FMA ’03 vs. FMA Brotherhood: Deeper Themes

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..
2: He believed there was still some good left in the force of alchemy.
3: He believed he could get his brother’s body back.

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?

  1. I will sit on the fence and say I like both shows equally. Brotherhood has a more satisfying ending, but I feel that the original series starts off stronger (possibly because Brotherhood wanted to fast track stuff that had already been animated previously.)

  2. The endings will of course appeal to different people, but yeah, Brotherhood’s poor pacing at the start did hurt it.

    I didn’t mention it in this post, but the original got off to a stronger start mainly because of the amount of time it spent with Ed, Winry and Al as children, which is something Brotherhood kinda glazed over. A lot of important things happen in that arc, and for an off-the-top-of-my-head example, having Winry explain her parents’ death to Hawkeye doesn’t have the same emotional impact as seeing her as a kid, crying furiously after hearing the news herself.

  3. Johnny Test said:

    In the 2009 series, the aquisition of a Philosopher’s Stone isn’t as any more meaningful as it is in the 2003 series. Alphonse just becomes the Philosopher’s Stone, and it’s treated like a tragedy. In the 2009 series, Scar doesn’t have anything to do with the Philosopher’s Stone and Alphonse has agency. The souls in the Philosopher’s Stone could never go back to what they were. They live in an excrutiating existence, but not using them is even more cruel because the destruction of their destruction of their country is at stake! When Alphonse uses the Stone, he’s letting those souls fight for what they have! It’s like an “America!” moment.

    In the 2009 series, I don’t think he ever believed in pure good and evil.

    However, he did have the belief that alchemy was good, and if the 2003 series never happened, that belief likely would’ve been shattered completely instead of partially(Nina and the Philosopher’s Stone are proof enough alchemy sucks). In the manga, the alchemy of Amestris can blocked by Father’s Philosopher’s Stone, which is partially beneath the Earth. It really isn’t hard for it to written that Father’s Philosopher’s Stone partially powers all alchemy. The author of the manga just didn’t want to repeat events.

    I actually think that in both series, the Elrics really shouldn’t get their bodies back. In the 2003 series, they had to give Ed some sort of a happy ending, but they sacrificed his character growth. He still can’t accept death for other people! That’s like the first mistake he made!

    In the 2009 series, as an atheist, I just don’t like the idea of Ed doing what God or “Truth” wants him to do.

    Greed’s sacrifice makes sense. The guy unwittingly killed his own friend and rejected his past self’s memories to alievate the pain, but Ling just wouldn’t let him do it ([Friends] will always be a part of you! …You turned your back on something you wanted! You don’t deserve to call yourself Greed!). Then because of those memories, he lashed out against Wrath and left the Homunculi, rendering him alone. At that final battle, not only did he stop rejecting the past Greed’s memories and faced his pain, but he finally outgrew his greed (which would’ve otherwise caused him to become God like Father and start a final battle ALL OVER AGAIN) and realized that he just wanted some friends (Ed and Ling). Greed isn’t treated as a Philosopher’s Stone so much as a Homunculus and a person, and Ling was technically forced into becoming Greed even if he did accept Greed completely…

    Since performing human transmutation, I would say Ed was borderline adult level already, but in the 2003 series, they went even farther in traumatizing him to the point of making him an anti-hero.

    Pride becomes a baby because that’s what he wants to be, and Edward helps him become it through alchemy. That’s why he listens to Father and tolerates Ms. Bradley despite being the most prideful thing imaginable.

    The theme is sincere. Hiromi Arakawa truly does believe that. Edward didn’t have a perfect life despite being a good person and neither did Nina(understatement of the century), but there is always something worth living for, and you need to work hard to achieve happiness.

