Full-metal Alchemist History and Overview: Characters, Alchemy, Setting, More Explained

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If you were to ask anime fans around the world what the greatest manga and anime to ever come out of Japan was, many would say Fullmetal Alchemist. This is a fairly universal agreement for many of the people who know the Fullmetal Alchemist history and overview and have enjoyed the series.

If you are someone who has not yet given this series a try, this Fullmetal Alchemist history and overview will give you the chance to learn about the franchise and why you should be checking it out right now. From the characters to the odd setting to alchemy itself, here’s everything that you need to know about this manga and anime series.

Bottom Line Up Front

Fullmetal Alchemist was created by the mangaka (manga creator) Hiromu Arakawa and released its first chapter on July 12, 2001. It would run for almost nine years until June 11, 2010, with 108 chapters divided up into 27 volumes for the manga.

At the same time, it had two anime series, one in 2003 and another in 2009, that adapted the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric on their search for the philosopher’s stone to return their bodies to normal.

What is Fullmetal Alchemist?

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Fullmetal Alchemist is a widely popular and highly regarded manga and anime series. First started as a manga series, it did not take long for the franchise to become popular and spawn an anime of its own. This series has even had two anime adaptations in total, which is fairly rare in the industry.

This is just an example of the immense popularity and success of this series that was created by Hiromu Arakawa in 2001. The story of the series follows the two brothers known as Edward and Alphonse Elric, who serve as the main characters in the series.

What is immediately recognizable about this franchise is the fact that both Ed and Al have some of the most distinct character designs of all time. They are instantly memorable as it is hard to forget the striking colors that Ed has on his outfit and hair and the lumbering armor suit that Al wears.

The story of Fullmetal Alchemist follows these two brothers, who are boys with a natural knack for all things alchemy. When their mother dies and they are left all alone, they feel lost, and the only solution that they can come up with is to bring her back to life.

In the process of using forbidden alchemy to try and bring their mother back to life, they fail the process and sacrifice parts of themselves in the process. In the end, this means that the younger brother, Al, ends up with his soul attached to a suit of armor, while Ed, the older brother, loses an arm and leg.

With their failure now apparent in the physical state of their bodies, they set out on a journey to become State Alchemists, or essentially military alchemist soldiers, in their country and find the legendary philosopher’s stone to return their bodies to normal as they once were.

As you can likely already tell from that initial premise of the series, Fullmetal Alchemist is not an all-ages series. It is a fantasy setting with some steampunk elements to it that set the stage for a grand adventure that is dark, surprising, and legitimately depressing at times.

Though there is a good bit of comedy sprinkled throughout to make fans laugh as they enjoy the manga and anime, Fullmetal Alchemist is not for the faint-hearted or some younger audiences, for that matter. The tragic beginning to the story is, well, only the beginning, and it continues to get darker from there at times.

It does not hold back in the crazy twists and even deaths of some of the main characters in the series in some very disturbing ways at times. If you’ve seen the popular “Edward” meme for Fullmetal Alchemist, you likely already know how twisted this series can be.

That said, there is a level of quality to the series that is extremely high and unlike most other series out there. It stands out for how amazing the story and characters are, and there is a reason that it is still the gold standard for some for what a manga and anime series can be. It is absolutely a must-try for manga and anime fans out there that have no problem with the depressing plot premise mentioned above.

Fullmetal Alchemist History: Manga

The manga for Fullmetal Alchemist launched the first chapter from Hiromu Arakawa on July 12, 2001. It would run for a total of 108 chapters, with the final one launching on June 11, 2010. Those chapters were subsequently released in physical volumes, with 27 in total across the series.

The series was published in the Monthly Shonen Gangan magazine that is geared towards teenagers and up; however, it is a series that is quite dark at times. The creation of the manga came from Arakawa’s study of the philosopher’s stone. After finding out about it, she was interested in alchemy more and decided to create a story on it.

Fullmetal Alchemist remains one of the most successful manga series to release, especially in the 21st century, with more than 80 million manga copies sold at this point. This even puts it higher than some other major manga series like Hunter x Hunter, Fairy Tail, Rurouni Kenshin, and My Hero Academia.

It is also regarded as one of the greatest manga series ever made, with the series never overstaying its welcome, unlike some other series have, and keeping its chapter count to a decent number. There were a few more volumes in the end than Arakawa originally intended but still one series that can be read in a relatively short period from start to finish.

