Neither Are Perfect: FMA 2003 vs FMA: Brotherhood

Here I am looking at a text screen to type a post that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Ever since I started watching the 2003 version, the comparisons between both series just wouldn’t leave me head. In this day and age of anime watching, a 51-episode series is a long journey and I can definitely feel that. Ten weeks of anime watching is nothing to scoff at. I am not a binge watcher, so an episode a week day is what I consider my perfect pace of watching anything with this much detail in it. It’s the kind of pace that helps me to center my thoughts better and look at a series with a more diplomatic point of view where I can see a series’ strengths and weaknesses. Ok, I admit that I am stalling. I guess I am still sorting out my thoughts on how to compare both right now. Maybe this will be edited out in post? (What do you mean this isn’t a video?)

Fine, I will just blatantly state how I feel about series here ok? To start this off, I think that both series are good. No, great. The 2003 edition of Fullmetal Alchemist is like a building built on a more then solid foundation where the architect involved was so proud, he wanted to do something extravagant to celebrate his genius. For me, that means half the great ideas in the second half of 2003 edition worked and half just flunked. Still worth watching though because all the ideas are solid.

You guys probably know how I feel about Brotherhood at this point. Especially if you read this post here. Over all, it’s a fantastic and high quality shonen story. It’s just that first set of episodes or foundational episodes are horrible, so the product ends up like the Leaning tower of Pisa for me. That means that Brotherhood is built on an emotional core that is barely there which hurts everything that happens later. Some plot elements were even skipped. Brotherhood is the fantastic shonen set piece anime and 2003 is the anime with slower, more philosophical and human story.

(Now that the cat is out of the bag, time to get into a much more focused comparison. Massive Spoiler Warnings Ahead for people that half only seen one or neither of these shows. I am assuming that each of you reading beyond this point has at least watched one of these, so Viewer digression is advised.) 

Story, Themes, and Homunculi Comparisons

 

From a macroscopic level, it can be argued that both these stories are the same. Both anime involves ancient entities in human form that lead inhuman servants called homunculi and control Amestris’ government for their own goals. Generally, each show has virtually the same cast and involve a military government that rules over a vaguely Germanic to Russian country with an iron fist. Everything can seem similar if you zoom out your microscope far enough and this is a massive example of that. The devil is in the details, as some people say. Who are these people and why do they say these things?

-Fullmetal Alchemist 2003-

To sum up the major plot elements of FMA 2003 in a gross and exaggerated way, the other overarching story is about this human named Dante who is forcing alchemists to create a Philosopher’s Stone because she doesn’t know how to. Dante is a human that thinks she is beyond humanity because of how long she has lived, but her philosopher’s stone is beginning to lose its shine so she can’t stay in other people’s bodies very long anymore without their bodies corroding at an insanely fast rate. (She can’t find the Elric brother’s father Hohenheim to make her another one, so….) She uses the homunculi as her minions to manipulate various alchemist’s destinies in a way to find out how to build the true stone. It’s horrifying and it’s human setup with a lot of pettiness behind it.

In both versions of this story, Edward and Alphonse Elric perform forbidden human alchemy in order to bring back their dead mother with deadly results and eventually go on the road to search for the Philsopher’s Stone to bring their bodies back. I am going to make the argument that 2003 includes the forbidden alchemy part more than Brotherhood. Why? Because the homunculi come from human alchemy. The brothers and many alchemist’s worst and human moments create horrifying monsters that used to be human that are almost impossible to be kill. Each homunculi looks like or has traits of the person they used the alchemy for. Thematically, that is a fantastic idea. I don’t think the show executed that as well as it could have because it feels written on the fly, but A-Plus for ideas. Especially since the Homunculi aren’t as well thought out or as useful as they could be. Still, I love what 2003 was going for.  

-Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood-

Brotherhood is a little simpler from a story and thematic perspective, but the execution is a lot better. Probably because the anime had some source material to guide where it’s going. The main villain’s name is Father, the homunculus that was created by Ed and Al’s father Hohenheim thousands of years ago. Each individual homunculi is split off of father’s personality in order to do his bidding. That bidding? Creating bloodshed in specific parts of the country (because it’s shaped like a circle), so Father can become god.

That doesn’t mean that Brotherhood doesn’t have complexity behind it. For one thing, Father’s plan has many layers behind it. For another, each of the Homunculi carries the aspects and personality of the sins with them. They are evil beings set out for destruction of mankind with some more human aspects on the same to make them interesting. Also, the very aspect that each homunculi dies in an ironic manner connected to their sins characterizes them even more in a way that connects to all of us. Especially the characters in Brotherhood. To me, Brotherhood is the very definition of aim small, miss small.

