It’s a bit difficult to know where to begin or how best to approach the subject. I’ve tried keeping an open mind while reading, pushing the 2003 anime as far back in my head as possible, but it’s a nigh-impossible effort when their stories follow closely until the seventh volume of the manga. There’s huge divergences in the 2003 anime even in its infancy, but the backbone of the story remains similar enough until after the first Greed encounter that it’s hard not to compare the different depictions of the events.
It’s also difficult to tell how much of my feelings on the manga stem from both seeing the 2003 anime and becoming wholly attached to it, as well as the extremely negative experience I’ve had with the manga’s fanbase.
Many say that the 2003 story vs. the manga’s debates didn’t become as prominent or as...vicious as they were after Brotherhood aired, but I’d be inclined to disagree. In 2005, before Tumblr, it was hard to find discussion of the anime that didn’t cycle back to the manga. It’d be one thing if it was simply, “I thought the manga executed this better”; instead (and I’m guessing this was likely because the 2003 anime at this point was both the best-known and widely available version of the story, resulting in resentment from fans of the manga, so I understand where it comes from) they were downright scathing comments. The manga wasn’t just better by preference, it was considered objectively, indisputably better, and if you preferred the anime and even considered it an intelligent, thoughtfully-put together story, you were stupid and just liked angst--which is a lesser art form or something. I’d get into how comments like that affected my depression, and even made me reluctant to disclose my depressed thoughts (after all, it was just pointless angst that I needed to get over, right?) but I’m already veering enough from the topic of “what did I think of the manga” as is.
I will add one last observation on the 2003 vs. the manga debates, and that’s that while Brotherhood’s release didn’t help to temper them, they did push them in another direction. Suddenly, it was no longer a case of which was better and what that said about your intelligence--now, it was a matter of morality. Which you preferred didn’t just say something about your tastes, but also how you are as a person; particularly whether you were a good feminist or not.
With all that context of my experiences in mind, I hope you can see now how it’s a difficult subject for me to engage with an open mind. Anyway, the manga.
It’s a solid, well-paced read. The sheer amount of stories to keep track of towards the final few volumes were a bit overwhelming, but for the most part, it did a fine job of telling a cohesive story and answering questions, including ones that may never have occurred to the reader.
I was pretty emotionally detached from it, however.
By the time I reached the Briggs arc I was reading it for the sake of completing it, not because I was invested in the story or the characters. That isn’t to say the story was bad, or that the characters were unlikable--they were just largely uninteresting to me, save for a couple characters. They all behaved rationally most of the time, any moments of internal conflict or grief would be resolved within a single chapter (or even a single moment), and as a result, it was difficult to really feel any sort of struggle the characters were going through as the story went on. They were all wholly supportive of each other, rarely went into large disagreements that met with consequences in the story, and any sort of trauma the characters went through could easily be resolved with a “Just keep moving forward and endure the pain.”
This line of logic can be taken as inspirational, but other times it can be unintentionally cruel. Winry even points out how harsh Edward’s words of encouragement to Rose were after she learned all she believed in was a lie, but before that can be explored further, Rose concedes it was for the best and got the city back on its feet. It would have been fascinating to see this logic challenged, particularly when it pertains to characters like Scar, who have suffered the trauma of systematic genocide and racism. It’s a position Edward wasn’t ever put it, and can’t easily say to Scar, fresh out of surviving the genocide, “Just stand up and walk!”
Alas, Edward is partially challenged on this when he’s confronted by Miles, a part-Ishbalan man, on how Edward’s people committed the genocide of the Ishbalans--only for Edward to retaliate with “Well your people burned down my town and killed my friends’ parents!” It’s never challenged again, instead met up with Miles is impressed that someone talked back at him. It gets even worse when Scar’s revelation for deciding to ally with Edward and company is his master’s words of “We have to endure this anger” and his brother’s words of “If we let [the negative emotions] go and hold on to positive emotions instead, the world will become a river of peace and justice.” It’s the exact logic majorities bestow upon minorities to keep them in line--oh, it’s all in the past, just let it go. Don’t let how the racism of the past has clearly influenced the racism of the present get to you. It’s a shame, because Scar was easily, easily my favorite part of the 2003 anime, and I wanted to see to story where he gets to live--but not like this.
It dips into other skeevier elements I just couldn’t unsee, such as Scar admiring Miles for trying to “change” the way people see Ishbalans (which he absolutely shouldn’t have to do) by joining the military, the very people responsible for their people’s genocide (something that, again, is reflected in real life--”Please don’t behave like that, or else the majority will hate us even more”), or Roy being completed unaffected by the Ishbal war, or Riza and Scar trying to convince a vengeance-hungry Roy not to kill Envy (the being who triggered the Ishbal war, killed Roy’s friend, and many, many others) or else he’ll become “just as bad” as Scar. The latter might have worked if Roy had accidentally hurt or killed others in the process of trying to kill Envy, but such a thing never happens, and the added fact that Roy had already killed a homunculus in the past makes the concerns of the characters completely ludicrous.
Despite all my criticisms and general apathy towards the series, there were things I genuinely liked about it. I thought Bradley was an excellent villain and character; he had the best fights, the best quiet moments, a great backstory, a superbly-done death, and had surprising hidden dimensions to his character (I’d love to know the relation to his wife, but just the “I chose her” was enough). Kimblee was a great, fun villain too; I liked how he never really looked down on heroes and even understood where they were coming from, and even called them out when they were being inappropriately dishonest (such as the excuses they made for themselves during the Ishbal War).
I didn’t expect Hohenheim to die at all, and it actually hit me hard when he did. The extra chapter with him meeting up with Trisha was really touching. There was something indescribably touching about Selim’s true form being a fetus, Edward returning him to his mother, and him growing into an ordinary child.
I loved the ending. It was strange, after feeling little to nothing at all from the story, I could feel all the emotions contained in the ending. I’ve seen some say that it was too “perfect” for their liking, and I suspected I’d feel the same--but I didn’t. There was something immensely satisfying about it all, it might be because of how significantly more grounded it was from a majority of the manga, seeing the Elrics living out an ordinary life happily. And I loved the other extra chapter about Alphonse’s armor. Again, something about that grounded approach just really hit that sweet spot for me.
So I’m glad I read it. I wish I could say I wholeheartedly loved it, but it was missing too many of the elements I adored from the 2003 anime and previous bad fandom experiences may have unfairly soured me to it. At the very least, I loved the ending.