In 2003, the world was presented with what would soon become one of the most beloved anime of all time: Fullmetal Alchemist, the story of a young state alchemist who was trying to make his way through the world in an attempt to one day regain his younger brother’s body, which was obliterated in an alchemical accident years prior. It took the world by storm, and was considered by many to be the greatest anime of all time… And for six long years, it’s only serious competition came from Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and a handful of other shows that had also achieved both critical and commercial success.
But in 2009, a new version of the story was released, under the title Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, and it promised to be more true to the source manga than it’s predecessor, which diverged away from it’s adaptive roots in the early stages. Ever since then, FMA fans have faced one impossible dilemma:
Which series is better? The 2003 classic, or the newer retelling?
There are a lot of people on both sides of this debate. Fans of Brotherhood state that they prefer it because it has a much happier ending, and is truer to the original manga. And if that’s what you’re looking for, fine. But it’s when they say it’s better written that I begin to disagree. But then again, how does one judge writing? What metric does one follow when comparing literary quality between two works? There are many perspectives on this, but today, I’ll be focusing on the one that’s most important to me. I’m going to focus on which one has a better message and tighter themes. There will be spoilers beyond this point.
There are several themes running through this series, but the one with the most relevance to the story and plot is the theme of Naivety… Or, to be more specific, FMA is a cautionary tale about blind faith. One of the unwritten rules of the FMA universe is that if you believe in something that you don’t fully understand, you’re going to be devastated when the curtain gets pulled back and the truth behind it is revealed.
Brotherhood adapts more closely from the manga, but there’s one aspect of it that the ‘03 version adapted better; It, like the manga, wastes no time in establishing this theme. That is to say, they don’t bother forcing out some pointless Ice Alchemist episode. The first story you get is the Liore story arc, which is by far the most literal exploration of this idea. A civilization believes a lie told to them by a fraudulent priest who’s using a fake Philosopher’s stone to pretend he can create miracles. One particular young woman, Rose, believes this man can resurrect her deceased boyfriend… Not only do both of these beliefs turn out to be wrong, the truth behind them turns out to be horrifying.
We’re then shown Ed’s backstory, which is the first in a long line of instances in which Ed will have to face this theme. As a child, Ed believed that Alchemy was a miraculous force that could do anything you wanted it to, so he used it to try and bring his mother back to life… Only to bring back a disfigured monster in her place, and sacrifice his brother’s body(as well as his own right arm and left leg) in the process.
But as important as this event may have been, Ed’s naivety had not all been lost, nor had his innocence. He still believed alchemy to be a force of good, and that people would be treated by fate according to their deeds. The only thing his previous folly had taught him was that HE had been punished for stepping onto forbidden terrain. But then he met the Tucker family. Nina and her dog Alexander were innocent and pure, and had never hurt anyone… And Nina’s father was a State Alchemist! What could go wrong to them?
Pushed to the point of desperation, Shou Tucker used his alchemy to fuse Nina and Alexander into one individual creature, proving to Ed that Alchemy could be used for evil. Nina was soon killed by Scar, proving to him that not only could terrible things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, but also that no matter how good at alchemy he became, he couldn’t save everyone or undo every evil. Even as a state alchemist, he was still powerless in many ways.
But that was okay, as long as he could obtain the Philosopher’s stone, which he believed to be the one thing that could get him the power to overcome fate and perform miracles… Except that, as he eventually discovered, it takes a large amount of human lives to create just one stone. In order to gain the power he needed to save people, he needed to kill a lot of people. But he decided that he’d find a way to obtain the stone without sacrificing any lives… Or that at the very least, he could get his brother’s body back without obtaining it at all.
And this is where the two shows diverge in their exploration of this theme.
In neither story is Ed forced to make a stone himself… This isn’t a choice he has to make, which could easily become a weakness in his development. how does each story deal with this? In the 2003 version, Alphonse Elric was forced to not only witness the creation of a stone first hand, but to BECOME the stone. It cost an entire city, and hundreds of lives, both soldiers and Ishbalans alike… And like Al, the audience had to witness it, making the cost of this miracle as real to us as possible. It was made primarily by Scar, a character who was created to portray the darker reflection of Ed’s arc, thus it felt thematically appropriate to see him sacrifice his life to bring the stone to existence. Ed didn’t make the stone, but the point wasn’t that he had a choice to make… It was that he wasn’t there to make the choice, and his brother had to suffer without him.
This is a huge defeat for Ed, as it shook not only his belief in the purity of alchemy, but his belief in himself. How is the acquisition of a Philosopher’s stone handled in Brotherhood? Ed and Al are handed a pre-made stone at no expense to themselves. Sure, some people died to make it at one point, but they’re not people we ever meet, nor is this a tragedy that they have to face. The toughest decision they have to make is whether or not to let their sacrifice be in vain. It’s easier, it’s cleaner, it means less. But does this make the 2003 version better than Brotherhood? Does a kids’ show require depth to be of high quality?
Well, I have two examples of this; The first is the critical backlash against the recent theatrical adaptation of The Lorax, which… Like Brotherhood… Ignored a complex ending that challenged the viewer in favor of a happy ending that swept all negativity under the rug so it’s audience would come away from it in a better mood. Compared to the original book… As well as the TV special… The film felt hollow and insincere. My other example is Sonic the Hedgehog, which had two cartoons out in the nineties… One of which was a stupid show with no stakes or continuity and a weird thing about chili dogs, while the other one had a more mature story and actual consequences. Even as a child, I preferred the latter.
