Review: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

By 2009, it was already widely accepted that the original adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist was an instant classic that was going to be around forever.

However, one lingering issue many had with the 2003 show was how drastically it deviated from the original manga. This, of course, was due to the anime being produced before the manga had finished—forcing the anime creators to create their own path.

As I mentioned in my review of the 2003 adaptation, the show did a fantastic job of working with what it had. A clear testament to this is how FMA remains one of the most acclaimed anime of all time.

Still, the wonder remained over how the anime would have turned out if it waited until the manga was finished.

Luckily, the people over at Studio Bones didn’t waste much time settling this.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood started its run just 5 years after the original series ended, with its main differentiator being a completed manga as a guide.

With such a small window of time between both series, comparisons were almost inevitable.

As such, it’s going to be just as nearly impossible for me to discuss Brotherhood without comparing it to the original.

Actually it won’t be nearly impossible. It’s going to be completely impossible.

With that in mind, a fair SPOILER ALERT is in order.

 

While the constant comparison might muddle the objective perspective with this show, you have to understand that it’s still a fair mindset to have. Many people in 2009 saw Brotherhood after already experiencing the 2003 version, with the final verdict being largely dependent on how the new series stacked up against his predecessor.

(Side note: if you haven’t seen the 2003 version and plan on jumping straight to Brotherhood: don’t. Go watch the original right now. You’ll thank me later.)

So, unlike my review of the original FMA, I’m going to examine Brotherhood with the 2003 series in mind—since it totally existed when Brotherhood started its run.

The question remains: how can you follow up a show that’s nearly perfect?

We’re about to find out, in today’s anime review of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

 

Plot/Story

To avoid any redundant repetition (get it?), I’m going to go ahead and assume that you are already familiar with the basic premise of Fullmetal Alchemist.

If you need a quick refresher, please refer to my review of the 2003 series.

Basically, Edward and Alphonse Elric are searching for a Philosopher’s Stone, an item that allows someone to use Alchemy without a required equal sacrifice. In this world, Alchemy is a form of science used to create anything that the user desires—so long as something of equal value is offered in return.  Their pursuit of the stone comes from their desire rectify the mortal sin of attempting to transmute their deceased mother.

The first 13 or so episodes of Brotherhood follow the same main plot points that the 2003 show did.

And it is here where I immediately encountered one of Brotherhood’s biggest flaws.

For those first 13 episodes, if you compare both shows side-by-side: 2003 is better.

Now before any of you burn my house down, hear me out:

The first portion of Brotherhood seems to operate under the assumption that we have already seen the 2003 adaptation. As such, a lot of the foundational episodes are blasted through in what feels like a race to reach the new content.

From a high level, this makes complete sense. It only seems natural to think that those who watch a remake series have already seen the original. Nobody wants to see the same show twice, so why not hasten the pacing to get to the new content?

The only thing with this logic, though, is that most viewers today jump straight into Brotherhood and skip the original entirely. The reasons for this range from the small gap in time between both shows and the common belief that Brotherhood is instantly better than 2003 because it’s closer to the manga.

While the fast start to Brotherhood will likely sail over the head of anyone who hasn’t seen FMA, those who have seen the original series will experience the feeling that something is missing.

Specifically, what’s missing is the emotional depth and development in the earlier story arcs that the original series executed so flawlessly. Plot elements like the Tucker family and Maes Hughes, which were major emotional factors in FMA, are merely glossed over in Brotherhood.

And that’s a real shame, because this meandering through critical events makes the beginning of Brotherhood seem hollow by comparison. The emotional motivation of the main characters is heavily downplayed, whereas the 2003 series had us fully empathetic to the Elric brothers from launch.

Eventually, Brotherhood catches up to where FMA deviated and continues the manga’s original story.

And boy, does it take off from there.

Although Brotherhood’s rocky beginning is a noticeable flaw, the absolute thrill ride of a plot that it takes us on soon after more than makes up for it.

The toning down of emotional overtones in Brotherhood makes the show feel more like a traditional Shonen than the original, but in that capacity it excels magnificently.

The plot takes so many twists and turns with such impeccable timing that it’ll make even the most seasoned anime fans drop their jaws—and do so often.

There have been very few anime series before that inspired so many oohs, ahhs, and “holy sh!t”s as Brotherhood did with me.

The new material also featured a dramatic expansion of the scale in the Fullmetal Alchemist story. New areas and side plots are introduced at such a constant rate that the later episodes of the show involve an entire world that has been strongly established and developed. This is a notable step up from the 2003 series, which is limited in scope to only Amestris.

While the start of Brotherhood is still a big sore spot, the series recovers quickly and delivers one of the most satisfying and expansive plots imaginable.

 

Characters

In a similar fashion to the plot’s scale, the amount of characters in Brotherhood is nearly doubled once the show hits its stride.

These aren’t your typical single-serving anime characters, either.

