Netflix’s Fullmetal Alchemist

This post contains spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist, the Fullmetal Alchemist anime and won’t make any sense if you haven’t seen at least one of them. 

Perhaps a natural consequence of being a Japanese student at university, I have recently found myself drawn slowly back into the murky waters of anime. A big contributor to this has been Netflix, which reintroduced me to anime with Devilman Crybaby (more on that in an upcoming review). Their next big-ditch effort to get me watching anime again is with the live action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist; one of my favourite TV shows, animated or otherwise. (People will be quick to point out that this film isn’t really a Netflix film, but hey look it’s distributed by them here and it fits with my opening spiel so shh).

For those not in the know, I highly suggest not reading this post, and instead retreating to a cave for a couple of weeks to binge through the 2003 and 2009 adaptations of Hiromu Arakawa’s manga (and then coming back to this please). But if you really don’t have the time, then here’s a brief rundown of what Fullmetal Alchemist is all about. The story takes place in the fictional European country of Amestris post-Industrial Revolution. The country is ruled by a large military, which employs various ‘state alchemists’; essentially scientists who use alchemy (which in this universe is basically a kind of magic) for military purposes. The main plotline of Fullmetal Alchemist follows one such state alchemist in his effort to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which grants the user the power to perform alchemy without following the ‘Law of Equivalent Exchange’, which dictates that in order to create something, something of equal value must be sacrificed. Said alchemist, Edward Elric, needs the stone in order to get his arm and leg and his brother’s body back, having lost them attempting to resurrect their mother.

Despite how badly I explained that, you’ll have to trust me that the story of Fullmetal Alchemist is incredibly well told, and its world beautifully well realised. It perfects, to my mind at least, everything you need from a fantasy epic; an interesting and thought out setting; a complex but not pedantic plot; stakes that raise in a natural and addictive way, and most importantly, engaging and well-written characters. One day I’d love to write about the series and its many good adaptations. But, of course, that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, let’s talk about this adaptation.

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To put it simply, the new live action Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation is bad. Really, really bad. It works neither for fans of the series, nor for newcomers.

I think we can cover most of the film’s issues with an examination of one plotline, and it’s one of the most famous from the original story; the meeting between Edward Elric and Shou Tucker, the Sewing Life Alchemist. For many fans, this is the moment that sticks out most in all of Fullmetal Alchemist, and it’s for a good reason. This is the pivotal moment in which the series undergoes a pretty harsh tonal shift. There are undercurrents of tragedy throughout the series’ start, with the loss of the Elric’s mother and the loss of Rose’s husband. But the dramatic murder of Nina and Alexander is sure to stick in anyone’s mind. It brings the Elric brother’s to their lowest point, starts to expose the flaws in the military, and introduces the potential horrors of alchemy. So, of course, I was interested to see how the live action adaptation would handle it.

First impressions are pretty good; specifically in the casting. Shou Tucker in this version is pretty unassuming, much more so than the slightly creepy Tucker of the original. I’m sure his dramatic shift will come as more of a surprise than the original Tucker’s might have done. Nina and Alexander are also pretty adorable, just to stick the knife in as much as possible. In general, the casting in the film is on point, although, of course, with the caveat that the actors are Japanese.

Hollywood adaptations are often given a bad rap for their lack of diversity, and while I understand that, Fullmetal Alchemist dodges that criticism because the main cast are all European. I’d be fine with the Japanese version retconning the story to take place in a Japanese setting, or even keep the European style and have all the characters be Japanese, but instead the live-action version compromises. Blond characters, including Edward Elric, seem to either be wearing a wig or have their hair bleached, which looks awful. Doing this instead of hiring blond actors or simply not bothering makes it look like the characters are simply cosplaying, a problem that also extends to the costumes. Of this slavish devotion to the anime’s look, the Homunculi suffer the worst. Gluttony looks comical, while Envy’s outfit is just absurd. I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but I much prefer adaptations that change the look of the original to suit live action. Give me a US Death Note over a Japanese Fullmetal Alchemist any day.

Returning to Tucker, the meeting between him and Ed starts with the two of them talking about Tucker’s backstory while Winry and Al play with Nina and Alexander. Ed then tells Tucker about his backstory, which has just been shown to us around 2 scenes ago.

