By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Both a beloved, long-running manga (by Hiromu Arakawa) and hugely popular anime series, Fullmetal Alchemist now makes the leap to the big screen as a live-action movie, and although it offers a moderate amount of expertly crafted, fast-paced entertainment, the people behind this big budget adaptation have oddly made the mistake of largely excising the material’s meticulous groundwork, making it hard to fully connect with the large gallery of characters and the epic journey they embark on.
Set in the early years of the twentieth century, this is an alternate universe where alchemy is a known and accepted science, mostly practised by trained officers appointed by the military government. One of these State Alchemists is Edward Elric (Ryosuke Yamada), who has joined this elite outfit so he can obtain a legendary object called the Philosopher’s Stone, which is supposed to have the power to bring people back from the dead.
Edward lost his mother at an early age, dropping dead in front of him and his younger brother Alphonse, and he needs the stone so he can hopefully resurrect her through the power of alchemy. The two young boys, who were already proficient at their craft, once tried to bring their mother back, using the rule that to create something, something of equal value has to be exchanged. The attempt backfires badly, with Edward losing an arm and leg, while Alphonse’s entire body is taken by those on the other side (at a place known as the Gate of Truth), and it is only through his brother’s quick thinking that Alphonse’s soul is placed inside a nearby suit of armour.
Racked with guilt over what happened, Edward not only wants to bring his mother back, but also to return to Alphonse (voiced by Atomu Mizuishi) his body which was suddenly taken from him. Until that time, the two stand by one another, helping each other whenever a case comes Edward’s way.
After an elaborate chase sequence involving what may be the Philosopher’s Stone, the two brothers are sent by his commanding officer, Colonel Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka), to the house of Shou Tucker (Yo Oizumi), another alchemist who is following his own agenda. Appearing on the scene too is Edward’s colleague, the happily married Captain Hughes (Ryuta Sato), who has been ordered to investigate Mustang’s office, and childhood friend Winfry (Tsubasa Honda), who is the one who makes and repairs his impressively strong mechanical limbs.
Overseeing the agents’ progress is General Haruko (Fumiyo Kohinata), who is baffled by the arrival of Lust (Yasuko Matsuyuki), Envy (Kanata Hongo), and Gluttony (Shinji Uchiyama), three mysterious assailants with powers of their own who also have an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone.
As one can see, there is a lot going on here, with many characters dotting the picturesque Italian landscape, and of course the biggest obstacle to overcome is how to fit all this depth and exposition into one 134 minute movie. Unfortunately, in an effort to squeeze as much of the overall plot in, an inordinate amount of crucial information is eliminated, to the detriment of emotional investment and story cohesion.
Screenwriters Fumihiko Sori and Takeshi Miyamoto (Real Jingo Game, Shinobido) make the strange decision to gut a substantial portion of Edward and Alphonse’s introductory details, specifically the relationship with their mother (and absentee father, a sub-plot which is completely removed), Edward’s determination to become a State Alchemist, and why the surrounding area distrust the government so much. Even the running gag targeting Edward’s height (or lack of it) is truncated, causing the moments which remain to feel decidedly awkward, almost unnecessary.
Winfry’s connection to the brothers is practically non-existent, with some vague comments supposed to fill in the blanks (comments made sometime after Winfry has arrived), but her entire back-story and technical know-how is kept a mystery. Even the alchemy-related incident which caused all the problems and sorrow in the first place isn’t explained until later. What makes this cut-and-splice approach all the more perplexing is that some individual sequences are extended longer than needed.
With so much foundation missing, everything stays at arm’s length, never allowing the audience to become truly involved or sympathetic towards the brothers’ plight, and the absence of pivotal characteristics makes it harder for the cast to present their roles with the required amount of shade and nuance.
Suffering the most is Yamada (Assassination Classroom 1 and 2, The Miracles of the Namiya General Store), who despite his best efforts, can’t fully convey the sense of loss and guilt that weighs heavily on his shoulders, simply due to the fact that his somber, tragic history has been hacked down to an absolute minimum. Fans of the anime and manga who will of course have the necessary background knowledge, may possibly be able to give Edward the kind of dramatic weight he requires, but for someone who has seen multiple episodes of the anime, I still found it hard to completely empathise with Edward’s state-of-mind, and the wrong he so wholeheartedly wants to make right.
Honda (Blue Spring Ride, Night’s Tightrope) succumbs to a similar fate, and although she delivers an agreeably lively turn as Winfry, the almost total lack of depth in the writing hampers her character’s impact and effectiveness. Also somewhat lost in the background are Misako Renbutsu (The Snow White Murder Case, The Emperor in August) as agent Hawkeye, Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Wailing, Mumon: The Land of Stealth) as Marcoh, and excellent character actor Kohinata (Outrage, Survival Family, Solomon’s Perjury Part 1 and 2), who has too little screen time to make an impression.
Faring much better are Fujioka (Shanti Days: 365 Days of Happy Breathing) as Mustang, Oizumi (I Am a Hero, Kakekomi, Detective in the Bar trilogy) as Tucker, and especially Sato (Gachi Boy, Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer, and the hugely successful Umizaru films) as the constantly optimistic Captain Hughes, all able to add that extra spark to their underwritten roles.
Director Sori, who brought Ping Pong (another well-known manga) to the big screen with far greater success in 2002 (although on that occasion he had the support of outstanding scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo), keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, and even though the emotional core may be perfunctory, the visuals are sufficiently dazzling, and combined with just enough intrigue and action, propels proceedings to a viscerally satisfying finale (which contains some fascinating, war-related symbolism and imagery).
For those who have not read the manga or watched the anime, you will find the movie version of Fullmetal Alchemist incomprehensible, lacking heart and story coherency, and even fans maybe initially taken aback by where the story begins and what important details have been excised. But there is still quite a bit to like about this admittedly flawed production (which, after a successful run in Japanese cinemas last December, premiered globally on Netflix on February 19), and it is good enough to make one look forward to the next chapter, which will hopefully not cut out all the stuff that gives the excellent source material its unique heartbeat.