  4. I like how in the ’03 series Edward does kill people and he does get involved in a war. It just gives a more realistic form to the ‘dog of the military’ thing going on. I don’t like that he was in such a situation, but being in such situations, that result is a great deal more realistic. It rings truer. I also like the inclusion of mental illness more, e.g. Roy Mustang has PTSD which affects him during a spar with Edward, how he breaks after the anime (shown in movie) and the effects on Rose post Liores’ Rebellion. Another big thing in the ’03 series I like is how Edward deals with ethics and temptation, as shown in the 5th Laboratory arc in which he was literally a hairsbreadth from making a philosophers stone.

    When it comes to the ’09 series, I just can’t give up Briggs, Olivia Armstrong, how the Curtis’ caught the Elrics and dragged them back to Dublith and most of all, Yao Ling. I love him and his story.

    • Well, yeah, I mean, I never said Brotherhood was a bad show. It still has a lot of enjoyable qualities to it, and the ’03 series does suffer from a noticeable lack of Olivier.

  5. Iredc said:

    THIS. Just this. Could never have said it better.
    I watched Brotherhood first because I was told to watch precisely that version, and only watched the 2003 one out of curiosity. Since I had found Brotherhood quite entertaining and espectacular, and everybody seemed to be of the opinion that it was the better one, I started the original with a lot of prejudice and bias. I simply didn’t want to like it more because I had already decided that Brotherhood NEEDED to be better.
    That was until I had to acknowledge that no. No matter how I looked at it, 2003 was the “real” version. Not real in the sense that it’s faithful to the source material, of course. Real in the sense that it’s just how this story “should” have gone, how it flows naturally given the premise: the lonely journey of two kids in seek of an elusive truth, which may be pointless in the end (and isn’t that what alchemy is about in the real world?). And not some nation-wide conspiracy to destroy a whole country; that’s what I would have expected of… I don’t know, a film about alien invasions? Of course I didn’t realize this until I could compare both versions. I suppose I was too distracted by so many ninja fights, super-powers and explosions the first time.

    I think that the difference between the two shows can be exemplified by that scene in which Izumi refuses to repair with alchemy a broken toy train for a kid, and instead uses a stick. The train may not be perfect anymore, but the end result is more beautiful: the kid learns a valuable lesson about treasuring what one has, because once lost, it may not be brought back. Brotherhood’s message, on the other hand, was that new and shiny is always better, that “perfect” is perfect. It’s like a childish regression to a simplistic mindset.
    There was something that bothered me about Brotherhood’s ending, but I couldn’t put the finger on it. And now I know what it was: this sense of triumphalism. That you can get all you want without facing the consequences, without getting your hands dirty. That once the bad guys are gone, everything is going to be perfect because we (the humans) are so good and amazing at team-work that wars won’t ever happen again. Havoc and Mustang ended up crippled, but despite the fact that they seemed to be coping well on their own and were re-building their lives, it was necessary to cure them completely with a deus-ex-machina. Because God forbids that something is not perfect, that someone didn’t come unscathed after all that, and had to learn something the hard way.
    I just can’t stand that morality. Or the hipocrisy behind some of its themes. In order for our heroes to end up as innocent as at the beginning, someone (unnamed characters that we don’t really care about) must have done the dirty work and the killing for them. Right?
    And what happened with the love between Ed and Al? The Ed of the old series would have sacrificed ANYTHING in the world to bring back his brother. The Ed of Brotherhood couldn’t even sacrifice his purity using a philosopher stone which is made of already-dead people.

  6. doozylicious said:

    Wow, just came across this analysis and it is amazing. And I agree with Iredc’s post about how the ending of brotherhood irked me and never sat well with me because of it’s inconsequential good vs evil + everyone good goes home happy; completely betrayed the journey and themes of the series.

    I always felt like brotherhoods’ plot, script, and overall delivery felt very childish and very shounen. It also always bothered me when people said brotherhood was more mature because it had more blood and profanity…
    To me, brotherhoods’ ending was similar to Clannad afterstory’s kick in the balls of an ending, incredibly pretentious and disrespectful to it’s own themes and story.

