Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist Review
Fullmetal Alchemist screened in Japan and at the Anime NYC convention. It will become available to stream on Netflix on February 19, 2018.
In life, there are certain unshakable truths. The tides will flow. The sun will rise (for now, anyway). And live-action movie versions of big-name manga rarely work out. Just this year, we had to witness the crash-burn wreckage of Tokyo Ghoul on the cinematic tarmac. And in 2015, the first Attack on Titan movie was poorly received, making its sequel the same year an embarrassing box office disaster.
But now, anime fans will gather at the promised land of Fullmetal Alchemist(Japanese title: Hagane no Renkinjutsushi), known to Japanese fans as Hagaren, to cast their vote on its cinematic worth and faithfulness to the original manga authored by Hiromu Arakawa.
The timing is right: After Ghoul and Titan, moviegoers and anime fans alike are a little fed up with flesh-eating gore fests. We’re ready for something stylish and fantastical, with moments of hilarity to alleviate the seriousness. And what better vehicle than Fullmetal Alchemist, the story of two brothers who are genius alchemists on a quest to find the mysterious Philosopher’s Stone and make themselves (and the world) a little better? The original manga is retro-cute, with faux-science themes and a whiff of Harry Potter, and it has already spawned anime movies and TV series. Japanese fans are used to loving this like an old and trusted friend.
The story, briefly, goes like this: In an effort to resurrect their dead mother, the Elric brothers had embarked on a dangerous and prohibited human alchemy project. In the aftermath, younger brother Alphonse lost his entire body and his older sibling Edward an arm and a leg. They learn of the Philosopher’s Stone, which has the power to recover Alphonse’s body. And so, bound by brotherly love and a mutual desire to unlock the deepest mysteries of alchemy, Ed and Al set forth on a quest that takes them to unknown lands and an array of interesting characters, some helpful and others menacing.
The manga series has reportedly sold over 70 million copies worldwide. Before becoming a manga legend, author Arakawa used to work as a parking attendant at a rehab center for the physically challenged. In humorous interviews, she has described the job as an experience that changed her perception of humanity, being especially impressed by the apparent ease with which some patients deployed their prosthetic limbs.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Ed gives up his right arm in order to transplant the soul of his kid brother Al into a suit of armor, thus enabling Al to move and speak. It’s a barter he makes at the Gate of Truth, a kind of gateway to the afterlife and a place where all of life’s questions find answers. This theme of exchange (the Law of Equivalent Exchange) frequently crops up in the series. Ed always stresses that in life and in alchemy, there are no free rides. There is always a trade-off, to the tune of an eye for an eye and a limb for a limb.
The live-action movie version is directed by Fumihiko Sori, best known for bringing the eminently likable Ping Pong (also adapted from a bestselling manga) to the big screen). Sori has a feel for translating the manga experience into live-action cinema and he does a sound job of condensing the Fullmetal story into an incident-and-action-packed 2 hours and 13 minutes, set against an idyllic Italian townscape.
Having said that, it seems the sheer scale of Fullmetal Alchemist had an unnerving effect on Sori. The narrative often suffers from a lack of coherence and sequential breakdown. Perhaps in an effort to contain the sprawl, Sori chose to work with a small cast of a chosen few, but fans will be disappointed to find key characters are missing, including the brothers’ nemesis Scar and their boss, King Bradley. It doesn’t bode well for feminists that Winry Rockbell (played by Tsubasa Honda) – the brothers’ childhood friend and ace metalsmith – is reduced to that of typical helpmate instead of the fierce individual in the original manga. And Yasuko Matsuyuki as Lust is pretty much a stereotypical evil hottie with extending claws and CG-enhanced cleavage.
Much of the controversy will center around the centerpiece: Ed. This all-important role goes to Ryosuke Yamada, from the pop-idol group Hey! Say! JUMP. Does he deliver? The answer is yeah, maybe for about a quarter of the running time. He certainly has the right look: elfin, bottle blonde and asexually cute. But Yamada lacks the charisma to carry the entire movie, and his action sequences are devoid of the giddy buoyancy Ed has in the anime versions.
Sori, who had choreographed masterful physical scenes in Ping Pong, relies a bit too heavily on CG this time. As a result, Ed’s movements are never as light or soaring as the alchemy magic, expertly doctored with CG. Cobblestones fly off street surfaces and morph into monsters. Metal spokes come clanging down from the sky, forming an instantaneous cage to contain an enemy. But Ed himself is often static, and there are an awful lot of close-ups to make up for the fact that he’s not doing much with his body or his emotions.
Which is a shame, because bodies are practically the whole point of Fullmetal Alchemist. Arakawa’s original story lauded the human body, but more than that, it was a celebration of the human will to overcome physical injuries, shortcomings, DNA patterns and destiny itself. Yamada’s Ed is too pretty and manicured, and even when his rages take hold (in the original, Ed is often a fireball of anger), he’s ultimately unruffled. Another unfortunate point, since brother Al can’t show his emotions (encased as he is in a suit of armor) and relies on Ed to unleash his feelings, and really live, on his behalf.
Overall, Fullmetal Alchemist has some good things going for it, but needs to fix the leaks and sputtering in the narrative’s engine. The movie leaves room for a sequel, so maybe we’ll get to see a new and improved Hagaren soon. In the meantime, I’ll pull out my stash of Arakawa’s original manga and bask in the delight of retracing the Elric brothers’ journey.
While there are flaws galore in this live-action movie version, you get a sense that the director has a real love for the original source material. The color schemes and costumes have exactly the right hues and texture, and the ambiance is engaging overall. Sori nails some parts, like when Ed is at the Gate of Truth, and the climactic showdown scenes with the Homunculus. There are definitely some gems among the rubble, but it takes work to find them among the reduced cast of characters, a sometimes incoherent plot, and an unconvincing lead actor. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Fullmetal Alchemist altogether, and at least fans will have plenty to talk about after seeing the movie.