Everyone agrees, more or less, that Fullmetal Alchemist is truly a masterful creation, a story universe that borders on a work of art. It began life as a manga series, went on to become an anime, then a movie, and even several games.
But although the universe, many of the characters, and much of the storyline is the same from one aspect of canon to another, there are also differences, sometimes significant, between them. The devil is in the details, they say, and the details vary from one version of Fullmetal Alchemist to another.
The manga and the anime are, as they always have been, two distinct entities, in completely different formats. Comparing details and trying to judge quality between them is like judging apples and oranges. It's ridiculous to say that an apple is bad because it doesn't taste enough like citrus, or that an orange is the wrong color because it's not red enough. I'm of the opinion that people don't take enough time to stop and appreciate the things, completely independent from Arakawa's original work, that make the Fullmetal Alchemist anime great.
And so, I present to you:
The Top Ten Reasons Why in and of itself
the (First) Fullmetal Alchemist Anime
Please keep in mind that these aren't the top ten reasons why Fullmetal Alchemist, the story, rocks, although it does. These are the features which are unique to the anime, which make it, as an example of its media and format, magnificent.
1) the art. Concentrating on the characters and action taking place in the foreground, we often tend to forget what lies behind them. Indeed, good background art should fade into the background, and not intrude on the viewer's consciousness except to contribute to an overall impression. But the FMA anime works extremely hard to create beautiful art and scenery as its backdrops.
The usual cost-cutting animation techniques, of using blank colored backgrounds or long, still pans whenever possible rather than redrawing a full background, is almost unknown in FMA. The landscapes are gorgeous, rich with color and shading and full-shade rendering. The cities, if you stop and look at them, are minutely detailed to give as much background flavor as possible, as are the interior scenes. Keep in mind that while architecture and scenery designs and impressions may have been adapted from Arakawa's work, the pictures themselves were built from the ground up to provide a stunning backdrop to the series.
2) the animation. The number one difference between easy, cheap animation and more careful, conscientious animation is the frame rate, which determines how jerky or smooth the overall picture is. FMA's frame rate is extremely high, which gives a smooth, more realistic feeling to the movements and the actions as the animation progresses.
There is no stock footage in FMA; outside of the beginning and ending credits, every second of active animation time is fresh and new. Recaps, too, are kept to a minimum, with the episode relying on the memory of the audience and the coherence of the story itself rather than filling up dead time on the air by replaying scenes from past episodes. The excellent animation quality becomes more obvious the better the media in which one views it; and in comparison with too many other lower-budget (but still beloved) classic anime series the contrast is painfully sharp.
3) the voice acting. The voice acting is a dimension of the anime that is entirely separate from anything that might have come before it in the manga. Anime relies on its voices as its primary actors, to convey through tone and inflection everything that can't be shown even through the most realistic of animation.
The voice acting industry in Japan is larger, better funded, and more professionalized than its American counterpart, offering up a large pool of talented and experienced voice actors to give life to the roles, but the FMA voice performance was exceptional even by Japanese standards. From the velvet-lined, seduction-filled performance of Lust (Satou Yuuko) to the grim, concealed anguish and fury of Scar (Okiayu Ryoutarou) to the peppy, warmth and humor-filled voice of Hughes (Fujiwara Keiji) and the astonishingly versatile voice of the protagonist, Edward (Paku Romi,) the actors show exquisite handling of complex, multifaceted characters whose expression requires a full range of acting and emotive ability, each from the beginning to the ends of their individual journeys.
The most challenging role of all, that of Alphonse, whose forbidding and expressionless exterior conceals a kind and gentle heart, is handled with astonishing aplomb. The role of Al relies almost entirely on voice expression for the establishment and development of character, since facial expression and body language are restricted, but Rie Kugimiya portrays this lonely young boy in such a profound and touching performance that there can never be any doubt of the human being inside the golem's heart.
4) the soundtrack. Like the background imagery, the mark of a quality anime soundtrack is how well it fades into the background and does not distract or overwhelm from the action on-screen -- and yet also how well the pieces interest and entertain when listened to independently. The FMA soundtrack and music holds up both of those standards. The stately full-orchestra pieces, ideally suited to the atmosphere of the time and place of the series, go off with perfect timing in the anime itself to create and enhance powerful moods. Listened to on their own, the pieces range from the upbeat, to the stirring, to the haunting, with the star musical piece -- the Brothers theme -- taking its place as one of the most beautiful anime theme songs of all time.
The opening and ending themes, four of each in all, are equally well suited and well chosen. The mood and attitude of each opening theme mirrors the mood of the arc at each point, while the closing themes are often wistful and reflective. Several times during the series, at the end of key episodes, the closing theme is woven in with the episode itself to amplify the mood.
5) the choreography. A live-action film uses camera tricks and angles to set up a narrative and control the flow of the story. In anime, frame angles and lighting choices serve the same purpose, and they are masterfully rendered in the FMA choreography. Each frame captures a wealth of information, without being overly cluttered or overwhelming to the audience; and the simulation of camera motion to set mood and convey action is marvelous. Possibly one of the best examples of this is in an anime original scene, early in the series, where Edward confronts a serial killer. The choreography beautifully captures the killer's insanity, the very real and immediate danger he presents, and Edward's terror and desperation as he struggles to first escape, then overpower the killer. Hitchcock himself couldn't have done it better.
