So, as I explained last week, there are two TV shows called Fullmetal Alchemist, born out of the strange system that is Japanese broadcasting. The stories begin the same, both spawned from the same manga, but diverge about a third of the way through. One is a good anime, worth watching. The other is gold in animated form (alchemy pun intended). Now to explain the difference….

Getting started

First off, I should tell you the plot, which conveniently starts the same way for both. Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a fictional world based on a post-industrial age Europe. Countries similar to Germany, Morocco and Russia are suddenly brought into closer proximity by trains, and more efficient rifles and mortars threaten an uneasy peace. The major difference between this world and ours is the existence of alchemy – a sort of pseudo-magic that can convert any material into a shape or even into another material with the right alchemical symbols. Examples of this are taking the parts of a radio and fusing them back together, taking earth from underground and raising it to the surface to make an instant wall or statue, and even to transmute a weapon out of the iron found in sand.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Our heroes are Alphonse and Edward Elric, genius alchemist brothers who, as little kids, tried to use alchemy to bring their mother back from the dead with disastrous consequences (hey, no one said it was light entertainment – this show is pretty dark and bloodthirsty). Ed loses his arm and leg, and Al loses his entire body, becoming a soul trapped to an empty suit of armor. Now teenagers, they travel the world in search of a Philosopher’s Stone, an alchemical tool strong enough to return them to their bodies. As they travel, they become wrapped up in a growing rebellion against the state, and discover the dark secrets that lie beneath their world…

Choosing your path

So the answer to the question you’re asking… which to watch? The second – Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. The first has its charms, but the second trumps all of those charms and then some. The story is much tighter, the character growth more meaningful, the plot twists more gasp-worthy. The artwork is considerably better. The music is fantastic. The fight scenes more enjoyable. And the conclusion… beautiful.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

By contrast, the original series gets confusing (mirror worlds!) and had to be “resolved” with a movie that ineptly resolves the confusion. It’s also padded with filler episodes right from the start, and goes from episode 3 to 9 with a long flashback, a confusing way to tell a story by any standards. The voice acting for the heroes is also more grating, the music more synthy. It’s still good, but its goodness comes from the manga, not its own developments.

The end in sight…

So, problem resolved? Not quite. You see, Brotherhood, in order not to lose its audience, rushes through a lot of the early (identical) plot, cutting some lovely and relevant character development and stories. As a result, the start of the original series is better. If you can withstand the confusion of series switching, I’d tell viewers to watch Brotherhood, but watching episodes 5 through 9 instead of episode 4 of Brotherhood.

And finally, how to persuade your friends to watch it with you: tell them that this is the show that you always wanted “Heroes” to be. It has brilliant villains with devious plans, and likeable heroes with different objectives and powers who work independently against those plans. The interweaving stories are beautiful, the heroes are people you really want to root for, and the stakes are high. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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