Those introduced have unique personalities, motivations, and all serve a well-defined purpose to the overall plot. In fact, it’s tough for me to even picture a Fullmetal Alchemist story anymore without characters like Olivier Armstrong or Ling Yao.

That’s not to say that 2003’s version didn’t have a great cast—because it did. It’s just that Brotherhood has even more unforgettable characters and somehow found a way to do each of them justice.

The juggling act that Brotherhood performs with its cast is the best you can find in any anime not named “Baccano!”.

In addition to the new….er, additions, several characters in Brotherhood who did appear in FMA are changed slightly.

The most obvious example of this are the Homunculi, the show’s antagonists.  Not only is the appearance of certain members different, but their origins are also radically different than in FMA.

The original anime presented a much more sympathetic backstory for them, which made their frequent clashes with the Elrics morally ambiguous.  We didn’t necessarily like them, per se, but we could at least understand and empathize with their motivations.

Brotherhood, on the other hand, goes in the completely opposite direction. As I said before, the remake downplays emotion in favor of plot progression, and this is absolutely apparent with the Homunculi.

They’re pure evil in Brotherhood, with flashes of humanity occurring only sparingly. While this makes us care for them much less than in FMA, it serves the Shonen elements of Brotherhood well by making us care that they eventually get what’s coming to them. This sets up much more gratifying fight sequences.

The role of leader to the Homunculi is also switched from Dante to Father in Brotherhood. Father is an absolutely excellent villain whose ambitions perfectly match the scale of the show.

We’ll get to more on Father once we transition into the show’s themes, but there’s one character who I have to talk about before we move on:

Roy. F*cking. Mustang.

Mustang was already my favorite character in the 2003 show, but Brotherhood took the Colonel and turned him all the way up to 11.

Roy takes on much more of an active role in the remake as opposed to the more facilitative character he was in FMA. Rather than showing up every now and then to help advance the plot and help mentor the Elrics, Mustang appears right along with them during some of the show’s most crucial moments.

And oh my god, is he an absolute badass.

In true Fullmetal Alchemist fashion, Brotherhood has no problem with painting Mustang as humanity’s strongest alchemist instead of Edward. As a result, he is center stage in some of the show’s most climactic battles, including *SPOILER* one of my favorite moments in anime history.

 

Sound

I’m beating a dead horse at this point with the whole “Action vs. Emotion” comparison of the two shows, so I’ll leave be quick:

  • FMA: Sad show, sad music.
  • Brotherhood: Epic show, epic music.
  • Both shows: Magnificent soundtracks in their own right.

Like I said in my FMA review, the absence of the song Bratja in Brotherhood is a huge misstep. I know the shows had different composers who had their own unique sense of music direction, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed when the quintessential song of Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t….well, IN Fullmetal Alchemist.

You know what? My love of Bratja is so strong that I’m going to include it in this review anyway, just to drive the point home:

The openings of Brotherhood actually progress in the opposite direction of FMA in terms of quality. While the original series had openings that got progressively better, Brotherhood’s seem to get less memorable.

With a first opening like “Again”, it’s hard to blame the rest for not living up.

The theme is so amazing that I ranked it at #9 on my Top 20 Anime Openings—before I had ever watched the series.

So although we lose Bratja in this show, the presence of Again helps even things out a bit.

The dub in the remake is every bit as good as it was in the original series—which is one of the best ever.

Most of the veteran voice talent from the original returned to reprise their roles. With an entire series already under their belt, Brotherhood’s English cast doesn’t skip a beat with settling into character.

If you’ve never been a big fan of dubs before, and for some reason ignored my recommendation with FMA, then I HEAVILY SUGGEST that you listen to Brotherhood’s dub, because it’s downright amazing.

 

Animation

While Brotherhood won’t exactly “wow” you like No Game No Life in terms of animation, we need to keep in mind that the show is 64 episodes. That’s a long series to stretch an animation budget across.

With that in mind, Brotherhood essentially has the same consistent quality of its 2003 predecessor, but with a modern refresh.

It looks pretty identical to the original—but that’s in no way a bad thing.

One aspect that Brotherhood improves upon vastly is its action sequences.

FMA’s battles got the job done enough to advance the plot.

Brotherhood’s combat, one the other hand, is one of the best aspects of the show.

The Alchemy sequences are much more impressive this time around, creating fight sequences that make full use of its characters abilities.

Here’s a quick, spoiler-free example of what I’m talking about:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0vaCiDQb-g
Another visual aspect that Brotherhood enhanced was the design of several Homunculi. Their looks in the original were limited by their origins, which resulted in very human-like appearances.

The Homunculi in Brotherhood are created by the primary antagonist, Father, causing designs that match their corresponding sins much more appropriately. Even though the Homunculi in FMA were rather memorable themselves, there’s no denying that the visual representation of the 7 Deadly Sins was handled better in Brotherhood.


