Netflixing: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

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In an austere and unforgiving world such as ours, rarely does anyone get the chance for a do-over.

Even when such a do-over would be the best possible outcome, people are hesitant to make such a move. Consider Star Wars, for example.

The moment Disney obtained the rights to the franchise, their first move should have been to remake the prequels. Because it doesn’t make sense to put a new floor on the house if the foundation is cracked.

Yet that apparently did not occur to them, and they went a different way. A lot of people don’t like the end result, and others have mixed feelings about it, yet the real problem, I would argue, was not anything in the movies themselves, but the fact that the franchise was already broken when they got it. Yet they refused to repair those problems before forging onward.

Japan Shows Us the Way

Yet, rare as they are, occasionally a do-over will actually grace the world. Japan is a lot better at this than most western countries. They learned that the Dragonball Z filler episodes were a mistake, so they created Dragonball Z Kai, which removes them. They sometimes re-engineer shows to make them more cohesive, removing episodes from canon or retconning faulty storylines.

They are even known to go back and re-animate episodes of anime, to make them look more polished for the DVD release.

And while this approach has its drawbacks (look no further than the Star Wars Special Editions to see movie revisions gone wrong) it can, in the right hands, be used to repair and even enhance the viewer experience.

Take, as an example, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

A Triumphant Comeback

The original Fullmetal Alchemist anime was…a beautiful wreck.

What started with such well paced character development ended with a phoned-in explanation that didn’t make a lot of sense and was not emotionally satisfying.

Yet that was the series I watched first. I had been told, by unreliable sources, that the first series was actually the better of the two. I must conclude, therefore, that these unreliable sources had not watched FMA:B beyond the first part.

The show is divided into five parts, and the first is definitely the worst. Part 1 of FMA:B is dedicated to recapping all of the opening storylines found in the earlier series. These recaps take the form of brief, bare-bones depictions of the events, and do not serve the story well.

In the future, it may be possible to improve Fullmetal Alchemist anime further by combining the earlier episodes of FMA with everything in FMA:B from part 2 onward. As it stands now, FMA:B oddly requires the viewer to already be familiar with FMA in order to get the full experience.

However, there can be no question that FMA:B is the better series overall. A bad beginning can be overlooked, but a bad ending can not be forgiven.

The Story

Once upon a time, two boys find themselves living out a tragedy as their mother succumbs to an unknown disease.

Using the science of alchemy, which they learn partly from their estranged father’s books and partly from a stern teacher, they endeavor to bring their mother back to live by transmuting her back together from basic materials.

The process, as you already know from the earlier series, goes horribly wrong, with the older brother losing his right arm and left leg. The younger brother, likewise, loses his entire body and becomes little more than a wayward soul which gets attached to a conveniently adjacent suit of armor, allowing him to live as a kind of animated shell.

The boys, in an attempt to recover their lost body parts, decide to undergo an intense study of alchemy in the only way that is available—by joining the military.

After a number of adventures, it becomes apparent that someone is trying to stop them from attaining their goal. These are the homunculi, a mysterious race of almost-humans who serve a dark purpose.

Up until now, this is the same story in both versions of the anime. Where it differs is in who the homunculi are working for.

The Villains

In the original anime, they’re working for some old crone who selfishly wants immortality.

Dante is such a lackluster villain, with such poor motivations, that it’s easy to write her off entirely. And I do.

I am reminded of a quote by an obscure filmmaker of decades past:

The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.

A story shines with the strength of its villains, and the original FMA anime simply didn’t have a good one. Her plan was half baked. Her relationship with the protagonists (and with Hohenheim) was weak. And her sway over the homunculi was utterly inexplicable.

Brotherhood, on the other hand, gives us a far more menacing adversary, in the form of “Father”.

This baddie has already reached immortality, and is now in search of something greater. He is the embodiment of scientific inquiry into the nature of the divine, and the reasoning for his control of the homunculi is both clear and reasonable.

And the final confrontation with him is an intense battle that brings together all the various heroes to contribute in a single glorious battle for the fate of the world.

Whereas Dante met her end in an elevator…with none of the heroes present.

The Other Characters

As stated above, one of the things the original FMA does better than FMA:B is the early character development.

But that’s not to say that FMA:B doesn’t develop some of the characters better.

While Mustang, Hughes, and other military members get more attention in the original (to the detriment of the Elric brothers, even), Brotherhood gives some much needed fleshing out to Scar, Hohenheim, and others who were neglected by the earlier attempt.

All of the Homunculi, except for Lust, are better handled here than they were in FMA. Hawkeye is given her own backstory. And we get an entirely new delegation of characters from the country of Xing, who have come to Amestris hoping to find an alchemical method of saving their emperor’s life.

And, though I already mentioned Scar, I need to point out just how much better he is in FMA:B. In the original series, he felt like he had accidentally wandered in to the story from a different show. Here he is integrated far better, and has more to offer.

The Humor

One of my biggest shocks, when transitioning from the old to the new series, was how much more “cartoony” Brotherhood is than the original series.

In a lot of anime, it’s not unusual for characters to symbolically change form based upon their current emotional state, becoming “chibi” versions, or having their eyes light up with fire, or having their teeth get sharper.

These are not meant to be interpreted as literal changes to the characters physical forms, but as changes to the way they are perceived by other characters.

Yet the original FMA did not have a lot of this. It seemed to go out of its way to avoid it, whereas FMA:B used it as often as any typical anime. The difference was striking. And I feel like the latter series benefits from a better sense of humor and from not taking itself so seriously.

My Judgment

Fullmetal Alchemist:Brotherhood is a better anime and a better show than the original Fullmetal Alchemist.

Though its a shame that you have to watch the earlier series in order to truly “get” the later one.

Even with its many improvements, it’s still not my favorite anime, but it’s a solid piece of work that deserves appreciation. And the fact that Netflix gives us both versions is testament to the platform’s commitment to bringing Japanimation to a broad audience.

Give it a watch. It’s an enjoyable ride.