Full Metal Alchemist (FMA), a much-loved manga created by Hiromu Arakawa has been brought to life on the big screen with help from famed directed Fumihiko Sori, best known for his special effects work on the box office blockbuster Titanic. Published from 2001-2010, FMA has appeared numerously on BookScan and USA Today’s top graphic novel lists. The series’ first volume was the top-selling graphic novel in America in 2005. Needless to say, expectations run high for the live-action adaptation of what has become one of the most widely recognized and adored manga series.
After losing their mother, Alphonse and Edward Elric attempt to bring her back using the forbidden science of human alchemy. However, alchemy operates on the theory of equivalent trade, and breaking the human alchemy taboo carries a heavy price. Ed loses his leg, and Al loses his body. Ed, who has a natural talent and skill for alchemy, becomes nationally certified and is soon known everywhere as the “Fullmetal Alchemist.” Their true objective is to search for any information on the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, hoping it will allow them to regain their old bodies. Source – Anime News Network
My own experience in the manga/anime realm is limited at best, therefore when I was invited by AnimeNYC to take part in representing Fan Fest News for the first US screening of the Full Metal Alchemist live action film, I knew I would need some help. Fortunately, friend and media colleague Brian J. Cano was up for the task. Not only is Brian well versed in the FMA realm, he is also a big fan with thoughtful opinions. When the opportunity arose to also take part in a group media interview with the director Fumihiko Sori, I was grateful to have Brian’s knowledge on hand. I am appreciative that Mr. Sori took the time to address questions from the media, via a translator, regarding his part in tailoring the FMA manga into a live-action film. It was a thought-provoking group interview sprinkled with humor and I am happy to share it all right here at Fan Fest News.
(Note: Fan Fest News sat in with media from three other outlets, ComicsVerse, Nerdbot, and FanSided to pose questions to Mr. Fumihiko Sori. )
Media Question 1: The concept of Full Metal Alchemist does not seem like a relatable one at first, however, so many consider it to be the most relatable manga story of all. Why do you think that is?
Fumihiko Sori: So what I’m actually interested in is because the looks of the characters are very western but then at the same time the heart and soul that the characters have felt very relatable to the Japanese and in that sense, I’m actually interested in what westerners feel about relating to the mentality of the characters. So, I’m actually interested in the idea that the relationships that the brothers have as well as the FMA stances toward their religion have an almost Japanese essence to it. In that sense, I would have thought that the Western side would be a lot different. But, If you are able to relate to it I’m actually interested in what makes it relatable now. So I believe that another thing that is very thematic about FMA is the theme of life. And I believe the theme of life is something that would relate to everyone in the world no matter who it is, religion, culture or background they have etc. So, in that sense, it has one very strong thematic pillar. So maybe that may be the reason. I do believe that since the manga artist that wrote the original work, since her background is from a farmer and her family deals with livestock, I believe that they have a different viewpoint than us on what life is. So maybe that strong theme is fortified by the author’s experience as from a farmer background.
Media Question 2: When making this live-action version of Full Metal Alchemist, how do you compare it to the American versions of live action like Dragon Ball Evolution? What are your feelings about that film and in general other live action?
Fumihiko Sori: So, since some of the other works that are done, they have, say for example Dragon Ball Evolution, the focus on it is different for all sorts of live action and since the focus of bringing something to live action will have different focuses you need to pay close attention to I believe that it’s a very difficult question on evaluating what’s what in a very holistic sense. In the movie FMA this time I believe that the special thing that makes it stand out is that the cast is all Japanese. People may feel that the looks may be a bit off or that they might not be able to get used to the looks and everything but I do believe that the important thing was doing the cast with all Japanese actors as I mentioned earlier the heart and the soul, the mentality of the characters are more relatable to the Japanese so I do believe that doing it with Japanese actors is something that makes FMA special. So, as I mentioned earlier, the characters looks may be Japanese but since their mentality has something that is more relatable to the Japanese, I believe that it’s not whether or not which mentality is better or not, it’s just about having a different mentality and being able to express that and the others be able to enjoy that so I believe that it was very meaningful to have a Japanese cast doing FMA because the skin deep looks is not what I want to convey, it is the core attributes of the story that I want to deliver in FMA. So, in terms of looks and visuals, I know that having a Japanese cast, since the FMA original series the characters and the background has a more European kind of accent to it I do know that some people might think that the styles and looks may be different but the mentality inside is what I value. Whether it be the looks or whether it be the insides of the themes and stories, which is better, I can’t decide, you be the judge. In that sense, there are other live actions that have focused more on the looks and aesthetics of it rather than keeping the core values. So, I can’t be the one to decide which is better for what reasons and you would have to make your call on which you would want to preserve more.