Fullmetal Alchemist History: Anime

It did not take too long for the Fullmetal Alchemist manga to receive an anime version. It began long before the original manga was even close to finishing its story. The first anime for the series was produced by Bones, a renowned studio today but one that was still relatively new at the time.

Bones had only worked on a few series up until this point, with Wolf’s Rain being one of the only notable ones. Fullmetal Alchemist in 2003 is one of the series that put the studio really on the map. The initial run of this show started on October 4, 2003, and ended a year later, on October 2, 2004.

At that time, it had 51 episodes in total that viewers were able to watch. What is worth noting is that it ended about five years before the manga would finish its run. In practice, what this means is that, while it starts similarly to the manga, it diverged at a certain point and finished originally.

Looking back, there are some notable differences between how the manga ends and the original anime. Even some of the characters in the series were handled completely differently in the first anime than how Arakawa would use them in her manga.

This was intentional, though, as Arakawa knew she would not finish the manga before the anime and encouraged Bones to create their original ending for the series. The series received its sequel, too, in a movie that came out in 2005 known as Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa that concluded the anime-original storyline.

Given that it was not following the story that Arakawa was going with past a certain point, this led to a more faithful adaptation of the anime with Brotherhood. Interestingly enough, Bones got the rare second crack at the series and produced this one, too, giving the true story in the process.

It started on April 5, 2009, and concluded over a year later, on July 4, 2010, after running for 64 episodes. In that time span, it covered the entire manga that had just ended before it and stuck to it beat for beat. It would receive a sequel movie in The Sacred Star of Milos that was also from Bones and had an original plot.

The topic of the two Bones productions for Fullmetal Alchemist is a hot one, with many fans being diehard believers in one side or the other. For the most part, though, most fans will likely agree that Brotherhood is the better adaptation since it stuck to the manga and what Arakawa envisioned.

Live-Action Movie

However, the anime versions of Fullmetal Alchemist were far from the only ones that we would get. In 2017, years after the end of the manga and both anime series, the Fullmetal Alchemist live-action movie was released after years since its first announcement.

It covered the first four volumes of the manga, so it is a little teaser for the series, introducing a lot of the main characters in the franchise but not going too far with the storyline. It was not very well-received in the end but remains a technologically interesting film with how it handled the world of the series.

It is not considered the greatest live-action version of the manga, but it has an announced sequel on the way in the future.

Setting

Fullmetal Alchemist has an intriguing and possibly controversial setting for its series. It takes place in a fictional world and country, with the homeland of Ed and Al being called Amestris. However, it is abundantly clear from the start this place is just a fictional version of Germany.

While the years are not made clear, it seems to be a version of Germany before the events of World War II, and some have even presumed before the start of World War I as well. From the military structure to the titles and words used in the series, there are a lot of German influences.

To make matters more possibly problematic, the setting deals with a couple of other nations that are featured in it, including Ishbal. This is a seemingly Middle Eastern-inspired location and one that deals with much of the strife that has happened there in the real world, including cultural and religious aspects.

There is also the nation of Xing that is fairly close in practice to China in the real world. All three of these countries are linked by alchemy, which is the core concept of the world of Fullmetal Alchemist.

Alchemy Explained

Alchemy is the central theme and topic that is used constantly in Fullmetal Alchemist, as you can see in the name of the series itself. Alchemy is the power of sorts in the series, and the entire setting revolves around it. In the case of the nation of Amestris, there are even State Alchemists that are in the military.

These are ranked soldiers who have been hired for jobs as alchemists working on behalf of the country’s government. Alchemy itself is a form of science, just like in the real world, but the power that it is much greater and more clearly seen in this manga series.

Using the power of transmutation circles, the alchemist can take one object and essentially change it into something else entirely. This general rule of thumb is at the core of the series and is known as the Law of Equivalent Exchange, a concept that is brought up time and time again.

The idea is that to create a certain something, an item of equal value must be given up in exchange. Something cannot come from anything, and everything has a cost associated with it. The transmutation circle is how this exchange happens, though some alchemists are capable of performing alchemy without a circle.

