Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and Fullmetal Alchemist are a pair of extraordinary works in animation. Both anime series are adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist Manga. Brotherhood follows more closely the original story line of the manga although it was preceded by the earlier Full Metal Alchemist. Hitherto I will refer to Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood as Brotherhood and the former Fullmetal Alchemist as just Fullmetal. Honestly it’s kind of confusing that the newer series with the addendum to its title is the original story but that is neither here nor there. The matter of concern is the narrative and I find both to be extremely compelling although I favor considerably Brotherhood over the earlier adaptation.
The basic premise remains the same in both anime adaptations. Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, two naturally gifted alchemists in a world where alchemy became highly developed in a semi-mystical, semi-scientific parallel to our science, lose their mother. She was the only parental figure in their lives as their father, Hohenheim Elric, aka. Slave #23 aka. Hohenheim of the Light, becomes estranged after leaving home when the boys were still very young. When she dies the boys become distraught, especially Edward, and through theoretical alchemy seek to resurrect her. The transmutation (spell/equation) they attempt fails, creating a rebound effect in which Edward loses his right arm and his left leg. The backfiring transmutation effects younger brother Alphonse even more severely. He loses his entire body. In a frantic attempt to save his brother before his soul is lost forever, older brother Edward uses his own blood to perform another theoretical transmutation to seal Alphonse’s soul into a suit of armor.
After this, the two brothers dedicate their lives to finding a way to reverse the effects of the failed transmutation thus reverting their bodies back to their original forms. Older brother Edward takes on the brunt of the load as he feels most responsible for the catastrophe. This is due in part to the fact that the idea to bring their mother back seems to have been primarily his idea. Of course he also feels extremely guilty because between the two he came away somewhat less worse off, not to mention he is the older brother and therefore harbors a deep seeded sense of responsibility for his younger brother. This leads Edward to become a state alchemist in their home country of Amestris. As a genius in alchemy he succeeds in passing the extremely difficult and competitive state alchemist qualifying exam as the youngest successful candidate ever. As a state alchemist he is afforded a large stipend to pursue his research. The brothers are especially interested, as are others, in the legend of the philosopher’s stone. As a state alchemist they are allowed to pursue the legend freely and chase after leads all over the nation. However being a state alchemist comes at a price. State alchemists are also required to perform military service when called upon to serve. For this reason, state alchemists are often derided as “dogs of the military”. At the time of becoming a state alchemist they receive the rank of major and are given a code name. And what would be Edward’s code name. Fullmetal. He therefore becomes the Fullmetal Alchemist. This title is bestowed unto him by the commander in-chief of the military who is simultaneously the nations head of state, the Fuhrer. The Fuhrer makes it well known that the title is ironic. The irony being that Alphonse is a soul trapped in a suit of armor and Edward has both a metal arm and a metal leg in place of the appendages he lost in the failed transmutation. That’s cold right?
Beyond this basic premise the two narratives diverge. The key point of divergence revolves around the both the nature of the homunculi and their father Van Hoheneim. The homunculi are living beings created through alchemy. In both adaptations the homunculi take a deep, self serving interest in the brothers Elric. This and a huge host of other plot changes create markedly different narratives. Many people will swear by Brotherhood and totally discredit Fullmetal. I disagree. I think Full Metal also has a very compelling story as well. While Fullmetal takes dramatic liberties very early in the story diverging totally plot-wise, it still maintains the basic themes of the manga which are strong enough to sustain numerous branch stories.
The main theme of the entire story is stated in the very first description of alchemy the viewer receives. The basis of the science of alchemy is the concept of equivalent exchange. In the intro Alphonse says “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.” Both stories stay true to this theme without fail. At one point they believe that this law can be broken with the use of the philosopher’s stone however when they find out the truth behind it… I loved the hell out of this concept in both stories. The law of Equivalent Exchange screws these brothers and everyone in the story over royally but it also creates some beautiful and thought provoking moments. Both adaptations do well with this idea towards the conclusion of the series. Edward comes up with the most beautiful answer to God or the Gate Keeper or whoever in Brotherhood. Fullmetal has an extremely disturbing truth about equivalent exchange. In fact that revelation makes Fullmetal worth watching to me.
The other major theme is very Studio Ghibli. I can’t suggest with any certainty that Hiromu Arakawa is anti-military or anti-war and I probably won’t ever look it up to see but it sure looks that way. It’s an amazing aspect of the narratives. A great deal of the basic story revolves around soldiers, most of which are just normal people living their lives, following and carrying out horrid orders to commit heinous atrocities in the name of Fuhrer Bradley’s dubious agendas. I’ll leave it at that. Via the militaristic society and the war torn lives of people these narratives delve into just action, family, nationality and ethnicity, religion, equivalent exchange and forgiveness. The military aspect sort of circumscribes all of these other themes into itself as well as a host of others to which both adaptations stay true.
As I sated previously, both anime have great stories. In both narratives the stories are deeply involved. The plot heavily engages in poignant themes and the characters demonstrate deeply relatatible rationalizations for their behavior throughout the development of the narrative. The story is compelling and thought provoking because you find the characters, their motives and their reactions to events so comprehensible. Basically, you will experience a whole hell of a lot of “I feel you bruh” type moments. These series elicit that deep empathy with the characters that makes you have visceral experiences of emotions for the characters.
Both adaptations are awesome narratives! The story that Arakawa created can support the extra branch series that is Fullmetal. I agree with most people that Brotherhood which follows the manga is decidedly better but Fullmetal is a worthwhile and absorbing narrative all its own.