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Ten Years Later: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Anime

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Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the greatest anime of all time.

© Hiromu Arakawa/FA Project, MBS

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the greatest anime of all time.

What, do you need more than that? The newer something is, the more hyperbolic such a proclamation can appear. Because of that, my favorite thing about celebrating a decade since the debut of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is that I can be more confident than ever in making that claim, as we’ve had ten years and countless re-watches on my part for any potential “shiny new thing” enthusiasm to wear off and for shinier, newer competitors to usurp it. Throughout all of that, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has not only maintained its throne, but also increased its lead over everything else, with each passing year and each re-watch and reevaluation of it and other all-time greats.

Yes, this is all my personal, subjective opinion. All claims of something being the “best” are just that, and there is no scientific formula to discern the relative quality of art. I feel pretty comfortable in making this statement about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, though, both because I believe it so strongly and because I’ve found it to be one of the most agreed-upon opinions by anime fans and general viewers of TV series alike. Even if it’s not everyone’s #1, there are few anime so widely viewed and still so universally loved or, at the very least, universally liked.

It’s no surprise that the series strikes such a perfect chord with just about everyone who watches it. It’s the ideal intersection of entertainment and art. It simultaneously masters the joy of a sprawling shounen action adventure and weaves a brilliantly constructed exploration of nuanced political intrigue and profound character drama. It’s fully accessible to teenagers or younger, but also rife with mature themes to keep adult viewers intellectually engrossed even without being “children at heart” that enjoy more standard shounen series. It’s long enough to build a thorough investment in its meticulously-planned plot and virtually every member of its massive yet almost entirely memorable cast, but not so long that it should be a barrier of entry to anyone. With each episode of most high-profile dramas today clocking in at two to three times the length of an anime episode, 64 installments of the latter to tell a complete story of this scale should sound downright brief (to say nothing of other shounen anime). Cleverly situated to end alongside its source material, it never had to rely on “filler” or compromise its pacing. With that limited production schedule, the quality was able to remain in top form throughout, though achieving that for more than a consecutive year is yet another incredible feat for TV anime.

© Hiromu Arakawa/FA Project, MBS

This is the prestigious legacy that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has earned since its premiere ten years ago, but the point of these celebrations isn’t just to offer the current perspective on a title; it’s also to reflect on the history that brought it to this point. Fortunately, thanks to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood coinciding with the proliferation of anime simulcasts, I’m now able to share my own memories of the beginning of every anime series I write a “Ten Years Later” article for, starting here.

At this point, I suppose it’s necessary to acknowledge the elephant in the room – Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is not the first anime series adapted from the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, not even the first of its decade. The first adaptation, simply titled Fullmetal Alchemist, began only five and a half years earlier and concluded a year after that. Both series were produced by the studio Bones, aired on the same networks, with Brotherhood occupying the Nichigo timeslot that replaced the Doroku timeslot that housed its predecessor, and released by Aniplex.

Despite this, Brotherhood is in no way a sequel, but instead a fresh reboot that doesn’t acknowledge the earlier adaptation whatsoever. This is because the weekly adaptation of the monthly Fullmetal Alchemist manga began very early into the eventual nine-year run of the latter, which naturally meant that the source material was going to run out before they had completed a year of episodes. Because of this, the first adaptation took liberties from the very beginning, making changes to prepare for when it caught up as well as extending the material and inserting completely new content to delay that eventuality as long as possible. Since it diverged from the manga to tell an original story, adapted so little of it, and changed so much of what it did adapt, fans of the manga were hopeful for a more faithful and complete adaptation of the manga that many of them already found far better than the excellent adaptation it had received. However, it’s unlikely that anyone could’ve expected Bones to deliver such a reboot while the dust was still settling on their first rendition of the franchise, especially with no real indication that a new adaptation wouldn’t end up catching up with the ongoing manga yet again.

