10 Reasons Why You Should Watch the Original Fullmetal Alchemist Series

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is often called one of the best anime series ever produced. With a live action film coming out in December in Japan, old fans may be rewatching the series, and newbies might be debating the best place to start. The original Fullmetal Alchemist anime from 2003 was released concurrently with the manga, and, like all series that do this, caught up with the issues before it was finished. As a result, the anime went off into its own direction. Many people began the franchise with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the anime that was released after the manga was completed and follows it faithfully. Many also prefer Brotherhood to the 2003 anime.

For those who are new on the Fullmetal Alchemist train, let me explain the series. Imagine a world in which “magic,” a science called alchemy, operates on equivalent exchange. This is the idea that matter can not be created or destroyed, just changed, if you have the right weird symbols (called transmutation circles) to add to the mix. In this world, it should be possible that as long as the ingredients are there, anything can be made (or “transmuted”). That’s the logic that eleven-year-old Edward and ten-year-old Alphonse Elric follow when they decide to use alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead. But human transmutation is taboo to alchemists, and for good reason. The result is that Ed loses his arm and his leg, and Al loses his body and has his soul tied to a suit of armor. Their mother remains dead.

Fullmetal Alchemist is the story of Ed and Al trying to get their bodies back by looking for the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical reagent that allows you to bypass equivalent exchange. To aid their search, Ed enrolls as a governmental alchemist. In becoming a “dog of the military,” Ed and Al hope to uncover secrets of alchemy that wouldn’t be available to an everyday alchemist. Along the way, however, they’re caught up in their country’s politics, uncovering a vein of corruption that goes deep into the system; they also run into strange artificial humans called homunculi, who inform them that the brothers are more than just humans romping around in the world.

What are the goals of the homunculi? How does that tie into the military? And what’s this about a civil war that resulted in a genocide due to State Alchemists? With so many subplots unfolding within the series, here are ten reasons why I think you should still watch the original FMA:

10. It keeps a lot of the same voice actors for the dub from both series.

Anime purists will hate me for this, but I love dubs. That is, I love dubs that are just literally dubbing translations, not changing aspects of the story with the dialogue and cutting or censoring scenes (I’m looking at you, Yu-Gi-Oh!). Funimation is good with their dubs, hiring talent like Vic Mignogna (the literal best) and Caitlin Glass to play main characters. One thing I really appreciate is that many of the voice actors are the same between the original anime and Brotherhood. It makes watching the shows feel contiguous rather than choppy. (A warning, though: The voice actors that are different—key ones, like Dr. Marcoh and Scar—are totally disconcerting. You eventually get used to it, but it does feel wrong. Fun fact: the 2003 voice actor for Scar is the same as Handsome Jack from the Borderlands franchise.)

9. Early episodes mentioned in Brotherhood are actually shown in the original anime.

Some speculate that the producers of Brotherhood expected that most people had already seen the 2003 anime, and so didn’t bother with some of the episodic one-offs that establish the Elrics’ reputation. While none of these are particularly important (except for Youswell, kind of), it’s still pretty neat to watch the Elrics build themselves up as a hero of the people. It makes a little more sense when Ed says that yes, he’s the Fullmetal Alchemist—NO NOT HIM, THAT’S MY LITTLE BROTHER—and that people know who he is when he’s been going all around Amestris saving random towns. (They take the “Alchemist, be thou for the people” motto very seriously in the 2003 anime.)

Unfortunately, there’s one exception to this: Brotherhood goes through the training the boys went through with Izumi Curtis much earlier than the 2003 anime. I think that training is really important to their relationship with their teacher, and because it’s shown so late, is somewhat lacking in the original anime.

