As a big named title, there can be few people who are unfamiliar with the animated version of Fullmetal Alchemist- the tale of a world of alchemy where brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric attempted the forbidden act of bringing their mother back to the life. The price for committing this sin was for Ed to lose an arm and a leg, whilst Al ended up with his soul bound to a suit of armour; now, only the legendary Philosopher’s Stone can restore their bodies, but on their search for it, they become embroiled in something much larger than either of them ever imagined.
Since, by necessity, the anime had to take a different direction to the still ongoing manga, there comes a point where the original version strikes out into unknown territory, forsaking antagonist Dante for a more sinister and devious villain named ‘Father’, who created the seven Homunculi as part of a plan that spans generations. And indeed, where once the anime seemed a solid and worthy tale, it just can’t measure up to the scale of the manga, which, devoid of a 51 episode limit, spans a much greater vision. Admittedly, the desire to see how it all turns out in the end is great enough to wish the mangaka would hurry it up a little, but the scope of the series is such that one simply becomes immersed in the many threads being woven into the tale. Naturally, the Elric brothers’ quest to restore their bodies is still key, but beyond that we also have the machinations of Father and the Homunculi, efforts of officers such as Roy Mustang and his allies to combat the corruption and evil that infests every corner of the military, and a seemingly key plot point about how the nature of alchemy in Amestris (the country where the bulk of the story takes place) differs from that of its foreign neighbours. It’s an absorbing, if lengthy, tale, and one that lacks the jarring changes of emotion in the anime; instead of dramatic revelations being spoiled by inappropriate lapses into humour, here the comedy moments are well placed as much needed relief from the tension.
Visually, FMA may not have the most breathtaking artwork, but despite the relative simplicity of character designs, it is still built on a solid and technically sound foundation. There is occasionally some confusion as to what is going on in action scenes, but in all honesty this is a complaint that can be levelled towards manga in general, and for the most part, this series successfully melds both realistic and fantastic elements into a cohesive whole, ensuring that the world of the series comes to life on the page.
With a more complex and involving plot than its animated adaptation, the Fullmetal Alchemist manga takes the series to the next level, providing a story packed to the brim with characters and plot threads, but never feeling overtaxed in the process. The only real issue is that it could be a while before the series finishes- and anyone who has come this far will be torn between wanting to see how it all pans out and hoping that the later chapters do their predecessors justice in terms of pacing and quality.
Spoiler section: plot specifics and differences from the anime
In the anime, the Homunculi were the products of failed human transmutations, and were all cared for and raised by Dante, a woman who gained immortality of a sort by transferring from body to body. In the manga, the Homunculi are created by ‘Father’, the original Homunculus who was once just a specimen in a jar in the land of Xerxes. This Homunculus used the King of Xerxes’ desire for immortality to further his own plans, culminating in the massacre of the entire country as sacrifices to ensure Father gained everlasting life and physical form. He also used the energy from this to grant immortality to a slave he had befriended- one Hoheinheim, later to become Ed and Al’s father.
In the present day, Father has used the Homunculi (each created from one of the deadly sins and grown from Father’s body) to create and expand the nation of Amestris, all the while picking fights with neighbouring countries in order to provide energy for a countrywide transmutation circle (the Ishbal massacre was a part of this). The last area that needs to be thrown into chaos for the plan is the northern land of Briggs- but can our heroes and their allies counteract this?
Lust: Manga Lust’s lives are used up when she is repeatedly burned by Roy Mustang.
Envy: Although he is sensitive about his true form and prefers an androgynous human appearance, Envy is actually a chimera-like monster containing the essences of people whose form he has imitated. He and Ed become nemeses for a while, although ultimately Envy is defeated and reduced to the appearance of a helpless embryo.
Pride: In the anime, Pride was Fuhrer Bradley, but here he is actually Bradley’s adopted son Selim and the first Homunculus Father created. He is able to extend his presence into the shadows, where he can both observe and kill those foolish enough to cross him. After Risa Hawkeye learns of his true identity, she smuggles out a coded message telling Mustang of the truth.
Sloth: In the anime, Sloth was ‘Juliet Douglas’, a secretary in the military, but in the manga Sloth is a giant male Homunculus of limited intellectual capacity who has been set to work in digging a giant trench around the perimeter of Amestris (as part of the huge transmutation circle). The military forces at Briggs interrupt Sloth and ultimately stop him by freezing him, but later put him back as part of a larger plan to get to the higher-ups in the conspiracy.
Gluttony: Gluttony is much the same as his anime self, although we also discover that he was made to be a fake Gate of Truth. At one point, Ed, Al, Ling and Envy are all sucked into the alternate reality within Gluttony, but they escape by using Envy’s Philosopher’s Stone as payment for opening the real Gate of Truth. The original Gluttony is destroyed and Father begins growing a new one.
Greed: Greed’s early appearances are much the same as the anime, although instead of being killed by Dante he is terminated by Father for following his own desires. A new Greed is prepared who ends up taking over the mind of Ed and Al’s friend Ling (a prince of Xing); Ling voluntarily allowed this as part of his plan to find immortality. The two consciousnesses now struggle for control of one body, with Ed agreeing to become Greed’s underling so that they can travel together- united in a common cause.
Wrath: In the manga, Wrath is actually Fuhrer Bradley, a Homunculus created by fusing with a human test subject- thus enabling him to age like a normal person. As the first successful test subject, Bradley was always destined to become Fuhrer as part of Father’s plan.
Other differences and points of interest
- Later in the series, Ed and Al meet Ling, a prince from the country of Xing who is searching for immortality. He is accompanied by two bodyguards, one of whom (young woman Ran Fan) loses her arm whilst fighting the Homunculi. She later elects to have an automail replacement.
- Also arriving from Xing are Mei Fon and her pet panda, on a similar quest for immortality. She ends up travelling with Scar and Doctor Marcoh as they search for Scar’s brother’s research into the different types of alchemy. Xing’s alchemy, known as “rentanjutsu” involves tapping into the flow of the planet’s energy and can be triggered from afar; it has key differences to Amestrian alchemy. Although Mei Fon learns how to make a Philosopher’s Stone, she decides not to go back to her country, since she knows that the Emperor would not hesitate to kill people to create one.
- Al’s body remains trapped in front of the Gates of Truth (which have not been said to connect to Earth as they did in the anime) in a malnourished state- the fact that it continues to live indicates that part of what Ed eats and drinks is nourishing him, and this may be why Ed is so short for his age. Unfortunately, at the same time, Al is having increasingly frequent periods of spacing out- given that he does not sleep in his armour form, this may indicate that the armour is finally rejecting his soul.
- The cold northern front of Briggs is the last target for a massacre needed to provide energy to the giant Amestris transmutation circle. Briggs is under the command of Major Armstrong’s sister, who is currently attempting to infiltrate the higher echelons of the conspiracy. Meanwhile, Ed and Al must tread carefully as they know of the Fuhrer’s plans but are being stopped from overtly acting against them by threats to Winry’s safety.