That first Fullmetal Alchemist anime was an absolute smash hit worldwide. Even if you’re not a fan of it compared to Brotherhood, it was undeniably instrumental in the creation of Brotherhood, and not just for being the reason that a lot of the same people and companies were involved. Those companies would not have poured so many resources into crafting the perfect adaptation of this manga, even with all of its own acclaim, if the global anime community wasn’t so thoroughly smitten with the first anime made from it. It’s almost certainly because of that extreme demand for more that Brotherhood followed so shortly thereafter. It’s a good example of striking when the iron is hot.

However, this presented its own dilemma when Brotherhood began. It needed to captivate its immediate audience – the audience that the producers were counting on to watch each episode as it aired and buy each home release and each piece of merchandise as it was released – but because of striking when the iron was so hot, the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime was still fresh in the minds of most of that audience, so repeating the same material carried a risk of losing their attention and enthusiasm. On the other hand, this needed to stand the test of time as its own independent story that anyone could watch without any knowledge of anything else with the Fullmetal Alchemist name, so that early material still had to be retained and feel complete.

Admittedly, this dilemma resulted in the one negative element of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. After a series premiere that ironically wasn’t based on the manga at all, the remainder of the first cour covered material that we had seen before, albeit in less than half the time. That makes it sound a lot more rushed than it actually was, because there was also a great deal of material simply added by the first series that took up quite a few episodes. Still, the pacing wasn’t ideal throughout this stretch, and frankly, the first series handled some of it more gracefully. Watching those episodes simulcast weekly in that early mindset that was arguably exacerbated for the American audience that had gotten the first series even more recently, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I hoped to be, between retreading familiar material for three months and feeling like this was a lesser interpretation of it in some ways. This situation required a compromise and this was probably the most logical solution to appease both perspectives, but it inevitably couldn’t completely satisfy either.

In retrospect, that first cour does hold up much more favorably. It’s still the weakest stretch of the series by far, but after having re-watched both adaptations several times, the corresponding episodes of the first (which account for the majority of the entire series) feel more protracted overall than the Brotherhood versions feel rushed, particularly with the former including some filler that contributes nothing but padding. While appeasing existing fans was a priority ten years ago, though, now it’s more important that new viewers can pick a single continuity and enjoy it without necessarily having to consume both. Perhaps my only passion greater than watching anime is introducing others to it, so it should come as no surprise that I have almost certainly gotten more people to watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in the past decade than any other series. In that experience, I’ve found that people who watch only Brotherhood don’t find the first cour to be too rushed even if it’s notably weaker than the rest of the series, people who watch both series in release order find it to be slightly repetitive and rushed but easy to breeze through to get to the new and much stronger material, and people who watch Brotherhood first find recounting those events in over twice the amount of time to cause them to lose interest. Based on that feedback, I can confidently recommend for people to watch Brotherhood and have a better experience with its first cour than I initially did, especially if they didn’t watch the first adaptation, but also if they did, since they don’t have to wait three months to get to the brand-new content.

For the remaining year of episodes, though, it’s smooth sailing, or often much better. Episode 15 is the big turning point for Brotherhood compared to its predecessor, adapting all new material for the first time, beginning an arc that immediately introduces very different concepts and characters, pacing it all appropriately, and kicking off its new cour with perhaps my favorite anime OP as well as a new ED. By episode 19, a mere month later, there is already a very realistic case for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to become one of the greatest anime of all time. Yes, the series was already improving throughout that relatively troubled first cour, and by the time it exits it, it becomes an essentially perfect adaptation. Coupled with the strength of episode 19’s material, it begins to become a true masterpiece.

While I also consider Fullmetal Alchemist to be the greatest manga of all time and acknowledge that this is unquestionably the greatest contributing factor to Brotherhood being the greatest anime of all time, I would still consider Brotherhood to be even better than its source material. Even a perfect adaptation would only result in the anime being as good as the greatest manga, but Brotherhood does what any adaptation must do to surpass its source material; it utilizes the attributes of its medium to enhance the material.

