Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
In my spare time, one of the things I love doing most is curating lists of anime for friends to watch when they request advice in that genre. While working on the latest one, I thought the series Fullmetal Alchemist would be the ideal choice for this particular person. In hunting down what streaming platform it was available on, I realized something: it was gone. Nearly two decades after its original release, it has been made entirely unavailable to watch legally (hooray for piracy!), replaced by the second attempt at adapting Hiromu Arakawa’s shonen manga of the same name.
“Surely you jest, Juan,” you might say, wondering if I mistakenly confused Seiji Mizushima’s original adaptation of the text and Yasuhiro Irie’s second, more commonly known as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. After all, the years have been unkind to the 2003 series ever since the 2009 adaptation became a critical darling simply for being a “faithful adaptation” of its source text. But, no, I am here to maintain that Brotherhood is the lesser series of the two, and we, as a culture, should be embracing it as the philosophically dense, gorgeously directed work of art it is.
Over the years, Fullmetal Alchemist has gotten a bad rap due to its divergence from its source text. It’s not unlike Game of Thrones in many ways, as Gita Jackson noted in their piece comparing the two shows. Though where they cited Brotherhood as a corrective to the problems of the original series, I find it to be quite the opposite. Both series follow Edward and Alphonse Elric, a pair of brothers who, in a world where alchemy reigns supreme, seek to restore their bodies to the way they were. As children, they attempted a forbidden human transmutation in order to bring their mother back from death, and in their failure, lost pieces of themselves (Edward losing an arm and leg and Alphonse his whole body, his soul now attached to a suit of armor). Their journey places them in harm’s way more often than not, dealing with everything from goofy con-artists to the military and the abundance of war crimes it commits.
If the latter of these sounds heavy, it’s because both series and their source text have more weight than most popular shonen anime usually do. They both dive deep into what actually makes up a human, not just the physical elements (water, carbon, etc) but the soul itself, and how it and the body are connected by the mind; what it means to be human in a world that’s increasingly inhumane. They both start, more or less, with exactly the same core plot and themes of loss and connection. The most glaring thing that Fullmetal Alchemist does, due to its source text still being unfinished during the time of its creation, is veer wildly off-course from said material. But different isn’t bad, and Fullmetal Alchemist’s changes are sometimes more appropriate for the narrative than those of Arakawa’s original work.
Whereas Brotherhood and Arakawa’s FMA manga often sidestep some of the more intense discussions that they introduce, and even rush through the chapters that have already been adapted by Fullmetal Alchemist anime in order to get to what it deems as corrective and “true” material, the 2003 series takes its sweet time with world-building. Early episodes that could easily be considered “filler” (like “The Phantom Thief”), flesh out the universe that these characters exist in and provide more emotional turmoil for Edward and Alphonse to navigate. It isn’t just about coloring in the world, but about shaping their ever-changing worldview. And, instead of shortchanging its cast (though not without sacrificing some characters from the manga entirely), certain supporting characters are given time to breathe and exist as fully-formed figures rather than just characters to be thrown into action scenes. Take Maes Hughes, for instance, whose death is something of a turning point for FMA (his expanded presence in the series and brand of “good cop in a deeply corrupt system” gives his eventual end an even greater impact), but who is killed off relatively early in both manga and Brotherhood.
Without a blueprint for completion, and with Arakawa only signing off on certain changes and allowing the anime’s creative team to play around with the text themselves, the series focused on expanding themes introduced early on. It does so by wholesale changing numerous plot strands (that had already been written), slowly but surely creating unique backstories for its allies and villains alike that are arguably more interesting than what the series itself ended up doing with them.
The best of these is in regards to the seven key homunculi (or beings artificially created by alchemy, as shorthand), with Arakawa rather dully choosing to make them servants and creations of a grander evil. Though FMA does have its own grander evil, the series waits until later to introduce them, spending the bulk of its duration exploring what exactly makes the homunculi tick. As each one is the result of a botched human transmutation, they are uniquely tied to different characters and those individual backstories (Sloth to Ed/Al, Wrath to Izumi, and Lust to Scar, for instance). Many of these villains and their fixation on attaining humanity go hand in hand with the core journey that Edward and Alphonse are on to regain their original forms—and more importantly, contribute to the larger thesis of the series.