8. Ed freaks out even MORE when he’s called short.

Ed definitely comes off as far more immature in the 2003 series, but watching him freak out over his height never gets old for me. Somehow, he gets even angrier and more dramatic in the original anime, perhaps because the joke keeps getting replayed over and over. In Brotherhood, sometimes he hyperbolizes what someone says about him, but in the original anime, it happens every time. “What, you mean this little kid?” inevitably turns into “WHO’RE YOU CALLING SO SHORT YOU CAN’T EVEN SEE THROUGH A MAGNIFYING GLASS?!” Every time.

7. Ed’s State certification exam is much cooler. Also, we understand why Alphonse isn’t a State Alchemist as well.

I never bought into the “Ed’s so great he gets a private audience with the Führer!” idea and that he’s accepted basically because he can do a transmutation without a circle. Al is also supposed to be a remarkable alchemist, so why wasn’t he granted a chance to apply? Also, Ed literally threatened the life of the Führer and walked away.

This whole process is fleshed out much better in the 2003 anime. The State certification exams happen only once or twice a year and involve a set of written and practical examinations. It makes total sense to me that the certification exams aren’t held anytime someone walks up to a State Alchemist and asks to join. We also see that Al did plan to be a State Alchemist, until a certain someone stepped in.

I have to say, Edward’s practical is one of my favorite scenes in the entire anime. I think it’s really wondrous, showing what kind of person he is—at the time, just a twelve-year-old—and also that he’s fast-thinking and fast-acting. Not needing a transmutation circle is just an added benefit.

6. People don’t just magically put together that the brothers committed human transmutation.

Look at their innocent faces RIGHT BEFORE THEY CHANGE THEIR LIVES.

Does it bother anyone else that somehow everyone knows the cost of human transmutation is something about your body? I never understood how alchemists were supposed to know the consequences. I thought that was the point. How are you supposed to figure out that losing bits of your body means that you committed the ultimate taboo? My partner told me that Alphonse gives it away, standing there in as a suit of armor, but again—how does that mean human transmutation? People like Izumi are whole on the outside, and no one guesses that she’s done it, too. What if Al was in some kind of accident or got sick and was transmuted into a suit of armor to save his life? (Does that count as human transmutation? In Brotherhood, towards the end, I got the sense that basically anything concerning humans in alchemy is considered human transmutation. Except for that whole making-a-Philosopher’s-Stone-thing.)

Anyway, in the 2003 anime, people don’t put it together so quickly. I appreciate that.

5. The alchemy is different; it’s much more magical than scientific.

Personally, I like that the alchemy is very scientifically based and found that the somewhat magical nature of the 2003 anime’s strange. However, it is interesting in its differences. Because there’s no alkahestry in the 2003 anime, they have some wiggle room in what alchemy can do. In Liore, statues don’t just grow an arm that punches and stays there, but move and make decisions. Somehow, a bunch of trees and some water turn into a blimp. (Sound in theory, I guess?) And, because of course, Scar’s tattoos randomly glow in connection to Ishval.

In this world, the State Alchemist pocket watch can “boost” alchemic reactions—because they never really explain what the hell that means. Alchemists, and especially the Elrics, espouse equivalent exchange as almost a religious principle, while in Brotherhood, it’s just bound to scientific laws. This affects the way they react when equivalent exchange is broken.

Well, there’s also a scene when Scar uses the tattoos on his arms to remove letters from papers and scatter them, leaving blank pages behind. I’ve got nothing for that one.

Seriously, what is going on here.

4. The backstory of the homunculi is different, and they become more complex characters as a result.

The homunculi are one of the most interesting parts of the Fullmetal Alchemist canon. Hiromu Arakawa, the creator of the series, told the original anime producers to go their own way when it came to the backstory. The result looks nothing like Brotherhood. The story is, in a sense, tighter, without bringing in the complicated Father backstory, but on the other hand, not as rich. Still, understanding the creation of the homunculi in both is central to the stories and changes the shape of it as a result.

