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Manga vs. Anime: Fullmetal Alchemist

by Rose Bridges,

For every popular anime based on a manga, there's the age-old question: which version is better? This is especially true with any anime that diverges significantly from its source material. Some of the best surprises can happen when the adaptation exceeds or at least stands alongside its source material as its own thing. That's why Fullmetal Alchemist remains one of the most contentious "which version is best?" debates within anime fandom. Both versions come from strong creative voices and appeal to different audiences.

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a pretty big fan of the first anime adaptation, but I also understand why so many people love the heck out of Hiromu Arakawa's original manga. So consider this a guide to figuring out which version is the Right FMA For You. (For the sake of this article, since Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is more or less the exact same story as the manga, I'm going to focus on comparisons between the manga and the first anime from 2003.)

Why The Manga is Better

Worldbuilding and Scope

The first anime does a lot of streamlining of both the cast and worldbuilding. The characters it does retain sometimes have more detailed motivations and backstories than their manga counterparts, but the overall story does lose that grand scope and "cast of thousands" appeal that draw so many people to epic fantasy. While the anime hints at larger parts of its world, we never really get to see them.

The manga shows you its entire world, from Xing to the Northern Wall of Briggs. With each new area, you get more characters with roles to play in the final plot. Each of their stories tell us more about their universe and how alchemy works in it. Think about if Game of Thrones left out some big but non-essential location, like the Iron Islands. If a large part of Fullmetal Alchemist's appeal lies in the scope and variety of its world and the people within it, the manga is the better version for you.

Art Style

I found Hiromu Arakawa's distinctive character designs very charming. Those round faces endeared the cast more to me and gave the story more levity in its darker moments. By contrast, while the first anime has a lot of visual standout moments, mostly through its use of color and lighting, there's a lot of sloppy animation and rough-edged design work. Early 2000s digipaint production has not aged well, and even as an enormous fan of that series, it can still be a stumbling block when re-watching. The visuals are stronger and more cohesive in the manga and the Brotherhood anime, which features fight scene animation from Studio Bones at the height of their powers.

Tighter and Grander Plotting

Creating one big epic plot where everything fits together is clearly the focus of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga. It's very successful at creating a large-scale puzzle where all the pieces slowly fit into place as the story winds down. This is especially true considering the sheer size of its world and cast: just about every major character gets a part to play in the big finale. If seeing your favorite heroes and villains engaged in an giant sweeping battle is important for you, you'll find a lot to enjoy about the manga throughout, but especially in its final volumes.

Brighter and Lighter

The manga maintains a lighter tone throughout than its anime adaptation. In a fantasy war story where everything slowly builds to a big confrontation, things might get a little too dark by the time we reach that final destination. You sometimes forget about the light and happiness that brought you to that world in the first place. The first anime falls into this trap sometimes, but the manga never does. Even when Arakawa can't put levity into the story itself, she always keeps it up in the omake at the end of each volume. She can put a humorous spin on even the worst villains and their actions.

Why The Anime is Better

Moral Complexity

The manga includes some sympathetic villains for sure, but you're never unsure of where you should stand. Even the story's "anti-heroes" are all fully turned over to the heroes' side by the end, upholding beliefs in the sanctity of all life, the worthlessness of revenge, and the power of friendship. All the heroes get their darker sides ironed out by the narrative and never go back once they reach their own catharsis. The villains who remain evil are mostly inhuman monsters or sociopathic humans.

That's a perfectly valid way of writing morality that works for the kind of story the manga tells, but it doesn't reflect human nature in the real world. By contrast, the anime adaptation's villains have more understandable motivations, based in more human backstories. Anti-heroes aren't so easily wooed to the heroes' side, and the audience is often left unsure who to agree with. The anime fleshes out everyone's point of view, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. The Fullmetal Alchemist anime has enough patience for every character's struggle to show you all sides of the story, even though it's smaller in scope.