Main Character Comparisons

Once again, from a gross macroscopic level, you can call 2003 and Brotherhood virtual the same. Besides characters that only appear in either series that I will discuss in the next section, most of their casts have the same name and similar character designs. What is even better? All the characters essentially start off in the same place, but where they end up is very different. Sometimes, having two adaptations could be interesting. When comparing 2003 and Brotherhood, I am only going to examine Colonel Mustang and the Elric Brothers, because their arcs and how they interact with each other show off in better detail how each of these adaptations are different.

-Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood-

FMA Brotherhood is centered on these two young, intelligent alchemist brothers by the name of Edward and Alphonse Elric traveling around the country named Amestris in search of the mystical item called the Philosopher’s Stone. Edward Elric is the short- and hot-tempered protagonist who has an arm and a leg replaced by Automail (prosthetic metal arms) and Alphonse is the tall, younger brother who is a suit of armor. They got this way, because the performed an illegal act of human transmutation in order to bring back their mother who died. By acquiring the philosopher’s stone, they hope to get their bodies back to normal. That’s the end game for them. To be honest, that’s about all she wrote for these characters. It’s not like they don’t grow more than that, because each of them does. It’s just that more of Brotherhood is defined by how they interact with different characters then growth. The well characterized brothers are propelled forward by that fact instead, because this is a more shonen like series compared to the 2003 version.

In Brotherhood, Roy Mustang is a very emotional character. Most of the time he is very thoughtful character who plans out every single movement he does anything, but there are times when every single bit of his emotions let loose and he is as uncontrolled as the flames he makes. Especially when he fights against the Homunculi. That doesn’t make him a bad character at all. If anything, it makes Colonel Mustang more multi-faceted then anything. At the same time, him being emotional hurts his character too. There are a lot of moments where I just can’t believe that he is an officer in the military. The Elric Brothers and Roy Mustang feel like they are on an equal playing field and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Well, it does on the wish fulfillment shonen battle kind of level. It doesn’t in real life applications, because Colonel Mustang has years of experience and fought in a war. They shouldn’t be on the same emotional level at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be so picky about it.

-Fullmetal Alchemist 2003-

Everything I wrote The Elric Brothers two paragraphs ago is still the same here. Their names are the same, they personalities are the same, their bodies are the same, etc. Here is where the differences start, the character arcs. I mean, they start out searching for the Philosopher’s stone for their own, selfish purposes no matter what destruction that caused other people. As that journey goes longer and longer and longer, the more people they find in miserable positions because of it. Suddenly, the question of whether they should continue gets thrown around. Towards the end of the series, the two brothers finally consider that nobody should ever have that power of the philosopher’s stone. The young children trying to better themselves grew up and are now finally considering the consequences for their actions. Especially after they obtained what they are looking for in a bad, Monkey Paw’s sort of way. That’s a big deal.

Colonel Mustang is a large departure from his Brotherhood edition. He’s a lot smarter, thoughtful, emotionally grounded, and knows what he must do in order to achieve his goals. Why isn’t he emotional you might ask? Because he had his emotional break down after the Ishvalan war years ago. I mean, he almost committed suicide. After that moment, he found his direction and lead his life to eventually become the Fuhrer of the entire nation. What’s even better? He sees himself in the Elric Brothers and he tries his best to guide and protect them when he can. Mustang is that father figure that knows to be stern and knows when to be real with the Elric Brothers when telling them not to repeat his mistakes. He takes care of the Elric Brothers and that sort of arrangement makes a lot of sense to me.

Characters that don’t appear in the other adaptation

Another aspect that sells what either series is about are the characters that only appear in each adaptation. Why? Because they are another element in either 2003 or Brotherhood that adds a unique spice and makes each series what they are. Let’s talk about them.

-Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood-

Here is the thing about these additional characters in this anime. They are not side characters, they are main characters that add a lot more to each series in a lot of ways. Mei, Ling, and Ling’s ninjas crew add a more international feel to Brotherhood which makes the story feel bigger. I mean, they are the connection to Xing, the country to Amestris’ east and the place that alchemy originally came from. Considering that that main villain of the show comes from ancient Xing (spoilers), these great characters need to be there. Also, Ling has some interesting interactions with Greed. That’s all I am going to say.

And then there is General Olivier Armstrong, Major Armstrong’s older sister. I feel like if I didn’t mention her in this post, somebody would be out for my blood. She is insanely strong, charismatic, and is very refined and hard in her leadership skills. I know that I am taking a leap here, but she plays a lot of the roles that Mustang did in the 2003 version, by being the face of the rebellion on Central and many other things. I’m glad she showed up to be the adult in the room.