The animators of Brotherhood did a great job of keeping what already worked, and greatly improving on what the original lacked. This makes for a visual experience that will leave very few unsatisfied.

 

Themes

A lot of the themes from FMA carry over into Brotherhood, albeit in a slightly less developed fashion in interest of the plot.

The overarching lessons in loss, tragedy, redemption, and war are all still present in this show…but that’s kind of all they are. Present.

However, that becomes easily forgivable once the show fleshes out two new themes: Forgiveness and Humanity.

The issue of humanity is constantly developed throughout the struggle between the show’s heroes and the Homunculi—specifically Father.

Father sees himself as superior to humananity chiefly through his distaste for human qualities like friendship or emotion.  To him, human emotions are nothing but a barrier to becoming a perfect being. His lack of emotion leads him not to hate or despise humans, but completely disregard them as nothing more than tools.

The philosophical clashes between the Homunculi and the forces of good raise a lot of questions on what makes life worth living. Is it the abolishment of the human nature in pursuit of power the correct path? Or, is it the “perfect imperfection” that comes with experiencing pain and desire with others the true answer?

The show eventually answers this questions, and does so well. But it’s still nice to ask yourself every now and then.

The second theme of forgiveness gives Brotherhood a dimension of closure that many felt was missing in the original.

At several points, certain characters had to confront others who had done them great harm in the past, with the option to either reap vengeance or demonstrate the ability to forgive.

These encounters produce the show’s emotional peaks, because it’s never entirely clear which decision will be made, making for some very tense scenes.  It’s very difficult to forgive someone in real life, and the series does a great job of conveying the internal conflict.

Humanity in conjunction with Forgiveness help give Brotherhood a distinctive sense of closure. Nearly every conflict is addressed at one point or another under the umbrella of these themes, which creates a very complete moral tale.

 

Ending

I’ll just come right out and say it: Brotherhood has a more satisfying ending than the 2003 series.

Now, does that make the ending better? Well, no.

The 2003 ending was a bleak-yet-hopeful conclusion to the story, with many questions left unanswered. This was a perfectly appropriate end to a show that was all about the harsh realities of life, and was a beautiful one at that.

Brotherhood, on the other hand, leaves no stone unturned. Absolutely every storyline and subplot in this immensely expansive world all come together in a neatly tied bow.

And the way it’s handled is utterly masterful.

I still can’t wrap my mind around how a show was able to provide a completely fulfilling conclusion to a story that featured over 30 characters in 64 episodes.

The ending of Brotherhood won’t leave you dazed in contemplation like the original, but will instead have you wearing a huge smile after experiencing such a complete tale.

 

Personal Enjoyment

You probably could have guessed this by now, but it took me a bit of time to really get into this show. Part of it was because I started it only a few weeks after finishing FMA, but the main reason was because of how the earlier episodes were so hasty in terms of the plot.

However, once Brotherhood got to the content that it clearly wanted to, I was hooked.

I haven’t had this much fun watching an anime in over a year. While the original mainly touched on my more sensitive emotions, Brotherhood was an absolute roller coaster that made me excited, sad, angry, shocked, and everything else in between.

For its purpose as an epic action adventure anime, Brotherhood might be the best of its kind.

I honestly felt a wave of sadness sweep over me after finishing the final episode, since it meant that this was the end of my journey with Ed and Al.

Still, I’m not crying that it’s over as much as I’m smiling that it happened.

And, now that it HAS happened, this leads me to…

 

Final Verdict

For those searching for a series that exemplifies every quality in a great anime: look no further.

Do I think Brotherhood is the best anime of all time?

No.

However, it is one of the VERY FEW series that I’d be okay with if someone else declared it as the greatest.

I don’t think that Brotherhood should just be a recommendation for anime fans: it’s a downright requirement. However, I do say that under the assumption that people will take the time to watch 2003’s series first. Speaking of which..

When it comes to which show is “better”, the answer is simple:

Both shows are fantastic for their respective purposes, but neither is objectively better.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a masterpiece that forever changed the Shonen genre through its ability to tap into our deepest emotions. However, it lacks great action sequences and contains a polarizing ending.

Brotherhood represents the pinnacle of an action adventure show, but does so at the cost of poignant emotional depth.

They’re both different shows, but if the two were to ever somehow be combined, then what would remain would likely be the greatest anime ever.

However, deciding between the two shows is like me picking between Cookies n’ Cream or Cookie Dough ice cream: I win either way.

And so will you if you watch both, because they are absolute masterpieces.

So go do so. Now. Like, right now.

Pros:

  • One of the most well-rounded plots in Anime history
  • Expansive cast while giving each character justice
  • Genuinely thrilling battles
  • An excellent villain
  • First opening theme is amazing
  • Roy F*cking Mustang

Cons:

  • Lacks emotional depth of the original
  • Breezes through important story arcs early on
  • No ‘Bratja’

Final Score: 9.5/10

 

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