  7. I think a lot of people lean towards Brotherhood because it’s a much cleaner ending that’s easier to understand. I personally believe that the inclusion of Nazis and Hitler’s Germany towards the end was perfectly justified and foreshadowed, but it can lose a lot of people, who call out how ridiculous it sounds without really taking time to think about it. They prefer the easy, happy solution where good wins, evil gets stomped, and their OTP gets confirmed.

    Also, thanks for bringing up Iredc, I forgot to respond to that comment when it was made. I also consider ’03 to be the ‘real’ version, but that’s more about my fan theory about the series… That Brotherhood is the world as Ed wants it to be, the world that’s in line with his beliefs and his values, that he likes to fantasize about while trying to move forward in the ‘real’ world, which is presented to us in ’03.

    • Iredc said:

      Wow! I had almost forgotten that post. Just wanted to add something about CoS Nazis. It’s true that, when read in a simple summary, the idea may sound ridiculous (I thought it was super-weird when I first knew about it). And usually, when Nazis pop up in fantasy settings, they have this B-movie feel. But not in CoS. They managed to include this theme in a realistic, meaningful way. And making Hughes doppelgänger join the Nazi party was a brilliant touch. It reminds the audience that those Amestris military characters that seemed so sympathetic in the series, were working for a regime that wasn’t all that different from real-world examples, and far less sympathetic when put in a more realistic context. And the scary thought that most of people involved in Nazism were actually normal family guys like Hughes, who were just “doing their job”, and not some over-the-top, cartoony sadists with funny accents. It was a much needed punch in the gut that adds to the series’ moral ambiguity.
      Such criticism is totally absent in Brotherhood, where the fascist regime is left untouched and without criticism (Mustang is going to be the next Führer and that’s all, everyone’s happy).
      And certainly, I can’t understand how some people think that the Nazis and parallel world of FMA03 don’t make sense, but pretend at the same time that the parallel dimension inside Gluttony or those Xing characters do, because they don’t. Geez, the Xingese look like something ripped straight from Dragon Ball, I never believed they could exist in the same universe (May Chang could be very well one of those Goku’s grandchildren).

      Which leads me to the issue of FMA03 being the real version. Even before watching the original anime, I already felt that something really “strange” happened in Brotherhood at the time the characters from Xing were introduced. The plot turned suddenly too epic and big, the stage was increasingly crowded with more and more secondaries, everything becomes more shonen, more bizarre (chimeras that look like Digimon, monsters swallowing God, gates opening in the earth and sky…). It’s as if this wasn’t how the story was intended to go, as if Arakawa had scrapped her original plot about the Elrics and the dark themes (Nina, Hughes’ death) and had said “Fuck that, this is depressing, I’m going to make a Final Fantasy in manga form”. Of course, this is probably not the case and that was the story she wanted from the beginning, but I can’t help feeling that those developments of the second half simply don’t “match”.

      As for OTP confirmation, I think that Brotherhood is overwhelmingly pro-heterosexual (Ed/Winry, Al/May, Roy/Hawkeye) and ridicules gay characters (Mr. Garfield). While FMA03 took a much more ambiguous, open stance. There are implications of Ed/Winry and Ed/Rose, but also much fodder for Ed/Roy and Ed/Al, specially in the movie. And Heiderich/Ed was basically canon in the original script. I’m not surprised that FMA03 seems to have a big LGTB fanbase.

      • Thanks for adding your speculation about the involvement of nazis in the story… I think you brought up a really good point about Hughes.

        However, I didn’t really get that big of a heteronormative vs. LGBT vibe going on between the two shows. What it felt like to me was that Brotherhood took the more immature route of thinking that characters have to be romantically fulfilled to have completed arcs, whereas the 2003 version treated such developments as unimportant in the long run.

        In other words, it didn’t leave pairings open for the sake of queer interpretation, it just didn’t give two shits about whether or not characters wound up together.

  8. omanisat said:

    Been a long time since I’ve watched the show, but weren’t the Nazis a movie introduction? When Ed goes through the gate he ends up in first world war era London, not Nazi Germany.

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