Fullmetal Alchemist Comparison

So it’s been a long break and I’ve binge watched just about every good anime series on Netflix and rewatched a few episodes of some old favorites like Fullmetal Alchemist, Samurai X, Hunter x Hunter… As the winter break drew to a close though, I started to go stir-crazy from all the inactivity? So I started thinking back to Fullmetal Alchemist and I was struck by how despite the reboot in 2010, which was committed to showing a higher degree of fidelity to the source material from the manga, the 2003 anime still had its fair share of loyal fans, myself included.

Struck by this thought, I decided to do a comparison of the same arc in both animes and I realized that while the 2010 anime is almost a scene for scene match with the manga the 2003 version shows a higher degree of fidelity to the dark and disturbing tone of the¬†manga. What follows is just a simple list of differences that gave the 2003 version a special place in my heart ūüôā

For the sake of brevity, I’ll¬†limit my comparison to a single arc, it’s one of the firsts in the series so, spoiler alert, I guess? But I’ve always felt there was something about this arc that encapsulated the differences between the two versions of FMA so well, and I was very surprised to find that when I started really thinking about what these differences are, how much of it just came down to the look of the different series and how¬†the story is told. So here’s a brief summary of what the arc is about:

The arc in question here is the Lior arc where Edward and Alphonse Elric go to the town of Lior to check out rumors of the philosopher’s stone and along the way, defrock a fraud masquerading as a messenger of god. In this arc, we are introduced to the Elric brothers’ backstory, their interest in the philosopher’s stone, alchemy, and the taboo of human transmutation. The¬†events of the arc are actually pretty important because they become the¬†foundations of a bigger crisis later on in the series. In the 2003 version it’s called “Those who Challenge the Sun” and is covered in 2 episodes. In the 2010 reboot, it’s called “City of Heresy” and is compressed to a single episode.

  1. The Placement, Length of the Arc

In the 2003 version, the series, like the manga, starts with this arc. Oddly enough, the 2010 reboot relocates this arc to the 3rd episode. My sense of it is because the reboot was committed to dramatizing the manga in full, the first two episodes of the series were dedicated to world-building – introducing the militaristic society, key behind-the-scenes puppet-masters that never got¬†proper time of day in the 2003 version because that¬†version was being made while the manga was still ongoing so animators didn’t really have a good sense of how the story was going to end.

The problem with this is that it slows down the action. FMA 2003 started¬†with all the immediacy and excitement of a plot unfolding in media res. The piecemeal discovery of the characters’ backstory was made all the more exciting by the mounting excitement and tension of the fight scenes the flashbacks were interlaced with.

The fact that this arc was drawn out over two episodes was also a smart move. By ending the episode in a cliffhanger at the moment of highest possible suspense and tension brought about by the odds looking extremely unfavorable for our two main protagonists and the big reveal about a key event in the characters’ pasts, the series was able to bring viewers back for the next episode hungry and curious for more.

Of course it is possible to argue that part of the reason why FMA 2003 drew out the arc was because of the need to fill up air time with filler scenes to slow down its catching up to the manga, but hey, at least they did it meaningfully and to great impact because the drama in these two episodes completely trumps the 2010 reboot’s retelling of the same arc.

I suppose in all fairness, the reboot had additional issues to contend with like the roaring success of the 2003 anime, and how to tell essentially the same story AGAIN without boring fans of the original series while attracting a new audiences. Unfortunately, that line was so fine and difficult to tread that it often got lost and the reboot ended up feeling a bit like it was just going through the motions when it was covering material that had already been covered in the 2003 series.

2. The dramatic flourishes

In comparison though, the 2003 version really knew how to ramp up the dramatic tension in the telling of the story. It made full use of its medium and showed a great awareness of how to use its form to bolster its narrative.

Here are two clips I cut of the exact same scene and sequence from the two versions. At this particular moment, Edward reveals the price of human transmutation, a taboo form of alchemy in this world, and how it has marked him for life with steel prosthetic limbs, otherwise known as automail.

Let’s talk about this moment for a bit. Alchemy, whut? Human transmutation, whut? And what the hell is ‘automail’?! As with any fantasy/Sci-fi series, there’s a huge barrier to suspension of disbelief. How do you make an audience that doesn’t live in this fictional world, is unfamiliar with such concepts, come to feel anything about them or the characters?

The main difference in strategies in the two series is the difference between showing and telling. One of the main sequences I never¬†forgot from the 2003 series when it first aired was the wild swinging motion of the ‘camera’ when Ed pulls off his cloak to reveal his automail arm.

It’s a sequence that’s arguably internally focalized from Rose’s point of view. Because of her own naivety and unfamiliarity with the concept of alchemy, she’s an ideal foil for the audience. And the effect of the perceptual internal focalization of the ‘camera’ movement simulates the swooning of the character and communicates the magnitude of the revelation to the audience.

But if you don’t trust Rose, the brief disorientation because of the ‘camera’ movement that leaves Edward obscured by his cloak and out of frame at times also seems to imply on its own the inability to take in the transgression in a single look.

There’s also the additional dramatic effect that comes from drawing out the revelation sequence which is markedly shorter in the 2010 reboot. There’s a sense of time stopping or slowing down that one gets when someone tells you something important.

Conversely, the 2010 reboot relies largely on having Edward tell you, verbally, with words, in a visual medium, what’s so taboo about human transmutation. Talk about a waste of an opportunity to do something interesting.

Furthermore, there’s a difference in the quality of the animation. I did a brief search online but couldn’t really find stats but I have a sneaking suspicion that it cost a lot more to make the 2010 reboot. The overall quality of the animation is a lot more consistent and the amount of fine detail given to some of the characters makes them look less flat and the designs of characters’ clothes and weapons more intricate. In the 2003 version, the quality really fluctuates. However, even so, the 2003 version has turned what could have been a weakness in the series into a strength.

During moments of high dramatic tension, there’s a sudden jump in the quality of animation. The animation is continuous, instead of in still frames, the quality and amount of detail ramps up, as do the colors and highlights. The effect¬†of the confluence of better quality visuals and high dramatic tension is that there are specific scenes that stick out and really stick in one’s memory and leave a much deeper impression. If you look at the FMA 2003 video again, you’ll see it in the level of detail in Edward’s automail arm and the rips in his jacket, the blindingly white highlights against the steel grey of his arm in the dark setting, and (and I’m sorry to be such a girl about this) his¬†abs.

I think, at the end of the day, the visual density in the 2003 revelation sequence and its awareness of its own medium really sticks out and foregrounds the fact that the series has been made very thoughtfully and with a lot of love and maybe that’s why it has such a loyal fanbase even though by the end of the series the story sort of devolves into a bit of a mess due to its deviation from the manga.

Not to say that the 2010 reboot is crap though! It’s got great production values, it looks fantastic consistently, it’s got great fidelity to the manga, a proper ending (omg the ending!); but it does have a lot to contend with with the greatness of the 2003 anime hanging over it like some spectral transmutation of manga source material and whatever the animators could come up with¬†to give it a half-past decent ending.

Man, this was fun. Thanks for reading! ūüôā