Why I Still Love Fullmetal Alchemist (2003)

If you became an anime fan in the last couple of years, you have it pretty good. In the early 2000s, a hot shonen manga would receive an anime maybe a year or two into serialization. However, the average anime based off of a manga needs to use 1.5 to 2 twenty page chapters to produce a full 24-minute episode. If an anime runs at the same weekly schedule as the manga it’s based on, then the anime will quickly run out of source material.

This phenomenon didn’t invent filler, but filler as we know it wouldn’t exist without this kind of poor planning. In order to give the manga more time to get ahead, an anime would take breaks from the main story and use non-canon side stories just to fill this week’s broadcast slot. This usually resulted in episodes cutting away from the action and spending silly amounts of time on episodes that would have no bearing on the overarching story.

One of the earliest and most infamous examples of this is in the original Fullmetal Alchemist. Studio Bones first adapted Hiromu Arakawa’s genre-defining epic in 2003, and faithfully kept to the story for about as long as they could. Once the material began to run dry, the writers generated new content and eventually an entirely original ending. This new creation was received with mixed reviews, and the series was eventually remade once the manga reached its conclusion.

Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is still one of the most beloved anime of all time, and the general sentiment in the anime community today says that the original FMA is pointless. It’s pretty rare for an anime to get a second chance after a rough first outing, even rarer still that it succeeds to this degree, but I couldn’t disagree more. While Brotherhood deserves every drop of praise that it gets, I still love Fullmetal Alchemist ’03, and here’s why.

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Promotional art from close to the end of the original Fullmetal Alchemist.

Here’s your warning, spoilers for most of Fullmetal Alchemist ’03 and some of Brotherhood, mostly because there’s so much overlap. Now, Fullmetal Alchemist, no matter where you get it from, is set in the fictional country of Amestris. It vaguely resembles a steampunk pre-WWII Germany, and is an advanced military power thanks to its unique alchemy. The mythical study that fuses magic and science has been imagined as an anime power system where the user can transmute any material into another, as long as they use the right transmutation circle, and have enough materials.

Above all, an alchemist is constrained by the Law of Equivalent Exchange; in order to receive something, something of equal value must be lost. So when child alchemists Edward and Alphonse Elric attempt to raise their mother back from the dead with alchemy, their inability to offer up more than the base components of the human body rebounds on them. Al loses his entire body, and Ed only his leg, but he sacrifices his arm in order to bind Alphonse’s soul to a suit of armor.

Years later, the two boys have joined the state military to acquire resources and research in order to find the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemical legend that allows someone to ignore the Law of Equivalent Exchange. To get their original bodies back, the brothers are thrown into conflict with the military they serve, as well as the homunculi, artificial lifeforms created by alchemy, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The first half of FMA ’03 is largely accurate to the manga, while the second half is almost entirely original. You can see they incorporated elements of the manga as they were published, but they’re now in a completely different context. Brotherhood is earnestly faithful to the manga, but the series omits or condenses significant storylines that the original anime already featured. This is how FMA ’03 manages to one-up its successor; you can’t just ignore ’03 in favor of Brotherhood, or you won’t get the full story.

Ed and Al playing with Nina and her dog Alexander in the snow.

In Fullmetal Alchemist ’03, the boys are sent to live with the prestigious Sewing Life Alchemist, Shou Tucker, so they can make use of his library while studying for the state alchemy exam. Tucker distinguished himself by creating the first talking chimera, an alchemical graft performed between two animals. While staying with Tucker, Ed begins to see the man as a mentor, and the boys manage to recover some of their lost childhood in the carefree days spent with Tucker’s daughter Nina, and her dog Alexander.

A significant part of the series’ first episodes occur during this time, and Tucker’s story plays out in the background of these episodes. After his miraculous project that earned him state certification, he’s performed poorly on his subsequent annual evaluations. If he fails again, he and Nina will be forced back into the poverty they lived in before.

Ed finally divulges to Tucker that he and Al committed human transmutation, and his motives for doing so. More than simple love for his mother, Ed was fueled by his hubris, by the belief that alchemy was the closest a human could be to godhood. He wanted his mother back, but he also wanted to prove that he could, that everyone who maligned human transmutation merely did so because they weren’t talented enough.

Ed doesn’t know it, but his pained recollection of his mistakes spurs the desperate Tucker on. Backed into a corner and unwilling to subject his daughter to that life once again, Tucker unveils his finest creation, a perfectly made talking chimera, one made up of both Nina and Alexander. Ed and Al are obviously horrified, but not simply for the murder of a girl they came to see as a little sister. Ed is forced to confront the fact that he and Tucker share a disturbing resemblance; both broke taboo, both pushed the envelope of scientific ethics just to prove they could. Ed has to grapple with that for the rest of the series.