Political Relevance and Social Commentary

Both versions of Fullmetal Alchemist were inspired by real-world history and politics, but the anime is much more directly political. It was made when the USA's war with Afghanistan and Iraq was at the center of world affairs, so director Seiji Mizushima and head writer Shō Aikawa channeled their frustration at this conflict into the anime, leading to some downright prescient predictions about the future in the show. Much of the series deals with issues of war, racism, imperialism, colonialism, and many characters explicitly challenge the attitudes of others on these topics.

If you prefer anime fantasy as a form of escapism, this intensity can be a drawback, but it was a big part of what drew me into the series as a teenager and keeps me coming back to it now. While the show is grounded in the time it was made, its events are inspired by many different parts of history, so its ideas remain universal. Either way, it has a lot to give anime fans looking for stories with real-world significance.

Stronger Characterization and Theme

In the manga, it often feels like everyone has an "endgame" characterization. There is one central problem that separates each person from the best versions of themselves, and once they figure it out, they might never struggle with it again. This is a useful way of building a large number of positive character arcs into a long-running graphic novel series, but the first anime has a more realistic take on human behavior. Characters struggle with their flaws over and over as they encounter tough times throughout their lives. That isn't to say that people don't grow, change, or improve over time, but it's rarely without pitfalls along the way. As a coming-of-age story, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime more honestly reflects the ways people might grow up.

The anime also features a more open-ended conclusion than the manga, but it fulfills the central themes of the series and addresses all the complicated moral questions its main characters face. A more neatly-plotted or happier ending would have flown in the face of this version's ideas, and that's why I find the way the anime's ending completely satisfying. For some people, the plot is the most important part of a story. For others, satisfying characterization and themes take precedent. If you find yourself in that second group, you might find more to love about the anime ending.

The Music

While it's a little unfair to compare it with a silent manga, I think this aspect of the anime is too important not to mention. Michiru Oshima's score is rich and diverse, perfectly matched to each character and event in adaptation. It makes many scenes, like tragic flashbacks or shocking reveals, more emotionally resonant. The music of Fullmetal Alchemist has had a powerful impact on fans, and people are still making remixes and covers of "Bratja" on YouTube over a decade later. The first anime's soundtrack is a standout part of its very special alchemy.

Can You Switch Between Versions?

This is a common suggestion from the people who like the anime's faster pace in the beginning, but dislike its darker anime-original second half. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. It's ostensibly the same story up until about the halfway point, so you might as well just switch off there. Unfortunately, doing this will just leave you horribly confused. The first anime sets up its eventual drastic differences very early. Within the first 13 episodes alone, it introduces several important characters who never show up in the manga (Lyra) or do show up in a completely different form and role with the same name (Sloth). It also hints at important revelations that do not apply to the manga (like villains' origin stories). Newbies who switch versions halfway will be frustrated by setups for revelations that never come, before getting blindsided by other reveals that were never set up for them.

It's a perfectly fine way to watch the series on a repeat viewing, or if you have the patience to be briefed on all the differences by someone who's intimately familiar with both versions. If you're a true FMA virgin though, you need to pick one version and stick with it.

Final Results

The Fullmetal Alchemist manga is an incredibly strong example of shonen action-adventure, some of the best in the genre. If you love stuff like My Hero Academia, where larger-than-life figures give inspirational speeches about heroic values, and clear villains are defeated by the end in epic fashion, the manga will sate your desire for that and then some—since it also occasionally dabbles in bigger issues.

The first Fullmetal Alchemist anime has more to offer those who like a challenge. It stands alongside other "groundbreaking" series that address social and political issues with broad audience appeal, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Paranoia Agent. If that's what you prefer from your fiction, and you don't mind some clunky early-2000s animation, the first anime is the choice for you.

Anime fandom welcomes all kinds of tastes and interests, and it's great that we have two different versions of this story to choose from. Which version of Fullmetal Alchemist do you like best, and why? Tell us about your favorite FMA in the forums!

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