Fullmetal Alchemist was a wonderful, engaging manga and anime series that proved to be a stellar entry point to the medium for many young people in the early 2000s, myself included. FMA was able to transcend the silly nature of never ending Shonen Jump weekly stories and Hiromu Arakawa and successfully build a world of science and magic that blurred together into a unique steampunk, western-inspired sci-fi tale. More than that, it was successful at delivering great characters, a compelling, mysterious plot and worldbuilding that felt altogether unique and believable in the rules of alchemy. Alchemy had one simple rule: a law of Equivalent Exchange. Fullmetal was complex and thought-provoking, but at the end of the day was about two brothers who loved each other and sacrificed to correct past mistakes.
Adaptations from any kind of medium are difficult. Anyone who pays attention to modern entertainment understands this. Whether they’re a part of the creative process, or an overprotective fan on the receiving end of it, or in some cases both, the project is put under a microscope before the script is even finished, and doubly so when the first trailer drops. It’s an especially challenging, and rarely rewarding, task for a creative team to take on adapting something into a film by nature of the transferring of formats, let alone the struggles of doing so with something as high concept as Hiromu Arakawa’s legendary manga.
In a time where the American film industry has exploded with its own comic adaptations from Marvel and DC superheroes, there is no doubt a lot of pressure on Japan to bring its own manga and anime adaptations to the forefront. As a country that doesn’t spend nearly as many millions on film budgets, and with original IP that is inherently more niche and fantastical in nature, it’s no doubt a terrifyingly uphill battle, and Hollywood’s attempts at adapting Dragon Ball and Ghost in the Shell are two reasons why it hasn’t been attempted until now.
Japan has made its own attempts, though with little payoff, with offerings such as Attack on Titan, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and TWO poor adaptations of Death Note, it would seem anime is just not intended, narratively or visually, to be constrained into a two hour summary with living people talking and light usage of CGI action set pieces.
However, with recent box office and critical success of Keishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, Warner Brothers Japan decided to take a chance on another internationally successful manga and anime in Fullmetal Alchemist.
Does this adaptation work? Sort Of.
For the uninitiated who are curious about this due to its popping up in a localized release on Netflix, Fullmetal Alchemist is a world where alchemy, the act of deconstructing and reconstructing matter, is a real, learnable science. The act of “transmutation” can be completed within the confines of a Law of Equivalent Exchange: to create something new, it must be of equal value. Alchemy’s law has complex consequences, especially when attempting to use it to resurrect the dead, which is exactly what two prodigal boys, Edward and Alphonse Elric, try to do for their mother, who abruptly passes away at the beginning of their story. The ultimate costs of this grave mistake are shown with the boys as young men, where Edward’s arm and leg are replaced by metallic constructions, and Alphonse reduced to a soul tied to a hollow suit of armor.
The odd thing about watching this film is its introduction of these concepts, which are oftentimes not presented clearly. Little explanation is given as to how Edward ended up with auto-mail limbs or how a transmutation circle works. I can only imagine the kind of headache this would cause for people who have never seen the anime series before. Obviously, these kinds of details were cut for runtime and pacing, but at the cost of being introduced to a world rich with character and complexity.
However, the film does successfully recreate characters and visuals of the series, almost to a fault. The set designs and on-location sequences in Italy give the western influence of Amestris a lifelike quality, yet are shot with a decidedly plain cinematography style, almost as though the shots were intended to replicate the framing of two dimensional animation cells. Costuming and makeup create an uncanny likeness to the characters in ways that are both convincing and off-putting, particularly in portraying the evil homunculus characters. It’s apparent that the costuming achieves its goal when you see the casting is so on point that the actors’ delivery and mannerisms of their respective characters feels scarily accurate. This is particularly exemplified by Japanese TV actor Ryosuke Yamada as Edward Elric. While the blonde ponytail and red coat look like a convention costume in stills, he embodies the character’s broad range of emotions, from throwing punches in an angsty rage or comically running from rubble. And he does so in a believable way instead of making Edward look like a cartoon character. This same dedication to performance of these highly animated characters (literally and figuratively) is apparent in the rest of the cast.
The visual effects are missing a lot of polish, and combined with the costumes and barely present cinematography, they are nowhere close to the visually believable CGI effects in The Avengers. Yet, it can’t be denied that the effects, particularly the transmutations of surfaces and creatures, look so accurate that they could pulled right from the animation. In regards to the second main character, Edward’s brother Alphonse, his empty suit of armor feels like it belongs and comes across as believable, no doubt helped by the fact that there was a physical suit of armor on set for many shots, providing referential lighting for effects artists, improving its presence in momentary editing of the film.
If there were a contest for the closest possible adaptation accuracy to live action film, I’d consider putting this version of Fullmetal Alchemist on the list. Observing it on its own merits as a film is when an argument for it begins to fall apart. The film, not unlike Rurouni Kenshin (2012), makes a ruthless trimming of the series’ narrative to its barest essentials, telling the plot of the first 15 or so episodes with no anime tropes like stopping to chat for 20 minutes and showing fan service characters that serve no purpose to the story. The plot only expands on one particular character insofar as setting up a third act to create some kind of narrative finality to the first part of the film series. When adapting from screen or page to film, a screenplay must be so airtight with its plot threads that, to introduce fan favorites would create a three hour film that drags. The third act middles between an original plot thread and feeling like an odd fan-service wrap up in the moments following its own rubbery-looking Blockbuster CGI army. To make the choices this film does with a face-off against homunculi Lust, Envy, and Gluttony only makes sense in regards to creating a tone of finality and leave space for new and more fun characters in the second (if it ever gets greenlit).
This adaptation certainly feels like Fullmetal Alchemist, but it’s shorter, flashier and not much more realistic-looking. Much like alchemy, what is taken from the series is replaced by something new, but made up of the same parts. Unfortunately, film adaptations aren’t quite as one-to-one. As a result, it’s hard to recommend to anyone but the most faithful of curious fans.