Media Question 3: Whenever an anime fan thinks about the most popular anime with their favorite anime, Full Metal Alchemist is always on the list. So how do you handle the pressure of working on a film that is so popular and beloved?
Fumihiko Sori: So, I might be repeating myself again. The difference in between the looks aesthetics between the original and the live action, I know that I am going to get some fans that really care about the looks and aesthetics of the original and would say that the movie doesn’t keep some of them. Then again, what I feel is that the story of FMA I was able to put lots of value into the movies and I believe that’s whats important for me so in the sense of feeling pressure, I already know that I was going to get some flack for the visual element of it and since I knew about that, of course, it was a bit of pressure but then that’s something I can’t really do much about so I wouldn’t be swayed by that. In that sense, that part wasn’t too much pressure. On the other hand, the theme and the story of FMA, since I don’t know what everyone’s thoughts about it are at the moment, that I have a great interest in.
Media Question 4 (Fan Fest News – Brian J. Cano): I think one of the reasons Full Metal Alchemist is loved by such wide audience the world over are these mature themes of the importance of family as well as the existential question of what happens to us after we die and how we deal with loss. How as a director did you manage to keep the heart of the movie while balancing very CGI heavy responsibilities?
Fumihiko Sori: So I believe FMA has as you said does have important themes that are more mature, they are heavy kind of themes and the thing about heavy themes is that they don’t spread too well because people would not be able to understand it at first sight. So what I think that FMA does very effectively is mixing those heavy themes in with very comic and light-hearted scenes. This is a very effective form of entertainment, so in that sense, FMA has the strength of being able to keep those themes as well as having those themes spread into a very wide audience. So I believe that the important role that comics and manga play is that they make these heavy themes that we have, these mature themes that we have, spread to a younger audience. We’re all mature here and we might be ok with dealing with relatively mature themes, heavy themes but not everyone’s gonna be like you guys. (laughing)
Media Question 5: Do you have a favorite memory from filming on set?
Fumihiko Sori: So, the main character Yamada Ryosuke who is playing the role, the main character Edward, is a very special person in Japan. He does his own action scenes very well and there is a certain scene where he needs to run 25 meters and do a jump. I’d say he’s kind of like a Tom Cruise character in the sense that the 25 meters and jump kind of thing is a relatively high hurdle as most people would choose to practice it a few times before they to do the actual thing but he chose to do it no practices just 25 meters, run, jump and he pulled it off. That was something I found very surprising.
Media Question 6: When you look back at the beginning of your career, doing the special effects for Titanic, do you see that as the first breakthrough of your career where you thought I really made it and that led you to this moment with Full Metal Alchemist and in general?
Fumihiko Sori: So, first I must state that the movie Titanic, even for Hollywood standards was a very significant movie in the sense that it was one of the first movies to use a digital people in the background. In that sense, that was a very special movie even in the Hollywood sense. However, the ship The Titanic, wasn’t made with CGI, that was when this was, this is the era. So, that was back in the 90’s where the ship could be built fully without computer graphics, fast forward to now we’ve come to an age where even the Japanese standards of technology, in VFX, can build the armor of Alphonse. I believe that this is, if you contrast these two, we are standing in a very important era and that is what I want to keep in my heart for why this current stage in my life is very important. So, we’re not talking about Titanics that look like computer graphics, we’re talking about Titanics that look like the actual Titanic.
And in that sense, the reason why I think that the current FMA that I have worked with is a similar breakthrough is that you wouldn’t be able, people in the US, people in Japan, wherever you are you wouldn’t be able to know at first from the looks of Alphonse whether this is real armor or whether this is a computer graphic armor. So in that sense, I believe that breakthrough back then with Titanic and the current FMA computer graphic, we have come to a very special point in life. Now the significance of having life-like CGI is that you don’t care anymore. Because how many of you care if the Iron Man that you see is a computer graphic Iron Man or an actual suit of armor. We’re at that age where the GGI is so real that we don’t really care whether or not it’s CGI anymore. Then we can take a look at the story and the poor elements of it so that is definitely an important part of having a realistic computer graphic.
Media Question 7: When working on this film, how did you try to avoid making the same mistakes as other live-action anime film adaptations?
Fumihiko Sori: So, other movies and the mistakes that they made, I don’t really keep track of them. As I said earlier, and I might sound like a broken record by now, the looks or the core, the theme or the aesthetics. I chose with the story this time, some people might have oppositions but that’s what I have chosen so doing things differently, that is a bit of a hard question to answer.
Media Question 8 (Fan Fest News – Brian J. Cano): Of the seven deadly sins, which is your favorite?
