Live-action anime adaptations are especially difficult propositions. Recent adaptations of Tokyo Ghoul, Death Note, and Attack on Titan were all met with mixed reactions (and the less said about Ghost in the Shell, the better). On the other hand, Takashi Miike tends to strike gold with the genre and has turned challenging works likes Phoenix Wright, Terra Formers, and Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure into worthwhile films, while the recent live-action take on Gintama was surprisingly impressive.
But it’s an uphill battle for something like Fullmetal Alchemist, especially when the property in question is such a beloved series. Fullmetal Alchemist (and Fullmetal Alchemist : Brotherhood) is considered by many to be one of the best anime of all time. Fumihiko Sori’s film adaptation isn’t a complete success, but there are moments where the movie is pure magic. Sori taps into the spirit and wondrous feeling of the anime and it’s clear that he is a fan of the source material, which is paramount for a project of this nature.
Fullmetal Alchemist tells the story of the two Elric brothers, Edward and Alphonse, two prodigies on the hunt for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. It’s a simple enough shonen-style narrative and the series excels in its efforts to throw wild concepts at the audience, but this bizarre jumble of science, magic, civil war, and action somehow comes together, just like…alchemy. Alchemy itself is given a lot of leeway in the film’s universe, but one area in which there are a number of restrictions is when it comes to the topic of resurrection. Life and death aren’t to be played around with, yet Ed and Al persist and try to bring back their dead mother. It’s a disastrous decision that leads to Alphonse losing his entire body. Ed then sacrifices a literal arm and a leg in order to bind Al’s soul to a suit of armor and at least allow him the ability to move and speak. It’s not practical to cover approximately 60 anime episodes worth of material, so Sori’s film tackles the infamously tragic first arc of the series. That’s still a fair bit to cram into a single film and Fullmetal Alchemist definitely feels like it covers a lot of ground.
Sori’s casting of Ed may be a big point of contention for some viewers. The role goes to Ryosuke Yamada, which apparently caused a fair bit of controversy over in Japan. Yamada is from the pop-idol group Hey! Say! JUMP and he’s more of a musician than an actor. In spite of this, Yamada has the right look for the innocent, naive elf-like character. However, when the film moves into more challenging territory Yamada does seem to have a harder time channeling Ed’s more complex emotions. Some moments are dead-on, but he sometimes lacks the alarmingly chipper attitude that fuels Ed in the anime. The rest of the cast, like Dean Fujioka who plays the conflicted Roy Mustang, and Yasuko Matsuyuki, who brings the unhinged monster Lust to life, all channel their anime equivalents well. Sori uses an entirely Japanese cast here even though the film is set in Europe (specifically Italy). This does feel a little strange at first and Sori has spoken about his reluctance about this decision, but it’s a choice that makes sense due to the nature of this production.
Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t the first anime that Fumihiko Sori has adapted to live-action. In fact, he apparently got this gig because of his work on his adaptation of Ping Pong. That’s not exactly surprising to hear since Ping Pong is full of impressive choreography and cinematography that perfectly lends itself to something as chaotic and action-packed as Fullmetal Alchemist. Sori impresses with many of these battles, but he unfortunately leans a little too hard on CG this time around. The movie often uses CG to augment scenes in incredible ways, which absolutely adds to the film’s unbelievable action and sense of suspense and helps make Al’s movements look as fluid as they need to be. One of the reasons that people love Fullmetal Alchemist is because of its breathtaking battle scenes. When it comes to the film’s version of these it feels like most of the effort was channeled into the movie’s first big fight scene, which is absolutely perfect. The movie never hits this high again (although the showdown with the Humunculus towards the end comes close) and the sort of kinetic choreography that’s present from the anime comes in and out of the film.
Despite the abundance of CG, the alchemy effects are a delight to watch in action (especially Roy Mustang’s fire alchemy) and it’s surprising just how good Alphonse’s suit of armor looks for something that’s entirely CG. The incarnate of the Seven Deadly Sins are also all appropriately terrifying and don’t crumble under the weight of their effects. They’re a tricky element of this universe to bring to life, but the film largely does them justice.
The first half of the film is definitely heavier on the humor, but the doom and gloom begins to stack up for the film’s conclusion. But the film focuses so much on moving forward and building momentum that it forgets to address details for the uninitiated, like what “Central” is, what specifically Homunculi are, and what Philosopher’s Stones do. These question marks don’t cripple the film and they could be easily answered in a sequel, but they’re still crucial omissions.
If you’re completely unfamiliar with Fullmetal Alchemist’s story, the film’s ending may feel a little unsatisfying. Elements get wrapped up, but this is far from the conclusion of the story and it feels like a second (or third) film are necessary to finish up this sprawling saga. Sori definitely chooses the right moment to conclude the film, but it doesn’t exactly give a strong feeling of closure.
While there are a lot of great moments in this movie, it’s a lengthy endeavor (nearly two and a half hours) and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on thanks to a complicated, confusing plot and a cast that doesn’t always hit the mark. This film may be strong enough to create new Fullmetal Alchemist fans out of those who are unfamiliar with the source material, but it’s not impressive enough for existing fans of the property to think that this is a home run, either. It walks the line between fandoms, which is likely for the best, but that still leads to some disconnect in the end.
After watching this film it probably wouldn’t hurt for everyone to just give the original series a spin, whether it’s for the first time or for a repeat viewing.
Fullmetal Alchemist is now streaming on Netflix.