Well, in Brotherhood he ought to, considering the villains of Brotherhood are devout adherents of scientism, or the school of thought that advocates applying scientific methods and values to the world. In essence, reducing people down to their base materials in the same way as alchemy. The problem is that in Brotherhood, this tragic and stirring tale is condensed to a single episode, and we get a scant few minutes to get to know Nina and Tucker.

For the simple fact that Fullmetal Alchemist ’03 succeeds in this arc and Brotherhood does not is proof enough that it’s still worth a watch. However, the bigger problem comes in that Brotherhood Ed deals with the ramifications of this incident in the way that ’03 Ed ought to, and vice versa. It never factors back into the ’03 FMA the way it does in Brotherhood, but Brotherhood didn’t execute it well, so we’re stuck in this unfortunate pretzel logic where you can’t get the most out of one without the other.

However, that’s only one arc, and there’s dozens more episodes after that, and FMA ’03 still earns your watch along the way, but not to the same degree as the Night of the Chimera’s Cry.

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A shot of the two brothers in the series’ third opening.

The highest virtue of the original Fullmetal Alchemist is that it’s sufficiently different from Brotherhood, and most of it is perfectly good. When a manga arc is featured in both series, there’s usually enough of a difference so that it feels like completely unique takes. If you watched Brotherhood only, then the easiest bonus of 2003 is that it’s 51 episodes of okay to great FMA content.

And while the differences are significant, most are done competently. FMA ’03 makes the homunculi the creations of failed human transmutations, so most of them have deeply personal connections to the characters who created them. Sloth isn’t just a mindless monster anymore fueled by his desire to take a nap, it’s the manifestation of Ed and Al’s arrogance that took the face of their dead mother. Brotherhood’s homunculi are the children of Father, a living Philosopher’s Stone who isolated the vices of humans and distilled them into living creatures, the homunculi.

That makes for good characterization of your main villain, but the inherent connection is no longer there. Father is a much more compelling villain than ’03’s Dante, but the homunculi in the original also get more of a chance to shine individually. Brotherhood’s Wrath, Envy, and Pride are superior, while 2003’s Lust, Sloth, and Greed get a lot more screen time, personality, or both. Considering that, it’s just another reason why you should just watch both instead of stopping at Brotherhood.

The general writing quality of 2003 is a notch lower, but this still a studio Bones production, and the fights and presentation are still head and shoulders above most anime of the time. If you dig the older anime aesthetic, but don’t want to sacrifice the visual fidelity of modern anime, this hits that perfect sweet spot. Even if you don’t get to hit every high of Arakawa’s story, there is still more than enough here to pull you back into the world of Fullmetal Alchemist.

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Here’s your reminder that there’s never a reason to go back to a Fullmetal Alchemist movie. Never.

To be honest, I’ve been trying to write this essay for weeks, and this may be my third or fourth attempt, and I’ve finally finished. It’s just that both adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist are complex, and so are my relationships with them. Putting my feelings about them into a reasonably-sized essay was a challenge. This was initially a two-parter titled “Does Fullmetal Alchemist Deserve to be a Classic?”, but I didn’t think it was fair to compare the two without stating first that I consider them peers in quality, if not equals.

I might still write those, but I’m content now that I’ve gone to bat for the original FMA, while still paying homage to the first anime that didn’t horrifically disappoint me (cough, Death Note). I’m also content that I managed to finish an essay that was giving me real trouble. You guys will never know about the graveyard of essays that have not seen the light of day, and that’s for the best. They wouldn’t have gotten in there if they’d been worth sharing.

So if you have the time, now is the perfect opportunity to hit both Fullmetal Alchemists, though I’d personally recommend the 2003 series first if you haven’t seen either. Then again, that’s mostly for the Shou Tucker reveal, and if you’ve read this you already got spoiled on it, so watch it in whatever order you like. Either way, both are a lot more fun than I could ever spoil in a minuscule essay like this. Once of these days I might try and figure out an optimal FMA watch order, using the best of both series, but today is not that day.

If you want to see that two-parter, the best way to let me know is to like the essay, and follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress so you’ll get updated when I finally get around to it. You can also follow me on Twitter @#ExhibitionOtaku, where I shared some thoughts on FMA recently, and talk about most of the anime I’m currently watching. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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