[My thoughts on Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, with some spoilers.]
The first time I watched Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA), it was the “original” animation released in 2003 and I had no idea at the time that the story had deviated substantially from what the manga was releasing. I watched it, enjoyed it, cried at the conclusion, and that was that.
Sometime later, I found out that there was another adaptation, FullMetal Alchemist Brotherhood (FMAB), more faithful to the source material and eventually sat down to give it a try. I’m really glad I did because FMAB was fantastic. It was, simply put, an amalgamation of everything that I love about anime – a wonderful balance of fascinating, funny and fun.
What surprised me, at the time, was that the two versions were starkly distinct experiences. Yes, they had a similar setting and premise: both versions tell the tale of Edward and Alphonse Elric – brothers who are trying to regain what they had lost through the “science’” of Alchemy in an unstable country run by questionable military figures. The similarities don’t extend much beyond that. I won’t say that one is superior to the other; both versions have their strengths and weaknesses. I will say, however, that I personally enjoyed FMAB a whole lot more than its predecessor, and it has all to do with the plot.
FMAB had a thoroughly riveting plot. I fell in love with the story the moment it started deviating from the 2003 version, introducing a conspiracy on a far larger scale and raising the stakes while chucking a bit of mystery at the audience. You see, I have a weakness for mystery and any story that has unanswered questions is bound to grab my attention. Of course the mystery has to be significant, well-constructed and tied to the overarching storyline, and there have to be some revelations along the way. This was well-executed in FMAB.
It was so exciting to watch the good guys, namely the sneaky Roy Mustang and his loyal subordinates, puzzle out the identities and origins of the evil forces governing their country, while fending off and outwitting said forces. I felt that a lot of the emotion in the story was captured by these scenes, more than the ones that focussed on the brotherly bond between Edward and Alphonse.
I also enjoyed the comedy in the story. I rarely find serious shows appealing and I can usually appreciate jokes (even if they are lame) and running gags as long as they are consistent with the plot and characterisation. On that account, I thought FMAB was pretty funny. There were the expected jokes about Ed’s height as well as the mortal peril he’s usually in when dealing with repairs for his automail. Then there were the new characters such as Ling Yao, who also contributed quite a bit to the comedy (and later on to the plot). Altogether, I felt that the tone of the story was balanced because of the well-timed comedy, making it all the more fun to watch.
In addition, I like how the story tied Edward and Winry together. It wasn’t a flashy love story and one has to squint to see any romance, but I like their relationship nonetheless. Without an overdose of emotions to complicate things, we get to see that they’re just very good friends who can end up as a much more than that. Of course, this also led to the best thing about FMAB – a happy ending – one that the brothers (and the audience) truly deserve after all that had happened. And although it may sound rather formulaic, I don’t think there’s a happier ending than watching our protagonist defeat the bad guys, save the people he cares about, marry the girl he’s in love with and have some kids.
While its well-crafted plot definitely secures FMAB a spot on my list of top five anime, I will readily admit that the show had its shortcomings.
It was less sentimental than the 2003 version, for one. Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing because I do prefer punches, jokes and thrills to tears and drama, but I was expecting a bit more feeling from FMAB because the 2003 version killed me with all the feels. It could have had something to do with the music. Compared to the soulful music in the 2003 version, FMAB just felt like a mash-up of sounds. It was hard for me to conjure up certain emotions without the right trigger music (cue: Bratja).
Of course, it could also be due to the pacing, which I think is another major issue with FMAB (in the earlier episodes). It started off like a bullet train, speeding through the places that the previous version had already covered. In fact the 2003 version did a far better job covering the first couple of episodes compared to Brotherhood, because it took the time to build up the characters and get the audience invested in the circumstances of these people. One key example is the transmutation of Nina and Alexander into the Chimera. I was absolutely wrecked when I watched the scene for the first time in the earlier version. The Brotherhood equivalent of that episode failed to hit the same intensity. I suppose the shock factor had worn off somewhat, but it also had to do with how much it was rushed. Fortunately, the pacing slows down to acceptable after the first few episodes.
Then there’s that moment in the climactic fight where the baddie absorbs “God” to become the final boss. I know it’s in a made-up world with made-up rules, but seriously, that whole part just felt so crippled and contrived, throwing into confusion the notion of divinity in the FMAB universe and dragging out a battle that was already getting too long. I suppose we can’t take super-powered villains and extended fight scenes out of shonen anime/ manga and eventually, watching Edward punch the super-powered baddie made up for some the nonsense.
Apart from these however, FMAB was a pretty fantastic show, worth every minute of the binge. In fact, if I had a checklist of all the things that I look forward to in an anime, FMAB is one of the few shows that would hit every single criteria. I’ve watched it a couple of times and I’m always happy that I gave it a shot. If you haven’t, you might want to. If you have, feel free to leave your thoughts on it (or the 2003 version) here!