Manga Madness: Fullmetal Alchemist (2017)

Fullmetal Alchemist movie poster featuring Ryosuke Yamada.

Ah, Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa’s beloved fantasy manga that takes a forgotten science and uses it to tackle themes of corruption, war, and hubris in a fictional world full of multifaceted characters with challenging backstories and complex moral philosophies, each of whom grow and change through their extraordinary experiences and relationships with each other. A great contender for a two-hour long film, right? No? Well, it seems nobody told Warner Brothers that…

The film starts off with a glimpse into the Elric brothers’ past – so far, so faithful; the manga and first anime adaptation start the same way. But instead of drip-feeding the audience the information to keep the intrigue going, the major events of the Elrics’ childhood – from creating toys with alchemy to impress their mother to beginning their ill-fated attempt at resurrection – are crammed into the first seven minutes, in a sequence that appears to exist solely to get a pile of exposition out of the way rather than to create any kind of emotional connection between the audience and the characters.

From here we are launched straight into the action, as Edward (Ryôsuke Yamada) chases the fraudulent priest Father Cornello through the streets of Reole. This is only the first of many manga storylines that show up, to some degree, in the film, which also speeds through the Elrics’ stay with Shou Tucker, finding Doctor Marcoh, Al’s suspicion that his memories are fake (a subplot which goes nowhere and seems to have been included simply to remind people that Al is there, actually) and investigating Laboratory Five. Throw in some creepy doll soldiers, a power-hungry General and a homunculi conspiracy to frame Colonel Roy Mustang for murder, and you’ve got a film in which a lot happens, and nothing lingers long enough to leave an impression. Moments that should carry emotional impact, such as the Tucker reveal, fail to hit the spot as the narrative diverts its attention to another subplot before the previous one has had time to fully develop.

In trying to rush through so many storylines in little over two hours, there is little time to get to know any of the characters, a perhaps fatal blow to a story known for its compelling cast as much as its plot or mythos. Alphonse bears the brunt of this: perhaps due to the budgetary difficulties of having one of the main characters composed out of CGI, or the challenge of how to endear the audience to a suit of armour who cannot change its facial expression, the younger Elric brother is sidelined significantly in this adaption, and features more as a reminder of Ed’s motivation throughout the story than as an equal participant in their shared quest.

As for the human characters, Ed and Winry (Tsubasa Honda) are largely faithful to their hand-drawn counterparts, though the tendency of the actors to fall into anime-style heightened speech and physicality is grating. Roy (Dean Fujioka) and Riza (Misako Renbutsu) fare somewhat better, and the latter gets her chance to shine commanding the soldiers in their fight against the one-eyed doll army. Her reaction to noticing the wounded Colonel’s blood on her hands is perhaps one of the few moments that does tug at the heartstrings, at least for those already invested in their relationship. The best performance, however, is undoubtedly Ryûta Satô as the newly-demoted ‘Captain’ Maes Hughes, who captures the loveable officer’s personality without resorting to anime-esque caricature.

In its radical re-structuring of the story,  it is hard not to compare the film with the 2003 anime series, which diverged radically from its source material after catching up to Arakawa’s manga around half way through. But where that adaptation built on the mythology and themes of the original story, this live-action version fails to explore the depths of the world it portrays, using the characters, settings, and alchemy lingo as little more than a backdrop for another generic action-fantasy. Unfortunate, but hardly unexpected, this live-action outing is one installment of an excellent franchise that sadly misses the mark.

Fullmetal Alchemist is streaming now on Netflix.