But what about the ending, you say? “Nazis! Freaking Nazis! That’s the stupidest thing imaginable!” Well, yeah, throwing Nazis into the ending was logically stupid, and not very original either. But thematically, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only does it fit the intense Nazi imagery and parallels throughout the series, but it was the most crucial element of Ed’s development.
At that point in the story, Ed had three beliefs left.
1: He believed in pure good and pure evil, and that one could defeat the other..
His first belief was shattered during his fight with Envy, when it was revealed that Envy was originally his half brother… A deceased child who Hoenheim and Dante tried to bring back to life long before Ed was born. Up until then, Ed thought Envy was pure evil, the arrogant demon who killed Maes Hughes. In truth, Envy wasn’t just his own flesh and blood, but a homunculus who never asked for his torturous existence, whose motivation and disdain for the human race were beyond understandable. Good and evil aren’t clear cut… One of FMA 03’s other unwritten rules is that everybody, no matter who they work for, has a different desire that’s dictating their actions. It’s in this moment of disbelief that Envy manages to kill Ed, who wakes up on the other side of the gate, in Nazi Germany.
It’s then revealed that Alchemy isn’t some magical force of purity… It’s supplied by the souls of people who’ve died in an alternate universe, a revelation that had been ingeniously foreshadowed by the unforgivable cost of a Philosopher’s stone. So at that point, it dawned on Ed that he hadn’t avoided using alchemy at the cost of human lives… He’d been doing just that all along. But just like with every other belief he’d lost, he left it behind, pushed forward and soldiered on, because he hadn’t lost sight of the one belief and desire that was most important to him… No matter what, he WOULD get his brother’s body back. Nothing else had to matter. He would overcome any hardship and adapt to every harsh truth of life he may uncover if it meant he could achieve that one thing.
And so, he used the stone only once… To bring his brother’s body back, and as a sacrifice for this, he allowed himself to be sent to the other side of the gate, giving each boy the perfect resolution. Alphonse was finally allowed to have his body back, and Ed wound up living in a world where the Alchemy that he had believed in all his life didn’t exist, and could no longer deceive him. Then the movie happened, and they wound up in that world together. Yeah, it wasn’t a great movie, but it at least did THAT right.
Brotherhood loses track of this theme about halfway through, and focuses instead on world-building and a bunch of random ideas… To it’s credit, most of these ideas do work, but there’s very little meaning or depth to any of it, creative though they may have been, and it pays the price for this at the ending, where it turns into the most fanficky thing imaginable. The ultimate good faces the ultimate evil in a fistfight, and with a little help from Greed… Who, it turns out, was ‘greedy for friendship’ all along(*gag*), Ed wins the day, and all the good characters get their happily-ever-afters. The Elric Brothers achieve their goals in the end, but they never have to get their hands dirty to achieve it. In terms of character development, they come out feeling just as innocent as they were when the story began. In the original series, Ed feels way more like an adult in the end.
No, I have no idea why Al loses all of his memories in the end… As far as I’m concerned, that’s just as confusing as Pride being turned into a baby in Brotherhood. Somebody please explain either one to me.
Now, what does ‘fanficky’ mean? It basically means that instead of giving a character the ending they should have, or that they deserve, you give them the ending you want them to have… This is why a character like Scar is allowed to live, despite the fact that as the darker reflection of Ed’s journey, it was thematically important for him to die and show us just how that journey could go wrong. This is also how characters like Yoki and Dr. Marco were able to survive, despite not being important to the story. This is also how the Philosopher’s stone is used to fix Mustang’s eyesight, despite the fact that using a stone to fix the sacrifice you made for a human transmutation is impossible, creating a gaping plothole.
This is how we get a colossal blunder like the confirmed pairing of Ed and Winry. I already went over this in my Worst Anime romances list, but to add upon that, romance was never an important aspect of Ed’s story, and the huge time skip between his confession and the shot of them with children in the end credits is solid proof of just how little effort the writers wanted to invest in making that romance relate in any way to the plot. But hey, relevance and writing doesn’t matter, nor does the interesting shift in dynamic that their dating would create… It’s just another item on the ‘make the fans happy’ checklist.
But overall, the difference in the two shows comes down to the message they settle on at the end. In Brotherhood, the message is that if you’re a good person who believes in himself and does the right thing, everything will work out for you in the end, and you’ll live happily ever after. It’s the theatrical version of The Lorax. It’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It’s a happy, easy conclusion that’s meant to make the audience feel good about themselves, lack of honesty or sincerity aside.
The message of the 2003 show is that being a good person and believing in yourself isn’t enough… Life is harsh, it’s unfair, and right and wrong are never perfectly clear cut. You will face challenges, no matter who you are, and in order to overcome them, you’ll have to grow and adapt to them, as they won’t adapt to you. This is a far more honest and important message, and one that more people will find relevant to their lives, even if it is being explored by a shrimpy alchemist and a walking suit of armor. And through it’s consistency and clever foreshadowing, I also believe it to be the better written of the two.
But then again, that’s just one perspective. What do you think?