I'm going to need some terminology.
"The manga" = Hiromu Arakawa's award-winning Fullmetal Alchemist manga (27 volumes, 2001-10). It's famous. It's sold 64 million copies worldwide.
"Mizushima" = the first anime adaptation (51 episodes + OVAs + movie, 2003-4), directed by Seiji Mizushima. (No one but me calls it that, by the way. It's a label I've just made up for the sake of a readable review.) Anyway, this was massively popular. It got lots of Westerners into anime and was important in the mid-00s anime boom. The only problem is that only a quarter of the original manga had been written at this time, so they had to invent their own storyline in the second half of the series.
"Brotherhood" = the second anime adaptation (64 episodes + OVAs + movie, 2009-10). It's a faithful, complete version of Arakawa's manga.
Both series have devoted fans and there's fierce disagreement as to which is better. What's more, Tomoko has read the manga. It's on our bookshelves. We thus bought both series on DVD and we're going to watch it all, so obviously I started with the later series. That seemed like the right way round to me. I wanted to begin with the faithful version and then compare the very different Mizushima with it, rather than the other way around.
I enjoyed it. It's not perfect, mind you. The actual story it's telling is great, but the adaptation is less so. (I know a couple of people who'd really enjoyed the Mizushima series and were put off by their first impressions of Brotherhood, although the one who stuck with the show anyway has since reported that she's enjoying the later episodes more.) The early episodes though are rushed and occasionally I'd get annoyed at the director for not finding the full emotional weight of a dramatic moment. However it's a fast-paced, complete retelling of a stonking 5000-page adventure. The finale in particular makes up for everything.
The story, by the way, is set in an English-speaking world where alchemy works. It's the year 1915, with fashions, cars, radios, etc. evocative of that era, but the countries are all different. Our heroes (Ed and Al) are State Alchemists in Amestris, a country which only a few years earlier waged a genocidal war of extermination against a neighbouring desert kingdom, Ishbal, and now might have a terrorist problem. (Amestris isn't Christian and Ishbal isn't Islamic, but the similarities are still striking.)
Oh, and Ed and Al once made the mistake of trying to use alchemy to resurrect their late mother. Ed now has a prosthetic arm and leg, while Al is prosthetic from head to toe. His body's completely gone. The thing calling itself Al is a suit of armour that Ed bonded to his brother's soul.
All this set-up cuts close to the bone if you're looking for real-world parallels. Ed and Al are working for and alongside war criminals. Amestrisian soldiers shot children, even if most of them now hate themselves for it. What's more, worse is coming.
All this is strong. However Brotherhood's big problem is the existence of Mizushima. I don't need to have seen both to know that. It's obvious. I can tell just from the manga. The anime's in too much of a hurry, galloping through the material in its eagerness to reach something that the audience haven't seen before. If they'd kept up that early pace, they'd have finished the story in 44 episodes, not 64. The result is an abbreviated, inferior retelling, both in big ways and in little ones that don't actually save any screen time and just suggest a bad director. For example:
Ep.3 (Liore and Father Cornello) - cut down from the manga version and less interesting for it, I think, although some thought has clearly gone into it. They've punched up Roze's story role, for instance. Nonetheless this is just the first of several episodes that are being weakened by the anime's haste. Ed and Al's terror of their old teacher some time later, for instance, isn't justified by what we're shown of her in the anime. Tomoko was often disappointed by how much got cut out.
Ep.9 - The angst and reconciliation of Ed and Al isn't evoked as convincingly as it should have been, I think.
Ep.10 - Similarly, the graveyard scene feels rushed and superficial, but in a way that's wasting screen time. The camera's restless. There's too much motion. Even a shorter scene would have been stronger had it had more stillness.
In fairness, though, there are plenty of reviews from 2009 that criticise this show for just retreading Mizushima. This will have been a common audience reaction at the time. Mizushima had been a high-profile series and in context it's hard to say that these Brotherhood production decisions were wrong. The show also starts with two non-manga original episodes that heavily foreshadow later developments, to the extent that Tomoko was annoyed in ep.1 that Random Freezing Bloke knew so much top-secret stuff.
I can understand why they did all that. It's still a weakened adaptation, though. I bet the best way to experience Fullmetal Alchemist as an anime would be to watch Mizushima up to the plot divergence point, then switch to Brotherhood.
Brotherhood's pace relaxes after a couple of dozen episodes, though. I still had a niggling sense that I wasn't being sucked into the characters quite as much as I'd have liked, but the show settles into its strong, well-told story. The Homunculi have an almost limitless capacity for horror and killing. (Envy's the most morally abhorrent, not only having done SPOILER and SPOILER but then bragging about it when asked. He's not as scary as Wrath, Pride and Sloth, though.) Meanwhile the war criminal side of the storyline goes a lot further than you'd think. The dead stay dead. Good people fight bad people and get hurt, crippled or killed.
And then we have the multi-episode finale. That's powerful. They get all the emotions right. That was really, really good and basically made me forgive all the little problems I'd had until then.
My favourite characters were the non-superpowered ones, I think. It's the ordinary humans just doing their best (Winry Rockbell, Riza Hawkeye and even arguably Olivier Armstrong) who made me care the most. That said, though, the funniest was Stripping Muscleman Alex Armstrong and the coolest was Izumi Curtis. There is no such thing as "too much Izumi".
The show has a lot to think about too. It's doing the morality of war in a chillingly real-world way that I don't remember seeing before. The Amestrisians are basically English-speaking Western Europeans committing genocide in the Middle East, then coming home and carrying on as normal. Arakawa wrote this, as I said before, shortly before such subject matter became globally topical. However there's also a holistic circle of life thing going on, with a lot of family relationships (literal and metaphorical) and birth as well as death. Ed visibly grows up. "I shall not kill" gets explored with unusual subtlety and conviction. Childbirth is a major story element twice. (As it happens, Arakawa gave birth during the run of the manga and didn't even let it disrupt her monthly publication schedule.)
Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention more of those moral ambiguities. Ed and Al have to team up with terrorists, villains, comedic serial killers and worse, while on the other hand, a monster like Wrath can also have a well-protected human side. Scar on his own would make this a challenging series.
Trivial observation: I got irritated by the American voice saying "Fullmetal Alchemist" at the advertising breaks on the Japanese dub. For those who are interested, though, I hear that the English-language dub is said to be excellent.
Despite some subtle problems, this show is solid. It's a fun adventure, but also an intelligent one. Its first third makes enough missteps to diminish my opinion of it as an adaptation, but Arakawa's story easily carries it anyway. Besides, the show keeps getting stronger and stronger. By the end, it's outstanding. I'm also thoroughly enjoying the manga and looking forward to Mizushima. Before that, though, Brotherhood also has some OVAs and a movie...