Fullmetal Alchemist the manga, written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa, was published from 2001 to 2010. It was adapted by director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shō Aikawa into an anime (FMA, for short) that ran for 51 episodes in 2003-2004 in Japan; subsequently released on DVD in the U.S. in 2005-2006. In what is perhaps the fastest remake in history, it was readapted by director Yasuhiro Irie and writer Hiroshi Ōnogi as Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood for 64 episodes from 2009-2010 in Japan; released in the U.S. in 2010-2011. I haven’t read the original manga; this review will cover the two anime series (dubbed versions).
Fullmetal Alchemist is set in an alternate reality in which alchemy is an advanced scientific technique within a society that has a mixture of early 20th-Century industrial capabilities and modern sexual equality. Alchemy is based on the principle of equivalent exchange, i.e., “In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed.” The story features brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, sons of master alchemist Van Hohenheim who left home for unknown reasons when they were very young. Their mother, Trisha Elric, died of a terminal illness a few years later, leaving the two brothers orphaned. The young boys determined to resurrect her, so they dug into their father’s reference books to learn about human transmutation, a forbidden branch of alchemy. Their eventual attempt ended in disaster, resulting in the loss of Ed’s left leg and right arm, and Al’s entire body. Ed managed to bind Al’s soul to a suit of armor, and Ed’s arm and leg were later replaced with automail, a kind of metallic prosthetic limb. The two then began a quest to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that they think will be able to make them whole again.
To help facilitate their search, Ed enlisted in the state military, becoming the youngest state alchemist. Ed acquired the nickname Fullmetal due to his automail. Ed and Al soon got caught up in a conspiracy far beyond anything they’re prepared for. They discover a genocidal plot by the top military leaders. Meanwhile, shape-shifting monsters called homunculi, taking the identities of the seven deadly sins, begin preparations to take over the world for their mysterious creator.
FMA followed the plot of the manga until about halfway through, when it completely diverged (after all, the manga was far from complete at the time FMA was produced). FMA’s ending seemed a bit rushed and had some plot holes. Brotherhood followed the manga very closely all the way through, with a more logical and satisfying ending. Brotherhood is less centered than FMA on the Elric brothers, featuring a large cast of supporting characters. The villain of FMA is a little more believable; the villain in Brotherhood is more of a clichéd power-mad megalomaniac. Does this make one series better than the other? Not really; they are two sides of the same coin. The two share most of the same voice talent (the one notable difference is that the boy who played Al in FMA got too old to continue voicing a pre-teenager, so was replaced by a woman) and the art direction and character designs are almost identical. FMA is darker in tone and has a more ambiguous ending than Brotherhood. Most reviewers prefer the soundtrack of FMA to Brotherhood. The animation of Brotherhood is probably better and more fluid than FMA.
Brotherhood condenses the plot of the first half of FMA to about a dozen episodes. Whether this is because FMA had filler not in the manga, or whether it was because the producers assumed the audience had seen FMA and didn’t want to sit through the entire beginning again, is not clear. For those who have not seen or read any version of Fullmetal Alchemist, I would recommend watching the first 26-28 episodes of FMA, then pick up Brotherhood at about the 12th episode. This will give the viewer a fuller and more nuanced picture of Ed and Al’s relationship as well as more details about their world, and avoid repeating essentially identical scenes. There is only one major plot change before this point that I can think of—one character dies in FMA that survives in Brotherhood—but I don’t think this is enough to hinder one’s understanding or enjoyment of Brotherhood.
Whichever version you watch, or perhaps both, you will be seeing one of the all-time finest examples of anime. Fullmetal Alchemist explores the themes of self-sacrifice, honor, and fighting against all odds for what is right, and does it with action, humor, and compassion in a steampunk world with fascinating characters.