(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Adapting manga into anime can be very tricky. Once you catch up to the source material, there is no easy way to wait out for more of the story to be released without losing the audience or losing sight of the story. But in some rare cases, an anime adaptation can split off from its source material and tell a story that is so ambitious and different from the source that it can be seen as an original work, while challenging the notion that the book is always better. 

This, of course, refers to Fullmetal Alchemist, Studio BONES’ 2003 adaptation of the popular manga of the same name. The anime famously got the blessing from the original author to adapy the early chapters of the manga and split off into becoming a bold, ambitious, and largely original work aimed at general audiences rather than those with prior knowledge of the manga. 

The story takes place in 1911, in a world not unlike our own, except for one key difference. The main source of power and industrial progress is alchemy, an art that combines the principals of science with the power of magic. The world’s most powerful nation is Amestris, a military-state that uses alchemists as superpowered soldiers to suppress revolts from religious minorities, all while a secret and pseudo-immortal organization is stirring up conspiracies.

Underneath all the global conflict and conspiracies, we find the much smaller and intimate story of Edward and Alphonse Elric as they search for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone to regain the bodies they lost when attempting to bring their mother back from the dead using alchemy — breaking alchemy’s biggest taboo of attempting “human transmutation.” From there, the show becomes an intriguing, funny, thrilling, yet also somber and melancholic exploration of humanity, religion, and grief.

What Makes It Great

It’s nearly become a cliché to say that a show is “character-driven,” but Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the best examples of how that can be used to a show’s advantage. Just when the show’s multiple conspiracies start growing to proportions much larger than two teenagers can handle, and the brewing conflicts come to the brink of war, the show deliberately turns inward and brings it all back to the Elric brothers. 

Rather than keep building its supporting cast and their interconnected stories, the show always focuses on how Ed and Al look at the world. Every relationship is brought back to how it affects the two siblings, from friend and family connections, to teacher-student bonds, to brothers-in-arms, Ed and Al change and grow because of how these relationships make them realize something about themselves. Even the villains serve a larger purpose to help the heroes grow. Rather than being some larger-than-life threat to the world, the villains are directly linked to the brothers’ journey, serving as a powerful and painful reminder to those who try to play God.

Indeed, in a rare move for a shonen series, Fullmetal Alchemist introduces a world that is far from black-and-white. The show is constantly questioning the actions of the characters. Even if they are presented as likable, the soldiers with whom Ed serves are given serious flaws that they struggle with, and the show doesn’t shy away from giving these flaws severe consequences for the relationships between characters. Discovering the role the military played in the Ishval Civil War drastically changes Ed and Al’s beliefs, as they are pulled into a more morally gray world that forces them to re-evaluate their conceptions of good and evil. 

Even the villains are given complex and tragic backstories that inform their goals, while also being allowed to question their own motives. The show makes it a point to have Ed and Al see a bit of themselves in everyone, even the villains, and question both their own sense of morality and whether their righteous quest is all that righteous. A bad guy isn’t just a bad guy, just as no good guy is a saint. More importantly, the show doesn’t force characters to become good in order to draw a clear message. Instead, the characters struggle to get over their flaws, make mistakes, and we get to see their point of view, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions. 

Despite being a shonen show aimed at teenagers, and a sense of humor that brings to mind that of The Last Airbender (goofy visual gags, obvious comic relief characters, and the occasional detour for a hilarious side-mission with the supporting cast), Fullmetal Alchemist maintains a reflective, somber tone throughout its run. After all, the background for the main story is full of tragedy and atrocities that inform the rest of the show’s story. Ed and Al’s adventure stems not out of a desire to save the world, but of a need to gain something precious that was lost — because of their own actions. They know what they did was wrong, and they know that what they have to do to achieve their goals is also somewhat wrong, so there is a feeling of melancholy that follows them in their story as they start to sympathize with those who do wrong things for what they believe are the right reasons. 

Another underrated aspect of this show (and its successor/remake/new adaptation, which is a topic for another day) is how brilliant its English dub is. The voice cast and their delivery is among the best in an anime show ever. So if you are on the fence, try the English dub.

What It Brings to the Conversation

The show places gravitas on death, and there are tons of deaths and other atrocities being shown on-screen and off. Death kickstarts the whole story, and with it a question of humanity and what it means to be human. Al’s existence forces the Elric brothers to view some of the enemies they face differently, and to ask themselves why they see certain beings as not human.

However, rather than downplay it with comedy or force a moral lesson on the audience, Fullmetal Alchemist allows the horror to linger, making it a point to show how characters react to these acts, and how it impacts them moving forward. A big theme in the show is the idea that life doesn’t always go according to plan, and even the ending itself is rather bittersweet because of how it argues that there’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending. 

The 2003 anime is clearly inspired by real-world history and politics, particularly in its use of Nazi Germany imagery and parallels to the Iraq War. We see virtuous characters being complicit in a horrible system that wages war and invades another country with seemingly no other reason than the color of their skin and their religion, and how the conflict leaves immeasurable death and destruction behind, as well as a power vacuum that continues the conflict and escalates it. Fullmetal Alchemist doesn’t shy away from portraying the horrors of imperialism or institutional racism, exploring how disempowered and tormented people turn to violence. Heavy subjects for a show aimed at teenagers.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Fullmetal Alchemist walks a fine line between action/adventure and somber conspiracy thriller. Much like The Last Airbender a couple of years later, the show offers thrilling and dynamic fight scenes together with moments of great slapstick levity, while exploring complex subjects and complicated characters that leave the audience to think about their own interpretation of the morality behind the characters’ actions and motivations.

As an adaptation, Fullmetal Alchemist is the kind of liberal adaptation that simply doesn’t get made anymore. This is a gigantic show, with a large cast and a lived-in world, that also leans inwards and focuses on a very intimate story. The show’s final message ends up as a reflection of the show itself; having a dream doesn’t mean you’ll get to fulfill it, but pouring your heart out in the pursuit of said dream is valuable in and of itself, because it creates a positive impact on those who work in that pursuit.

Watch this if you like: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Paranoia Agent, Attack on Titan. 

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Fullmetal Alchemist is now streaming on Netflix.

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