-Fullmetal Alchemist 2003-

The original characters that show up in 2003 are side characters. Besides showing up in some capacity in the later half the story, but they don’t add much over all. I mean, taking out the false Elric Brothers and the attractive Clara from the series wouldn’t have affected what was going on in this version of the story at all. What I am saying is there impact is puddle deep instead of ocean deep like in Brotherhood. All of that is ok though. 2003 already has a whole cast of complex and interesting main characters that have more time to interact with each other because of the cast’s smaller size.

The Philosopher’s Stones

Since both shows are about searching for the Philosopher’s Stone, this needs to be talked about at least a little bit. I mean, this is the center of both show’s plots and motivations for our two protagonist brothers.

-Fullmetal Alchemist 2003

If the 2003 version had yet another major flaw, it’s how often the philosopher’s stone is brought up. It shows up a lot. There are tons of fake versions, apparently Philosopher’s Stones were used in the Ishvalan by alchemists, Homunculi randomly have philosopher’s stones to feed other Homunculi, and the final Philosopher’s Stone after a lot of crazy things happened. There wouldn’t be a problem with this if they were a little more well defined. The first half of this version did a fantastic job of saying “these are fake”, but once the Homunculi pull out stones out of nowhere and say “many lives were sacrificed making these”, I can’t help but question it. Where did those come from? Why would the villains need to make a philosopher’s stone if already have some real ones? That just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. 

-Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood-

The only thing that I can say about Brotherhood with this aspect is that the real philosopher’s stone doesn’t come into play until it matters. There are plenty of fake editions like the one in the priest’s ring in Leore, Dr. Marco’s false philosopher’s stone that isn’t solid, and so many other things. You know what? Brotherhood is better for it because it’s a more thematic coherent series.

Art and Animation

I am just going to cover this one in a small amount of detail, because I think both series look and move fantastically.

-Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood-

Brotherhood looks fantastic and very shoneny with its bright color palette and well animated and springy choreographed action scenes. Everything is well detailed when it needs to be and still frames most of the other times to save the time for when the animators truly come to play.

-Fullmetal Alchemist 2003-

On the opposite corner of this world, 2003’s color palette is more muted which suits the more realistic mood and feel that this edition is going for. It also helps that there isn’t as much action in 2003. When the action is done, it’s incredibly well grounded because you can feel every single movement that happens on camera. I can’t reiterate how much different of a show it is then that.

Conclusions

In the end, I still love both. Brotherhood is an amazing shonen action series with great characters that have outstanding and fleshed out personalities along with some awesome themes to back it up. It is still on my list of perfect shonen series. The world is also bigger in Brotherhood, which it uses fully to it’s advantage. I still think I lean in the 2003 direction when it come to choosing a side. It is a lot more human and has more of the complex themes that I am looking for in an anime series. Even if 2003 was shooting for the moon and missed in a lot of aspects, it is still the more ambitious piece of media in this scenario and that it gets more points. I still recommend watching both though. Maybe 2003 before Brotherhood, but I did it the other way around and that still worked for me. Maybe 2003’s beginning was a little slow, but it all paid off in the end.

What I wonder about is what kind of world would we live in if Studio Bones waited a few years before making the original and we only got one adaptation? Maybe Studio Bones wouldn’t even exist anymore because they went bankrupt? Who knows? I think having one master edition of FMA would be interesting to consider though. Especially when taking the parts that Brotherhood missed and attaching 2003’s version wouldn’t work. They are too thematically and tonally different for that to work. I guess we get the massive Fullmetal Alchemist war today and that is something else isn’t it? I guess I have a side or dog in the fight now.

Please note that I didn’t talk about either of the series’ movies because I didn’t want to. The Sacred Star of Milos is just a side story for Brotherhood and I feel like 2003 would have been much better without The Conqueror of Shamballa. That’s my not so hot take from the day. I don’t think that movies work for the Fullmetal Alchemist series at all. It’s too complex for it.


