Alphonse left as nothing but a soul trapped within a suit of armour, a result of a transmutation gone horribly wrong, they strive to find the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone and undo their transgressions into sin…
So the original anime didn’t mess with the fundamentals laid out in Hiromu Arakawa’s manga- they’re the same universe, same characters, same visual and literal elements. But start walking into the worlds of each and you begin to realise how different they really are, on so many levels.
FMA, then, is definitely the quieter of the two. If we’re putting it into its own terms, this is probably the Alphonse series. There’s a great deal of action and a heck of a lot of soul, but there’s always a sense that you’re watching it like a memory, if that makes sense. There’s a great wistfulness to it all the way through, and it’s a great credit to the production team to carry a theme through, not only in script but in style, as well. All the way through FMA each of the characters is searching for something, and it never lets you forget how painful that longing can be.
FMA:B, however, is the Edward series. It comes in fighting and doesn’t let go. Given that this is the series the manga was always meant to be, there’s a much greater strength in the events and, although the overall structure is largely the same (at least until halfway through, anyway), FMA:B’s cohesion is tighter, and it has a better hold of the characters and where each plays their part. If you compare the stories side-by-side, you notice a wide divergence beginning quite early on, and FMA:B doesn’t do subtlety. What FMA wishes for, FMA:B fights for, and, for me, FMA:B had far more edge-of-your-seat moments than the original anime.
I won’t type out any spoilers, but as you can probably gather the endings are substantially different as a result. I have a favourite, but it would spoil both stories to go into why.
Round 2: The Characters
Both series are nothing without the iconic characters who play out its story, and the portrayals of two same characters in each series couldn’t be more different. Some for the better, others not so much.
The brothers are ostensibly the same, but as with the FMA:B story having more fight in it, so too do the Elric brothers. Alphonse particularly (if you’ll pardon the pun) comes right out of his shell in Brotherhood and feels like a far more proactive character than in FMA, where he seems a lot younger and a lot shyer. The Homunculus as well have a lot more fire in them, and here’s where we see some of the literal character changes between the two. Three of the ‘new’ (or original, depending on your take) Homunculi in Brotherhood are completely different, which will take some getting used to if you’re an FMA obsessee (but then, if you are, you’ve likely seen FMA:B and read the manga anyway, so meh), but they’re not an unwelcome change.
There are some completely new characters in Brotherhood, and for the sake of foregoing spoilers (particularly on Jeremy’s behalf) I won’t mention them, but they’re a great addition to the cast and provide a great deal of fun, action and one of the many sub-stories that help drive the overall plot forward. Conversely, there are some emissions from the first series too; but with the exception of one major antagonist in FMA who only appears in the series and not the manga, they’re mostly secondary characters.
Ironically, and probably appropriately enough, a few of the Homunculi lose a touch of their humanity in Brotherhood that they had greater inklings of in the first series, and I felt a little saddened by this at times, as I enjoyed the depth FMA brought to them, particularly Lust. There is one more big character issue, but it’s probably better suited to the Production section below.
By the way, if you loved Mustang in the original series, you’ll LOVE him in this. Seriously, he kicks ass, and I rarely, if ever, say that.
Round 3: The Music
Here’s one place where I think FMA had a big advantage – Michiru Oshima created such iconic and beautiful pieces of the alchemist world that it would be really hard to provide the same sense of grandeur and atmosphere without basically reusing the same tracks. I think Oshima had some amazing melodies, and somehow I find many of the tracks stay in my mind for longer then Brotherhood’s. That’s not to say Akira Senju’s Brotherhood music can’t hold its own, mind you- there’s some excellent stuff here. Particular favourites are ‘Clash of the Alchemists’ and ‘Fanfare for the Brave’, but a lot of it is more ambient grandness, as opposed to Oshima’s soaring epics that carve a more vivid mental image, both in and out of the animation.
I can’t actually tell you how many soundtracks I own, there are that many. Generally I’ll buy either from artists I already know or animes that I’ve already seen, but sometimes I’ll take a chance. I bought FMA’s soundtrack after seeing the first few episodes and loved it instantly. Brotherhood’s CD I bought in advance of seeing the series, and it was much harder for me to warm to it, despite being so open to soundtrack material. It took watching the series to make me appreciate it more. And while I definitely love it, it’s always struck me how different the experiences were.
Round 4: The Production
Despite being the original story, following in FMA’s shadow obviously affected Brotherhood’s ability to develop characters and events in its first few episodes. I had a hard time settling into the first ten or so episodes because I was acutely aware of FMA’s story already, and while I was itching to get to the different bits, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the first few episodes were trying to do the same. The problem is, some of the defining moments of the Elrics’ journey happen in the first quarter of the story, and these shouldn’t just be brushed over. I almost got the sense that the episodes were trying to apologise to me, saying ‘Yes, I know you know this already, but just bear with me’.
Two particular things really suffered as a result. The first of these is the character Hughes. He had a really vital role in FMA and had the chance to be shown in a much stronger light, which made various events far more gripping when they happened. I don’t want to say it was intentional, but because there’s little to no change between the first series and Brotherhood, I felt his time and the depth of his story was really sacrificed to quicken the rest of the episodes along.
The second was to do with a young girl whom the Elrics meet when they reach Central City – Nina. That was one part of the original series that I was truly in awe at, and it just wasn’t the same. Call me picky, but I don’t think it was just for knowing what was going to happen already. It just didn’t feel as dramatic.
Being newer, though, Brotherhood definitely has budget and experience on its side. Once past the rather bustling first arc, it builds like a rocket launch, and has gripped you before you even knew it was coming.
Each series has a movie too, but while FMA’s Conqueror of Shamballa actually continues after where the final episode left off, Brotherhood’s Sacred Star of Milos is kind of standard fare for anime movies, in that it takes place in a vacuous period somewhere within the main arc but you don’t know where and doesn’t really have any bearing on anything else so is almost inconsequential, were it not for starring your favourite characters. Having said that, I’ve not seen Sacred Star, so I’ll reserve judgement.
I guess it’s unfair to call this a ‘fight’ as such, because that would define one as being a victor over the other. They’re two adaptations of the same story, going in different directions with rather different ultimate goals. And it’s not often you get two different adaptations both being of such high quality. Definitely if you enjoyed the first anime, you’ll love Brotherhood to bits. I wasn’t convince that I would, but boy, was I wrong.
I guess I really like having both to draw from – they both have some amazing, definitive moments, but you’d have to experience both to truly know the series inside and out. Whether it’s canon or not, having the differences to explore can only make its world a richer place, whether Hiromu Arakawa intended it that way or not.
Writer: Hugo Jackson
The complete series of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is available now on DVD in the UK thanks to Manga Entertainment UK.
Vig Migongna, the voice of Edward Elric will be a guest at the London MCM Expo at the end of October. Head over to LondonExpo.com for all of the information.