Fumihiko Sori: Rather than a favorite, I would say the Homunculus I’m most interested in is the character Lust. I’ve worked with the actress in how we could convey her as a very Japanese sense of sexiness. But in that sense, I am interested in whether or not that conveys it to the North American sense of sexiness so THAT I will be interested in.
After interviewing Mr. Fukihimo Sori, we headed off to the exclusive sold-out screening of the Full Metal Alchemist US premiere on the Main Stage at AnimeNYC. We sat among a packed house of excited fans to watch the action unfold. Due to disclosure restrictions, we are unable to share photos or videos of what was shown on screen but are happy to provide an informative review for those wanting to know what they can expect from such a huge undertaking.
Full Metal Alchemist live-action movie review. Credit: Brian J. Cano.
Bringing Full Metal Alchemist to the big screen in a live-action adaptation had director Fumihiko Sori facing a Herculean challenge. A good movie has several goals it must accomplish within a relatively short time frame. It must have compelling characters and a well-established plot while connecting to the audience in some way, be it through humor, action or drama. When the said movie is derived from a beloved source, the director is also charged with keeping the spirit of that story alive in a way that honors it. It can be a difficult task, as the freedom of expression gives way to the burden of expectations. The story of the Elric brothers and their quest to find the Philosophers Stone and restore their bodies is no different but it adds the additional challenge of having been an anime which was itself adapted from a manga – the amount of material to stay true to is immense. So how did Fullmetal Alchemist (2017) fare in its adaptation?
Visually speaking, the movie struggles to find it’s style. Many shots seem to echo those seen in the anime and those are quite satisfying. But they are sprinkled amongst others that feel basic as if the lighting and cinematography are being handled by another director. Whether these too are meant to mimic panels from the manga or shots from the anime is unclear, but it is enough to draw notice.
On a positive note, in a fantasy world such as this, where the magic-like use of alchemy produces amazing and landscape-altering effects, one would expect the visual effects to be distracting, but they are handled in a way that truly brings the anime to life. From the creation of stone chimeras out of city street cobblestones to Lust’s (Yasuko Matsuyuki) finger-lance protrusions, it is evident that the technology of special effects has come a long way. The armored Alphonse Elric (voiced by Atom Mizuishi), a completely CGI character, is a triumphant example of the near flawless integration of practical and digital effects.
Plot-wise, the movie struggles as well, as it attempts to compress the first third of the total story arc, cherry-picking characters and episodes to form a loose structure. Beginning with the attempt at resurrecting their mother when they were young, the movie follows Edward (Ryôsuke Yamada) and Alphonse rapidly through scenes familiar to fans, while offering little in the way of explanation for the uninitiated. Favorites such as Col. Mustang (Dean Fujioka) and Maes Hughes (Ryûta Satô) dominate the scenes they are in, as their performances truly embody the characters they portray. Others, such as the ever-present Winry Rockbell (Tsubasa Honda), the stoic Riza Hawkeye (Misako Renbutsu) and the barely seen Dr. Marcoh (Jun Kunimura) are well-cast but their inclusion only serves to remind the viewer how poorly fleshed out those characters are in this incarnation. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the script, the grand plot had to be truncated. This left disgraced State Alchemist Shou Tucker (Yô Ôizumi) as the main antagonist, a pawn elevated to the status of a king and the Homunculi (only three of which are seen; Lust, Gluttony and Envy) as unexplained henchmen.
Were it not for my prior viewing of the two anime series, I would have found myself lost within scenes that seldom offered explanations. As mentioned by Fumihiko Sori himself as he addressed the audience in attendance of the NYC premiere, this film was meant to be a standalone, with no sequels. This is disappointing since the plot imperfections could be forgiven if offered the promise of explanations in future installments. Even the final scene introduces yet another mystery – well known to fans, but once again, one that would be confusing to someone new to the story.
Despite these complaints, I enjoyed seeing this beloved story come to life. The task of making a live-action version of Fullmetal Alchemist is nearly impossible to do without compromises. In speaking to the director himself, I gained a greater understanding of the choices he made and was able to view it with his words in mind. Having been a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist for years, I appreciated the care he took in making a film that stayed true to the saga created by Hiromu Arakawa. Perhaps my disappointment is that this tale will not be able to culminate to its ultimate climax. The thunderous applause the film received at the end of the AnimeNYC screening proves there are many who would love to see a continuation as well.
Special thanks to AnimeNYC and Joanna Heaney (Linda Roth Associates) for allowing Fan Fest News access to this unique event. Much appreciation to Brian J. Cano for his assistance in navigating some unfamiliar territory; his passion is contagious and anime now has a new fan. 🙂
Be sure to check out the trailer below for a taste of Fullmetal Alchemist, then see the movie. Let Fan Fest News know what YOU think.