"To obtain anything, something of equal value must be lost. This is the principle of Equivalent Exchange."
In an alternate world in which the mystical scientific discipline of "Alchemy" (renkinjutsu) serves as the central power for development of mankind's capabilities, the early 1900s are both wildly different and yet somehow familiar. Edward Elric and his brother Alfonse are orphaned when their mother dies, their father having left mysteriously years before. But Edward and Alfonse are young alchemists, and they decide to use their alchemy to bring their mother back to life – something called "human transmutation", which is one of the most forbidden acts of all alchemy. Neither Edward nor Alfonse understand why it is forbidden, however, and so the two brilliant boys – Ed is 10, Al is 8 –- figure out the techniques needed, gather the materials for a human body, and activate this transmutation.
But everything goes horribly wrong. Alfonse seems to be consumed by the energies unleashed, while Edward loses his left leg… and the thing created within the circle is not, apparently human, let alone their mother. In desperation, Edward attempts to at least call back his brother, binding his soul to the nearest object – a suit of armor. The price for that turns out to be Edward's right arm.
This is the background to all three versions – 2003 anime Fullmetal Alchemist, the manga Fullmetal Alchemist, and the later anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, though in most of the story Ed and Al are considerably older (14-15 at the beginning of the main action for Ed). All three share other similarities in the early portions of the story, though the first anime diverges drastically from the others due to the simple fact that when the first anime was made, the manga was far, far from completion, so the animators were given permission to take what they knew at the point where the manga ran out and create their own story from it.
Fullmetal Alchemist stands out as unique in a number of ways, not the least of which being this: that BOTH anime versions are top-notch anime, demonstrations of the best the medium has to offer, even though one of them was done by people who had no idea what the creator actually intended. Both draw much of their strength from Hiromu Arakawa's deep and complex world – a world whose complexity is not even revealed fully by simply reading the manga. Every name, every event is a reference to something – ranging from people named for military vehicles and firearms to references to European history, folklore, Kabbalah, and other things. One example of her attention to detail is that there are several instances where something is only shown briefly – a single panel of manga, a few frames of video – which turns out to be both incredibly detailed and meaningful, such as the symbolism and writing on Major Armstrong's gauntlets.
The great strength of "FMA" is in its politics and the interplay of the characters who drive the political maneuvering around the quest of the two brothers to achieve one simple goal which is, at the same time, considered virtually impossible: get back what they lost. It is both an intensely personal journey, following Ed and Al in a search for the fabled Philosopher's Stone,and an tale of war, deceit, betrayal, courage, fear, and heroism that reaches truly epic proportions. Every major character is complex and human in unexpected ways, even those who seem at first to be simple, or even caricatures. As in Babylon 5, "No one here is exactly what he seems."
But the fact that the heart of the book is a great political/tactical chess game doesn't mean that it isn't chock-full of awesome action. Arakawa's sense of dramatics, timing, and skill at drawing her characters and events make the manga and the anime derived from them as powerful and exciting as any other. The follow-on to the original anime, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shambollah, brought Edward Elric into pre-WWII Germany and face to face with the mysticism that underlay the Nazi party's beginnings – a mysticism that had, in this case, considerable foundation. Some didn't like the movie, but both Kathleen and I thought it was really well done and a logical extension of the first series.
FMA is also mostly devoid of the most annoying quirks of most modern anime; there is very little comedy for the sake of comedy, characters are rarely if ever stupid for no reason, and most of the comedic moments are born from the fact that our main characters are, in fact, still children, children forced into a war they do not even yet understand.
I strongly recommend these series to anyone at all interested in anime, or strong stories in general. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa has created a story and world that can stand proudly alongside the best that any in science fiction or fantasy have produced.