Despite both adaptations being animated at the same studio by many of the same people, they have significantly different aesthetics. Appropriately, Brotherhood makes the effort to adhere much more closely to creator Hiromu Arakawa’s art style, but additionally, the wealth of resources allotted thanks to the first anime’s success and the monumental advancements in digital anime production in the 2000s allowed Brotherhood to look much more polished. At the very least, being produced in native HD and 16:9 helps it to hold up better on modern equipment than a digitally animated 4:3 SD TV anime from 2003. There’s certainly nothing invalid about preferring the earlier aesthetic over Arakawa’s very distinctive style, and that first anime contained some fight choreography that Brotherhood arguably never surpasses, but Brotherhood does deliver a more consistent supply of stylistically intricate key animation, such that it continues to hold up as one of the overall finest examples of a sakuga series despite being ten years old – still relatively early in the history of digital anime series in 16:9 and HD – and lasting for over a year. While key animators don’t get the top billing of positions that extend across an entire series, I can’t praise this animation without specifically crediting Yutaka Nakamura, by far the best animator in the industry, a full-time employee of Bones, and the source of the best cuts of animation from both Fullmetal Alchemist anime series. A 17-second cut of his in that second OP in particular is one of my absolute favorite pieces of animation.

While most of the top-billed staff that I usually look at (director, series composition, music) isn’t filled with names of people that have been very well-known or impressive outside of this production, everything seemed to fall into place to create the best possible adaptation I could imagine for the greatest manga. This would make the experience of watching the anime great even for those caught up with the manga, but careful coordination with Arakawa allowed the team to conclude the anime simultaneously with the conclusion of the manga that had begun nine years prior, meaning that even those manga readers wouldn’t know what would happen next at the climax of the series. Yes, by the time the series was in its final arc, everything was going even more ideally than anyone could’ve hoped for.

This was also fairly true even outside of Japan, as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was the first big-name anime series to get a simulcast from beginning to end. In 2008, a few new Gonzo series had streamed on Crunchyroll et al. and an unmemorable Gainax adaptation on the platforms Funimation was using, but the start of 2009 was when Crunchyroll became an exclusively official service and added ongoing series like Naruto and Gintama, and one season later, Funimation had the opportunity to bring back one of their hottest properties as it aired thanks to this new practice. The episodes did stream more than half a week late, which would be unacceptable today, but it was a lot better than having to wait a year to a year and a half for an official way to watch each episode like with the first series. I’m sure plenty of people were still pirating it, but having a series of that caliber in that formative stretch of time probably served as the most solid foundation for Funimation’s simulcast platform that would become Crunchyroll’s main competitor before long.

Of course, it still followed its predecessor’s path of being dubbed and broadcast on Adult Swim about a year after the Japanese broadcast, with some of the home video releases coming before the episodes aired and some after. This was also one of the early series that Funimation released on full-cour Blu-ray collections from the very start. Sadly this was slightly before Funimation started releasing limited editions for everything, but at least each set included three pieces of case artwork from the Japanese release, shiny effects, and art cards, putting them well above the packaging quality of a standard release. There was a time that I was watching three instances of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood at the same time: the simulcast of the new episodes, the premiere of the dub on Adult Swim, and Funimation’s Blu-ray. While I love the series in both languages, it’s one of the few that I absolutely prefer dubbed, thanks to the fact that it works better in English and Mike McFarland being the best ADR director by a huge margin.

If Funimation was ever going to release a limited edition or any kind of complete collection, they never got the chance, as Aniplex started licensing their properties to their American branch as the licenses expired. Late last year, we finally got the series in its first chipboard boxes from Aniplex of America, split into two halves just like Funimation’s second and final release of the series. These are beautiful collections, including all of the previous artwork and more, their own nice effects, booklets of art and information, and newly authored Blu-rays of higher quality than Funimation’s. At about $100 apiece, they aren’t especially cheap, but with each containing over 30 episodes of this masterpiece in a very nice set from Aniplex, that’s actually not a bad deal at all. Keeping them in two sets also allows the financial burden to be split across a period of time.