If Brotherhood and Arakawa’s manga are about defeating the Big Bad and learning to live together with others in a world fraught with danger, FMA smartly bases its entire existence around questioning its very existence. The first law of alchemy, known as equivalent exchange, states that “humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return.” Where Brotherhood only passively questions whether or not that is a viable principle for living one’s life, every single facet of FMA maintains that equivalent exchange is bullshit (down to its opening credits, which features Alphonse’s voice actively noting, “we believed that to be the true way of the world,” with a sense of longing for a time when that simply was the truth).
To find the Philosopher’s Stone (a fabled object said to enable one to perform human transmutation properly), Edward and Alphonse are faced with a number of trials throughout their journey. The greatest of these is the realization that, to create a stone, human lives must be sacrificed. Though it sounds like any other ridiculous plot—and the series comes with its fair share of humor and playfulness—the way it approaches life and death is surprisingly serious. From the start of FMA, the boys are constantly made to confront death and how it impacts the world on both small and large scales, with its very first episode highlighting how susceptible those who have experienced great pain and loss are to those who offer salvation. It’s a series that smartly fixates on both personal loss and national loss and how the two go hand-in-hand, never shying away from conversations about how numerous organizations are more monstrous than they look.
Further, much of FMA directs its criticism towards the military industrial complex and the way governments take advantage of their people. This isn’t to say that the series doesn’t often normalize the military, turning many of the characters into playful comic relief in its earlier run, but it never shies away from the darkness that lies beneath. Something as simple as the bombs that Roy Mustang, the flame alchemist, can create out of thin air, can be both amusing when weaponized against Edward in a playful fight, and horrifying when used as a trigger for PTSD and war flashbacks. This focus on the military and death extends to how the series prioritizes the war between Amestris and Ishval, moving the conflict between nations from the background to the foreground.
Comparisons to reality (particularly to World War II) have been made about the overwhelming xenophobia with which the Amestrians approach the Ishvalans (not dissimilar to Nazis and their prosecution of Jewish people), and it feels especially prevalent in FMA, with its scripting as a direct result of a post-9/11 world. Numerous veterans find themselves questioning their roles in committing war crimes and atrocities under the name of enlightenment and justice, and immigrants are persecuted based on their appearance and religious beliefs (with the one framed as a “villain,” Scar, actually getting one of the most nuanced motivations for murder written for television ever). FMA’s English dub, in particular, doubles down on many of the things that the Japanese script itself featured but was shy about emphasizing. Every episode makes a point to highlight the way the state takes advantage of its populace, doing everything from union busting to murdering people. Even the show’s villains, like Barry the Chopper, find themselves joking about how their own crimes pale in comparison to the atrocities that the state (and those alchemists who work for them) commits, like slaughtering the innocent.
In many ways, it’s easy to look at Edward and Alphonse’s journey as something akin to what many of us go through when realizing that the history lessons we get in school aren’t quite as clean-cut and real as we were led to believe. History, of course, is written by the victors, and even the most progressive presidents are war criminals in their own ways. Brotherhood doesn’t exactly shove any and all of this discourse aside, but it does tend to humanize awful characters, while FMA instead focuses on the greater implications of its text. (Such as, say, making Fuhrer Bradley a sympathetic figure versus exploring how the Ishvallans are massacred.) As my friend and writer Carol Grant always says, “FMA is actually leftist while Brotherhood is just neoliberalism.” Its politics are distinctly connected to its characters, growing as they grow with every step they take.
Jackson notes in their article, “Its characters end up essentially back where they started, miserable, and the show doesn’t even have the decency to explain how or why it was worth it to watch them emotionally stand still.” But this feels like an unfair critique of a series that spends the grand majority of its duration exploring emotional turmoil. In fact, if I was being harsher, it is emblematic of the way television has conditioned audiences to want happy endings instead of nuanced storytelling. Every mildly ridiculous thing FMA does in its 51 episode run (and its sequel film Conqueror of Shamballa) contributes to a larger understanding of these characters, their emotional journey, and the philosophy they find themselves questioning along the way. Its willingness to get dirty while exploring all of these things, and its not-so-clean-cut finale, are simply reflective of the way we, and its characters, approach reality.
As cliche as it sounds, it’s not about getting to the end, it’s about the journey itself. FMA is at its best when exploring dense material, rather than sidelining it for jokes and action the way Brotherhood does. And it deserves to be seen.
Juan Barquin is a Miami-based freelance writer and programmer of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones and tweet too much.
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