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15 thoughts on “Neither Are Perfect: FMA 2003 vs FMA: Brotherhood

  1. I’ve always felt that both need to be watched. The original does a better job early on of establishing the characters and setting, but the ending isn’t great as it just seems to get lost and run out of time. Brotherhood rushes the opening acts but is very fun but if I hadn’t seen the original I don’t know that I’d have gotten as into the characters from the way they are introduced in Brotherhood. I do however love the way the story develops and concludes in it.
    So yeah, neither are perfect but they are both pretty good. Brotherhood remains my favourite but again I probably only enjoyed it as much because I’d seen the original.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As someone who loves the manga, I’ve never been able to get into both. Neither could emotionally involve me in the story for long enough, but I did feel like 2003 did a much better job than Broho adapting the first few chapters- it really embraced the worldbuilding aspect. And the way they reshuffled the timeline was cool too. Heck, the only thing stopping me from watching 2003 is my deep attachment to the original. Strangely though, I feel the opposite is with Brotherhood- I feel like I’m just crawling through a clumsier, visually inferior version of the manga. But it’s nice that there are 2 adaptations of my favourite manga, that are both well liked and discussed in the community. And it’s nice to see someone discuss them both so well, this was a really insightful summary 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for bringing a different perspective to this conversation. I haven’t touched much of the manga, so I didn’t think about how a manga reader would think about the two.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brotherhood is the overall better one, but the first 2003 series had some really cool ideas. Hughes’s story is also done much better in the first anime, while it’s rushed in the brotherhood version (in fact brotherhood itself is kinda meh until they get into manga only stuff)

    They both have their strengths and weakness, and while yes Brotherhood is overall the stronger one, dismissing the first series because it “isn’t canon” robs viewers of the series that…let’s face it..was the one that made people fall in love with FMA in general.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post comes at a convenient time for me, because I watched Brotherhood for the first time only a few months ago. I was curious how it compared to the 2003 show, but unfortunately my memory of things I watched 15 years ago isn’t that great. I fact, I don’t even remember someone called Dante…

    I passed on Brotherhood when it first came out, having no real interest in watching it. I did read the manga for a while, but I stopped about midway, at what was probably the weakest point in the story. The Xing crew had just shown up, but they weren’t very interesting at first. And there wasn’t much background on the homuncili yet. This is something you brought up as well, but I liked that the homunuli in 2003 were the result of human transmutation. It made them creepier, and gave them a personal connection to the protagonists that was kind of missing in Brotherhood.

    I’m not sure what the best approach would’ve been for the beginning of Brotherhood. It was definitely rushed, but I don’t think it needed to adapt *everything*. A few episodes more would’ve probably helped, at least to fix the most egregious problems (if I recall correctly, Yoki was never actually introduced, and Hughes’ fate really didn’t have the same impact). On the other hand, I’m pretty sure 2003 had a lot of episodic side adventures, which I’m not a fan of either unless they add extra depth to the world or characters.

    I think I probably enjoyed Brotherhood a little more, but it’s impossible to really say until I watch 2003 again. Despite its rough start, Brotherhood had very strong pacing, and it didn’t feel like any episode was superfluous. But even then, I think Brotherhood saved too much for the end. The climax of the series takes up a whole season and has to tie up so many loose ends that it gets bogged down. For example, the Sloth fight was pretty good on its own, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was taking time away from several other more important events. The actual ending was great, and did exactly what it needed to do thematically, but it took a while to get there.

    In your bit on the Elric brothers in Brotherhood, you say they’re looking for the philosopher’s stone in order to restore their bodies. I think it’s also worth mentioning that they’re determined not to take the easy way out, and that they won’t save themselves if it will hurt others in the process. Unless I’m misremembering, they acted like that from the beginning. In this way they (apparently?) differ from the Elrics in the 2003 version. It’s probably also the reason they don’t get a lot of growth throughout the series: they already started with a lot more depth than a typical shounen protagonist. They’re consistent in their principles, they suffer for it, and ultimately they’re rewarded for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think your analysis on the series is better then mine. I think you’re right about the Elric brothers in Brotherhood. That change means a lot to the store series as a whole.

      Like

  5. What an intricately written comparative analysis of these two excellent shows! As a completionist, I always do my research before tackling a massive franchise with many different additions and adaptations. I usually go for release order, even if fans recommend one over another. And boy, am I glad I did that with FMA. Each series differs on entirely different scales. As you’ve gone into depth with, they also vary tonally, which is a big factor when it comes to ambiance, spirit, and thematic resonance.

    Having watched it all, I can only recommend starting with 2003 if you have the time, then hitting up Brotherhood, for more FMA is ALWAYS a good thing, even in the case of the weird sequel movies. It’s such a fascinating universe layered by production history and storyline variance, and both were written with so much heart that it would be a shame to skip either of them.

    Really like what you’ve done in this post, Scott! I always wanted to do a comparative piece on FMA, but it seems you’ve already gone and done the work for me!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this post FMAB is one of my favourite animes! I have yet to watch the 2003 FMA original but it’s on Netflix and I want to give it a chance! My friend says that it’s terrible but you’ve given me hope! Thank you, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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