If by some tragedy you haven’t seen Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in these ten years and that still sounds too rich for your blood, though, fear not. The complete series is available both subbed and dubbed on Crunchyroll, VRV, Hulu, and Netflix. I do hope some more affordable Blu-ray releases akin to Funimation’s later release will grace the market again so that someone on a budget can still own the series, but at the very least, I’m glad it’s so accessible.

Believe it or not, in all that time, Japan never even got a home release of the series outside of the original run of 16 singles. As we approached this ten-year anniversary, I became more and more confident that Aniplex would be releasing a complete series Blu-ray box set for that anniversary, and sure enough, that very release will be out two days before the big day. I’m a little surprised that Aniplex of America released their own collector’s editions of the series just a few months prior instead of their common practice of selling Japanese Blu-rays of their biggest titles in the US and then releasing scaled-down domestic versions later, but if there’s any anime I don’t mind buying two multi-hundred-dollar releases of within months of each other, it’s Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Since I’ve waited nearly a decade without any nice boxes of it to add to my collection, it feels appropriate to make up for all that lost time with double the representation – or triple, if you look at the five Funimation Blu-rays also on my shelves.

I had finished my latest re-watch of the series just before the announcement of the Aniplex of America releases, so I didn’t watch it all again as soon as those were released, and I’m already about to receive another release of the series. However, needing an excuse for another re-watch coincides with wanting a way to celebrate the full tenth anniversary of the series. After all, this is only acknowledging ten years since the series premiere, and while that was an important moment, it wasn’t that first episode that made Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood the greatest anime of time; it was the full fifteen-month run. Because of that, I’ve decided that the most appropriate way to celebrate its entire original run is to recreate it a decade later. Starting on April 5, 2019, I’ll be watching one episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood each Friday – unless the date is one that the series took off originally – until July 4, 2020, each episode exactly ten years after its original Japanese broadcast. The day of the week may not be the same, but the dates all will be, so I’ll have to accept that. I’ve seen the series in more of a marathon format so many times in these past ten years that I think it will be a valuable fresh take to experience that original weekly wait anew, even if I know what’s exactly what’s coming each episode.

© Hiromu Arakawa/FA Project, MBS

In case this wasn’t clear by this point, if you happen to have neglected watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in all this time, I implore you to do so through any of the many official means currently available, more than I would recommend anything else. I am very confident that anyone who is at least open enough to anime to be reading this will enjoy it immensely. By no means do I discourage anyone from trying out the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime series, either. While Brotherhood dominates an untouchable #1, that earlier adaptation holds a comfortable spot in my all-time top 50, which is impressive enough in my book. Given my experiences of people’s reactions to the common material, though, I’d say that if you plan to watch both for the first time, watch them in the order they were released, and maybe leave some time in between the two if you can. Whatever you do, don’t try to Frankenstein them together, because that doesn’t work. I actually don’t like comparing the two at all; it used to come up whenever discussing Brotherhood, and I find it more reductive than either series deserves. Given the prominence of the earlier adaptation when Brotherhood began, I felt that it was necessary to acknowledge in a historical context, but now that both have been complete for so long, I hope that old comparison continues to fade into irrelevance and each can be appreciated independently.

While I’m quite confident that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has been the best anime since it ended almost nine years ago, I do often wonder whether this will always be true. A new anime could come along and surpass it at any time. This wasn’t a series that came out of nowhere, but one that came with impossible expectations and still managed to blow them all away. If something else could take its throne – even with its enormous lead over everything else – after all this time, I’d be shocked but would absolutely welcome it. After all, nothing is quite like experiencing the thrill of a new all-time best.

Like I said, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is the greatest anime of all time. If pressed, I suppose I could say a bit more about it.