Main Characters

There are two main heroes in the story of Fullmetal Alchemist, the first of which is the older brother, Edward Elric. At a young age, Ed’s father leaves his family, forcing their mom to raise them on their own. When she dies early in the story, Ed attempts to bring her back to life using alchemy.

The process of this is a failure, in the end, causing Ed to lose an arm and a leg as the cost for attempting to act due to the Law of Equivalent Exchange. Ed is a feisty young boy who dreams of being a State Alchemist and finding the philosopher’s stone to help him and his brother.

Alphonse Elric is the younger brother who also helps his brother in attempting to resurrect their mom. However, his cost for doing so is much greater in the end as he loses his entire body and has his soul attached to a suit of armor. He has nobody of his own anymore.

Even still, Al is the soft-spoken and kind one of the two brothers, also attempting to look for the philosopher’s stone to return the both of them to normal. Al is the thoughtful and usually calmer of the two, compared to his more emotional older brother.

Winry Rockbell is the childhood friend of Ed and Al and a girl who helps the brothers out, especially in the case of their missing body parts, using her mechanical skills. She lives with her grandmother and cares deeply about the Elric brothers.

Roy Mustang is known as the Flame Alchemist and the boss of Ed when he eventually joins the State Alchemists. He is a strong military personality with values of justice and loyalty to the country.

Maes Hughes is a soldier in the army and a kind-hearted man who looks after Ed and Al after they arrive in the Central City of the country. He has a wife and young daughter whom he loves very much, and everything that he does is to better their lives.

Main Villains: Homunculi

There are many different villains that Ed and Al face throughout the Fullmetal Alchemist series, including serial killers and sociopathic alchemists alike. However, the single greatest threat in the series is the Homunculi, which are artificial human beings that have been created.

The Homunculi are a force that messes with the two Elric brothers throughout the series, kidnapping people and trying to be a menace to them in their search for the philosopher’s stone. Little is known about the origins of the Homunculi except for the common threads binding them together.

For one, they each have a notable Ouroboros tattoo on them that indicates that they are part of the same group of villains. In addition, each of the Homunculi is named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins, representing one of the sinful aspects, including Lust, Greed, Wrath, and more.

Where to Read and Watch Fullmetal Alchemist

When it comes to starting the Fullmetal Alchemist manga, there are a few places that fans can check. For digital manga fans, you will want to look at your favorite manga and book apps like Kindle and Barnes & Noble. All 108 chapters are available there.

Otherwise, manga fans will want to check out the physical volumes of the series. These can be found possibly in your local library, as I have found them at mine before, or bookstores. Though an old series, there are still retailers, both online and in-person, that will let you purchase the 27 volumes or even collections of them.

For the two different anime versions of the series, there are a few different streaming options, depending on which version you prefer, on Funimation, Crunchyroll, Hulu, and the like. That said, the best place to watch them is on Netflix, as both series are available there.

Unfortunately, the movies are a harder find when it comes to streaming and will likely require a physical copy of the film to see them.

Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 vs Brotherhood

The biggest question of them all when it comes to the anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist is should you watch the 2003 version or Brotherhood? This is a difficult one, and most fans will have a split answer. For the most part, a person will usually love one version and hate the other as it is hard to like both.

I like the 2003 version more, but that is the one I started with as well. I have tried multiple times to watch Brotherhood, but the more comedic nature of it has been a turn-off. That said, most of the community is in the opposite mindset, and that is understandable.

After all, there are pros and cons to both series. Fullmetal Alchemist is much more serious and slower, which leads to stronger characterization overall. I also think that the route that it takes with the story is more interesting and less forced-feeling at times, especially in the case of what the manga did with the final villain.

In this way, it has much more of an impact on certain deaths and moments in the series. That said, Brotherhood is much more faithful and follows what Arakawa wanted the story to be. This is important, and it has better animation, too, coming out years later and holding up more in the long run visually.

It also has a brisker pace than the original, despite having more episodes. In the end, it is up to you which one to pick, but the one you stick with first could likely become your favorite and make the other hard to watch, so be warned.

Best Alternatives

Given how popular, successful, and beloved Fullmetal Alchemist is, it is difficult to find the best alternatives for it. That said, Fullmetal Alchemist was one of my first anime since coming back to the medium, and I have watched and read a lot of series since then. As such, I think I can look back and give you the series that I think are most like it.