Not only the choreography of the 'camera,' but also the movement and fight coordination is magnificently handled. Another common cost-cutting technique in anime is to animate as little movement during a fight scene as possible, relying instead heavily on speed lines, panning backgrounds, and brightly colored flashes of light to carry the energy and violence. Fullmetal Alchemist takes the time and effort to plot out the movement and action of a fight scene, whether it is a friendly spar between the brothers, a suspenseful showdown with a serial killer, a battle with the physics-defying homunculi, a harshly delivered lesson from Izumi to her students, or a bloody grapple between Major Armstrong and the chimera. The supernatural effects of the fight, when some variant of alchemy is brought into the battle, is not allowed to replace or overshadow the action but instead is blended in to intensify the energy of the scene. One of the most memorable and breathtaking action sequences in the series, Edward's showdown with the homunculus Greed, keeps the audience breathless as Edward is forced to combine his three greatest strengths -- fighting ability, intelligence, and alchemy, to bring down the invulnerable.
6) the villains. The Fullmetal Alchemist anime storyline sees the rise and fall of some of the strongest and most engaging bad guys in an anime series, in the sense of being full human people, not merely plot devices to thwart the heroes. It's possible to be a good villain, in the sense of being convincing, frightening, and loathsome, without ever developing beyond a flat two-dimensional portrayal as evil, and some of the villains of Fullmetal Alchemist are of this variety. But there are also villains -- or rather antagonists -- who follow their own quest and their own journey, who grow and change even as the heroes do without at any time becoming less dangerous. The killer Scar, the homunculus Lust, among others, provide counterpoints of struggle and change throughout the series until even the heroes themselves no longer know for sure what is right and what is wrong.
Particularly in the anime, too, the bad guys carry powerful connections with the good guys that lead our heroes into quagmires of emotional and moral doubt. The ideas of sin and suffering, the absence of innocence, and the issues of guilt and blame are not merely symbolic or abstract in Fullmetal Alchemist; their are fully embodied, painful and real.
7) character design. Anime character designs, while taken from the character designs of the original manga characters, are necessarily adapted to the artistic style of the anime. Too often, this results in a host of characters drawn and rendered virtually identical, with only a change in costume or hairstyle to distinguish them. This is not the case with the FMA anime. While not as religiously realistic an art style as some anime features, such as Jin-Roh or Tokyo Godfathers, FMA nonetheless sticks to the worldly side of the anime spectrum, eschewing many of the stylized or exaggerated features of character design. Despite that, they manage to produce an ensemble cast of characters each with a distinctive, immediately distinguishable character profile.
8) character expression. Similar to the question of character design, an animated medium uses different methods of character expression than a manga will, driven as it is by the necessity of conveying a change of emotion and expression in a single snapshot rather than by motion over time. Particularly in Arakawa's FMA manga, expressions are usually displayed either as comic, totally over-the-top and exaggerated stylizations, or as serious, dark and angsty emotions displayed by almost grotesque expressions and changes in scene lighting.
The anime, not limited to a single frame in which to show powerful emotions, tones down a lot of the exaggeratedness of the manga art, taking a more subtle approach and relying on music and voice acting to carry more of the burden. Enough of the strong, clearly displayed visuals remain in the expressions and the body language of the characters to clearly communicate powerful, realistic emotions on the screen.
9) character growth and development. Manga is, comparatively, much cheaper to produce and publish than anime; for that reason, animes are usually self-contained stories, shorter than the manga versions which may continue on indefinitely. That shortened timespan, however, means that a story can be set up, brought to its denouement, and finished; and given a set period of time to work in, the growth and development of the characters can be much more clearly defined.
The main characters of Fullmetal Alchemist grow and develop in the confines of the storyline, following a journey not only external but internal as well. Edward and Alphonse face trials and obstacles in their path that cause them to doubt first their methods, then their motives, their own identities, and finally, the very structure of the world. Their experiences change them, reform them into people very different from the young and idealistic selves they set out in the world as, and yet at heart, fundamentally the same. The friends, enemies, and companions they meet along their way all contribute, in one way or another, to the journey, until they finally reach the end and overcome their trials -- and are overcome by them.
10) the plot. Some of the most highly disputed issues of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime are the changes that the anime plotline made to the plot of the manga. The transition from one media to another is never entirely smooth, and the FMA anime suffered the unfortunate fate of inheriting all of the manga's plot holes and inconsistencies while simultaneously creating its own. Changes to plot and story details, and the holes and problems that come out of these changes, are among the most frequently cited problems with the anime.
Yet despite that, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime creates a powerful and compelling story, with an intricate and complex plotline, whose strengths are not solely descended from the manga. Many of the changes were changes of focus, changes of priority, deliberately made to build an overall picture rich with themes that are all its own; they were deliberate and cohesive and succeeded -- despite embarrassing plot mishaps on the side -- on orchestrating a story that held together until the end.
One of the most powerful and positive changes made to the plot, in my personal opinion, was the rearrangement of the anime timeline so that the brothers met the Tucker family, Shou Tucker and his daughter Nina, much earlier in their quest. Instead of just another stop on an endless journey, the Tucker house was home to them; Nina was not just a friend but an adopted sister, and Tucker became a replacement parent, a trusted adult and figure of authority. Tucker's subsequent betrayal, and Nina's suffering and death, then becomes not only one in an endless series of upsetting but passable events, but a pivotal, life-defining tragedy equal in force to the death and horrifying resurrection of their mother. Although Tucker dies and is disposed of very quickly in the manga, in the anime he stays around, growing more and more gruesome in form to reflect his twisted spirit as he -- just as the brothers themselves-- seeks an escape from his self-caused torment.
Another of the most important changes made to the anime were changes in the cast of homunculi. Two of the homunculi have different identities in the anime, based on the second important change: a difference in the way that homunculi are made. That change deliberately worked to tie questions of the homunculi, the Philosopher's Stone, and human transmutation together in a horrifying, extremely intimate way. Many of the individual twists and events of the second half of the anime -- largely an independent story of its own -- worked to build on these themes of personal responsibility, intimacy, and free will.