Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no renkinjutsushi)
Japan (2017) Dir. Fumihiko Sori
It’s taken a while but after many false starts, not to mention a patient wait for the special effects technology to get up to speed, another hugely popular manga and anime property makes the leap to live action. Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist manga ran from 2001 to 2010, with two noted anime adaptations appearing in 2003 and 2009.
Distributed here in the west by Netflix, this live action version comes courtesy of Fumihiko Sori, whose resume boasts a mixture of action and CGI animated fantasy tales, so ideally he should be a suitable fit for this particular title. Adapting the script with Takeshi Miyamoto, Sori had the unenviable task of condensing 27 volumes of Arakawa’s original work to fit inside 134 minutes.
Along with attracting potential new viewers, the toughest audience will be the FMA fans whose expectations will be high and their cynical modes switched to overdrive. Because of the sheer wealth and depth of the material, whatever is excised or mess with will be met with scorn regardless, so Sori has been forced to conflate a number of key plot points to suit the time restrictions and redacted narrative.
The film opens with the fateful day at the turn of the alternate 20th century when the mother of the young Elrich brothers, Edward and Alphonse, suddenly passes away. Their absent father is a respected alchemist, so the grieving brothers break the top taboo in alchemy and try to restore their mother’s life. The experiment goes wrong with Ed losing an arm and a leg but not before his able to transmute Al’s soul into a suit of armour.
Fast-forward a few years and Ed (Ryôsuke Yamada) and Al are now state alchemists searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone which they believe will restore Al’s life and give Ed his limbs back. In the town of Lore, they track down a sham priest Father Cornello (Kenjirō Ishimaru) exposing his alchemy as the power of the Philosopher’s Stone, but the stone is also fake. While the brothers go back to the drawing board, a group of Homunculi also have an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone.
It becomes quite evident early on that Sori has placed himself in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation – in fact ANY director who took on this project would be. So let’s examine the positives first, of which there are plenty. First, the costumes of the military are spot on replicas of the animated version, right down to the small details like the gloves and official accessories.
Being filmed in Italy also allows the European aesthetic of this alternate world to play a huge part in recreating the settings of the original material, whilst the character never use deliberately bespoke Japanese phrase in their dialogue. Sori has also cast actors who closely resemble Arakawa’s characters and not poor cosplayers, prime examples being Ryuta Sato as Captain Hughes, Misako Renbutsu as Riza Hawkeye and Dean Fujioka as Roy Mustang.
Al Elrich in his armoured form looks fantastic, a part-CGI motion capture creation based on actor Atom Mizuishi who also provides the voice. The effects are generally good with some dodgy masking with the live action interaction, but when they need to really shine, they do. Ed’s automail limbs also looks good as do the chimera (yes they adapt that bit of the story).
Sori was nothing if not faithful to replicating the spirit and integrity of the original FMA beyond the visuals and this is palpable in every frame, but if we were to judge this film solely on good intentions then it would a five star masterpiece. It’s unfortunate that the manga and anime are so highly regarded that Sori’s efforts would be under close scrutiny regardless of how well he did, but the hardcore fans will find plenty to criticise.
Part of the problem is the how significant parts of the story have been omitted to suit a singularly contained outing, which also means the absence of many relevant and popular characters, like Rose, Winry’s granny, Major Armstrong (to be fair no-one could pull that role off), Izumi and perhaps most crucially, King Bradley.
Winry, (Tsubasa Honda) is naturally present but they’ve turned her into a whiny, obnoxious, goofy girly-girl caricature, while Hawkeye is barely used and sadly not so kick ass. The Homunculi are carbon copies of their drawn counterparts with Yasuko Matsuyuki making for a sexy but charisma free Lust, Shinji Uchiyama’s Gluttony is barely threatening and Kanata Hongō’s Envy looks the part except for the androgyny – not to mention their motives as nominal villains aren’t fully explained.
Because there is so much of the subplots and stepping stone arcs excised to fit the run time, the bond between the brothers isn’t given room to grow and expand here as it does in its predecessors. This and the relationships with and involving the State Alchemists are also left without discussion – in fact, many of them aren’t even formally named, with Mustang only called “Roy” once, suggesting Sori was intentionally targeting the knowledgeable fans who could fill in their own blanks.
134 minutes seems like plenty of time for this story to unfold but there is too much vital information and key developments missing yet Sori still manages to hit a lull in the second act that slows everything down. And it has to be said that despite his best efforts and doing all his own stunts, Ryôsuke Yamada doesn’t convince as Ed – he’s too tall to be a “shorty” (they still tease him though) and he is lacking that empathic spark to endear him to the audience.
Overall, I will say that Sori’s live action Fullmetal Alchemist is the most ambitious in its scope and is true to the original aesthetic as it could possibly be given the medium. It might try too hard to cover all the bases, but at least it’s not Attack On Titan bad.