In Brotherhood, the only complex homunculus was Greed, who was tied intimately into the plot with Ling. I suppose you could say that Envy bordered on complex, too. In the 2003 anime, due to the origin story of homunculi, we get a whole different side of them. As a result, some of them become really fascinating characters in their own right. Lust has a whole side-plot that makes her really compelling, and Gluttony’s love for her is explicit (and pretty adorable). Sloth has a totally different role, as does Pride. And Wrath, well. Wrath.

What is really interesting to me—going hand-in-hand with this—is that their backstory directly informs the goals of the homunculi, and therefore, what they’re trying to do with Amestris and the humans. In fact, it’s so different that it feels like the most AU thing of the whole series. It takes a literal “what if” and changes the entire outcome of—well, everything. The homunculi are really what make the 2003 anime.

3. You become way more attached to Hughes and understand why Nina was so important to the brothers.

It’s not really a spoiler that Nina, Shou Tucker’s daughter, and Maes Hughes, the lieutenant colonel best friend of Roy Mustang, both die. In Brotherhood, Nina dies within the first few episodes of the show, and Hughes dies not too long after, when the show is honing in on the issue of the homunculi having their mitts in the military. In the 2003 anime, the brothers spend months before Ed’s State Alchemy exams at the Tucker household. Suddenly, the effects of Nina’s death becomes less about guilt over alchemy-driven madness and more the result of a sibling-like bond.

Hughes, on the other hand, sticks around for much longer. He’s introduced early on as one of the few people in the military who is inexplicably kind to Ed and Al. He’s also introduced before he’s a father, which makes his overly-obsessive dads all the more endearing. He’s literally always there for them no matter what, and he dies halfway through the show instead of towards the beginning. After the baby-delivering scene—different than in Brotherhood—there’s the sense that Hughes would do anything for Ed and Al. And it’s true. He dies for them.????

I will never get over their relationship. But yes, I do ship Royai.

2. Ed’s guilt over Al’s body makes more sense.

In Brotherhood, Ed and Al are literally in it together. They both decide to try to bring their mom back, and they are both willing and complicit in their actions. In the 2003 anime, Al, over and over, expresses concern at what they’re doing. Literally right before they try to transmute their mother, Al again turns to Ed and questions if it’s the right idea. Ed tells him not to back out now, and that nothing could possibly go wrong after all of their studying and training. So when shit hits the fan, it makes a lot of sense that Ed shoulders the responsibility and burden of what they’ve done. In some ways, he bullied Al into doing it, therefore, indirectly being responsible for the loss of his body. In Brotherhood, Al is in it to win it, and Ed transmuting his soul to the armor looks a lot more like he managed to save him, rather than managed to salvage him.

1. The movie (which acts as a sequel to the show), Conquerors of Shamballa, presents a really interesting and thought-compelling scenario.

Imagine that Amestris, the land where Fullmetal Alchemist takes place, is linked to our world. How would we be connected? What happens to an alchemist in our world? What about modern technologies in Amestris? Conquerors of Shamballa is the literal sequel to the end of the anime, tying up the loose ends of the show, so I won’t say any more than that. I recommend watching it after the show, though; it puts things in an interesting perspective.

If you need a reason to watch Brotherhood, though, do it to get to this scene in the last episode.

I love Fullmetal Alchemist, and the 2003 anime was what introduced me to the series that has literally changed my life. I am really nervous about the upcoming live action (especially given everything that’s happened to Death Note). I think everyone, even non-anime fans, needs to get into this series. Now, all of that being said, for God’s sake, if you haven’t seen Brotherhood already, you should. I’ll gladly say it’s the best anime I’ve ever seen. Still, the 2003 anime has a special place in my heart for starting off like an anime you expect and going to really weird, really wonderful places.

Naseem Jamnia

Naseem Jamnia

Naseem Jamnia is a non-binary, queer, Muslim nerd, formerly a neuroscientist, who spends their days writing, baking, and playing video games. They have a weekly essay series on growing pains and feminism called the Tuesday Telegrams, at www.tinyletter.com/naseem. They live in Reno with their husband, dog, and two cats.