Above: Image from Fullmetal Alchemist

So, there are two TV shows out there called Fullmetal Alchemist. One of them is one of my favorite shows ever. The other is pretty good, but despite initial similarities, a completely different story. How the hell did that happen?

You see, before there were anime, there were manga. A lot of people get the two mixed up and asked me if I watch manga. Nice try, but you’re using the names wrong. Manga are the paper ones – the comic books of Japan. Rather than the image you have of a slim American comic book in a plastic wrapper, an edition of Weekly Shōnen Jump, the most popular manga maker, looks thicker than The Fellowship of the Rings and is printed on near A4 size different-colored paper. The pages are cheap pulp, and maybe 12 different stories are printed in different colors so you can see where one story ends and where the next begins.

Some of the most popular anime currently airing began their lives as comic books drawn weekly by teams of perpetually stressed artists. Many of the bigger shows, like Bleach, Hunter x Hunter, One Piece, Naruto andKuroko no Basuke, are still going in manga form, often only about 3 months ahead in the storyline.

Fullmetal Alchemist

And here we hit the problem. If the show is long enough and popular enough, eventually the anime is going to catch up with the manga. After all, a plot-significant conversation might take four pages of manga to write and illustrate, but only a minute of screen time to air.

Different shows deal with it in different ways. The best way, in my opinion, is the “season” approach adopted by shows like Shingeki no Kyojin – where, at the satisfying end of a story arc, the broadcasting takes a break, the manga keeps plodding on week by week, and when the manga is far enough ahead, the anime producers will make the second season.

A much less popular tactic is the filler arc, adopted disastrously by Bleach, Naruto and Detective Conan. When a TV station is seeing high viewing ratings every week, they don’t want those ratings to go away while a show’s on hiatus, so instead they produce poorly written stories with uninteresting new characters tagged on to the side of a more successful show in a vain attempt to hold the audience ‘til the writing is far enough ahead to air anime again. Often, people just turn off until the “real” story comes back. Nine times out of ten, that’s the right decision, too.

Some of the newer shows never graced the pages of a manga first, and maybe we’re starting to see a shift of focus. Certainly all the high-energy mania that is Kill la Kill might not really work read week by week in a book. Perhaps the world of anime is starting to become less of a follower and more of a trend-setter by itself.

And finally there’s the odd exception, like Fullmetal Alchemist, a manga that was an instant hit, a TV show released to catch the audience, and then, when the show caught up… they took that same initial starting point of a story and created a whole new plot, a new direction for the characters. Like paths at a Y-junction, the manga and the anime became separate entities, with different story-lines, different conclusions. The anime even spawned a follow-up movie, and bizarrely, it all stayed popular.

Then, years later, they released an anime of the finished manga. Confusing? A little. Which is why there are two different shows with the same name.

Tune in to the next article to find out why they’re both good, which one is the best, and how to persuade your friends to watch it with you.

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