Before I give you the full list of the best alternatives to Fullmetal Alchemist, I want to highlight one particular suggestion: Steins; Gate. When it comes to, specifically, the best anime ever made, both of these series are in the conversation, and for good reason. They seem initially different, but there are more similarities than you might realize.

I do not want to spoil the sort of genre change that Steins; Gate has that is worth surprising you, but it takes place in the modern-day and follows Okabe, a mad scientist who is goofy and severely in need of mental help. He thinks he builds a time machine that can travel through time.

I won’t say more than that, but, basically, Steins; Gate captures the utter depression that Fullmetal Alchemist can be (even more so in fact) as well as the science aspects and the idea of grief. If that is not enough for you, here are some other alternatives that I recommend:

  • Steins; Gate
  • Violet Evergarden
  • Attack on Titan
  • Madoka Magica
  • The Ancient Magus Bride
  • Dr. Stone
  • Demon Slayer
  • Hunter x Hunter
  • Fate/Stay Night series
  • My Hero Academia
  • Darker than Black

FAQs

Question: What is the message of Fullmetal Alchemist?

Answer: This is a question that is ultimately subjective. For me, there are two messages that I have taken from this series. The first is a cop-out and obvious one that many manga and anime series have going for it, and that is the idea of never giving up on your dreams or goals.

This is pretty obvious and something that is seen in most manga and anime out there, especially ones that revolve around action and a clear endgame from the start. Ed and Al want to get their bodies back and will do whatever it takes to fix their mistake, never giving up in the process.

However, there is a deeper, second theme that I took from this series, and that is the complicated issue of grief. Grief is such a hard concept for any human to grasp, let alone two young boys. Ed and Al are dealing with grief that few people have to deal with at such a young age, and that is of losing one’s mother young and having to fend on their own.

This grief leads them to try something drastic because they are not capable of letting go. The entire series is teaching Ed and Al how to deal with grief, and this is seen in most characters that they encounter and the major deaths that happen later in the series. It is a powerful and complicated message, something that I have not seen in too many series.

Question: Should I watch Fullmetal Alchemist before Brotherhood?

Answer: This is the eternal question when it comes to Fullmetal Alchemist. Should you watch the 2003 series first or watch Brotherhood first? Should you even watch both of them in the first place? This is a difficult question to answer and one that I have no true solution, honestly.

I mentioned above that I started with the original Fullmetal Alchemist and adored it as one of my favorite series at the time. Immediately after finishing it, I had to see the manga’s real events and check out Brotherhood which is more faithful, but I could not get into it.

It is the elusive series that I have tried countless times to get into and get a little bit further each time before giving up. On the other hand, I have heard the same from people who tried Brotherhood first and then the 2003 series. It does seem like it is very hard to try and finish both series, given how different their tones are. In this way, the best option is to give both a try for the first few episodes and see how their execution is, then stick with the one that best suits you.

If you like a more serious and balanced tone between comedy and tragedy, along with a slower and arguably better take on the earlier arcs, try Fullmetal Alchemist 2003. If you prefer a more manga-faithful series for the latter arcs with much better animation and a more comedic flair, then you should check out Brotherhood.

Question: Why is Fullmetal Alchemist the best anime?

Answer: This is ultimately subjective and up to each person. I do not think it is the best anime of all time, but many fans do think this, and it is worthy of being in the top 10, for sure. The story is devastating, emotional, and able to teach the reader/viewer about themselves.
The characters are quite good, too, especially in the case of the leads: Ed and Al. For me, the other cast members are a bit lackluster and uninteresting at times, but the series is always anchored by these two lovable protagonists, that are some of the best in anime history.
It helps, too, that the writing is supplemented by a rich world and alchemy system along with great action. All of these components come together to make an amazing series that is one of the greatest anime and manga series ever created.

Conclusion

Fullmetal Alchemist is considered one of the greatest manga and anime series ever made, if not the very best, depending on who you ask. The story of these two brothers is a riveting one and is highly recommended for checking out as a must-try for all manga and anime fans out there.

Now that you know all about this masterpiece of a series, if you are looking for another franchise that is considered among the very best ever made, we recommend checking out my full breakdown about everything you need to know about Cowboy Bebop. While a completely different setting from the one in Fullmetal Alchemist, both have the honor of being considered among the best series ever created.

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