So here we come to the film’s second problem; exposition. Fullmetal Alchemist is about 27 manga volumes long, and each of its adaptations run for around 60 episodes. It’s clear that the film won’t get through that much content in 2 and a half hours, and at many points it thankfully doesn’t even try. This means, however, that there’s bound to be a lot of exposition, but the amount of scenes of characters just talking at each other is frustrating. When Ed talks to Tucker about his backstory it’s especially bad seeing as we’ve seen it play out minutes beforehand, but even if the information is new to the viewer, it’s often presented in the most boring way possible.

The anime also had exposition dumps, but the dialogue was often filled with personality, and the animation took full use of its potential, with wildly expressive characters. In this adaptation, if the characters aren’t expositing in a bland meeting room, then they’re expositing on the battlefield, between attacks. In anime, the suspension of disbelief allows you to get away with a lot more – in live action it’s much stricter. When Lust pauses during the fight with Mustang and Ed to explain her own weak point to them, I was baffled at just how poorly the writers were conveying this information.

When Ed has finished telling Tucker what we already knew, Tucker offers to help examine Al’s body, a touch I enjoyed, because it gives Tucker more to do than just own a library. Tucker then tells Ed about Dr. Marcoh, but he confusingly does this offscreen, despite the film already proving that it loves to shove exposition dumps at us.

When Ed returns from seeing Dr. Marcoh, we finally get to the scene when the truth about Tucker is revealed and it’s a let-down to say the least.

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Firstly, the scene takes place in pretty much broad daylight. I know that thunder and lightning during a dramatic scene is a bit rote, but pathetic fallacy is used for a reason; it ups the drama considerably, and allows some more interesting lighting. The scene in the anime looked threatening and dynamic – here it looks flat and cheap. This flat lighting is present throughout the film and really makes the whole thing look incredibly cheap and bland.

Evidence of the film’s budget is inconsistent – often the CGI looks amazing. Al’s armoured body is especially good, with some real weight behind it. Other times it looks less than convincing, and the Nina/Alexander chimera also suffers some because of it. In the anime, the flat, empty eyes of the dog were haunting because they were so simplified, but they just look a bit strange when made 3D. Other creations, such as the immortal army just end up looking incredibly strange, although maybe the fact that I can’t figure out if I find them incredibly creepy or completely ridiculous means they’re a success.

Eventually Ed figures out the truth behind Tucker’s mad experiment and starts to beat him up (again, lacking the dramatic lighting of the original). And I think it’s here where I can highlight my final problem with the film; the acting.

I want to preface this by saying I’m not entirely sure that it’s the actors who are completely at fault here, because there are some scenes with real promise in them. Instead, I’d say it was the script, and not even necessarily the original script. Instead, it’s a confusing devotion to the manga’s script and tone. In anime, you can get away with going extremely over-the-top, especially for comedy, but that doesn’t work as well in live action. When the actors imitate the anime’s line delivery it just doesn’t work, not just because of their many pregnant pauses in between lines, but because their facial expression just can’t match the energy required of them. Even in drawing Arakawa realised that the tonal shift of the way characters spoke sometimes was a bit jarring, and for comedic zany moments would simplify the art style to ease the reader into the new tone. Of course, you can’t do that in live-action, but the zany lines were kept in and it all just feels a bit odd.

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It’s not just comedy where this happens; melodrama creates it as well. In the anime, when Tucker starts revealing his true self to Ed, the lines he says are quite cliched, quite melodramatic (“Me and you; we’re the same!” is the sort of thing Dr. Evil says to Austin Powers, not what real people say to each other), but the animation makes it work. The Tucker of this version gives a subtler performance, but he’s asked to spout the same lines, and so they’re exposed to not really working in live action.

I think that’s the point, isn’t it? Fullmetal Alchemist would never work in live action, at least not when so accurately recreated on-screen. I’m fine with this, because the story exists in its perfect form already, but I think every anime adaptation needs to learn from this. Yes, changing the story dramatically will be controversial. No one (except me) responded well to the Netflix Death Note film, but the answer isn’t to go back to making 1:1 recreations. Stories need to be adapted to their medium, and what works in animation won’t work in live-action. I’m not just talking about the size of the plot, or the specific moments of flashy animation – I’m talking everything from character design to tone.

So. If Hollywood ever decides to make a Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, or when Japan inevitably puts whatever was popular a few years ago to film – I want the directors to ask what they can bring to the story beyond just the bare minimum.

Stray Observations

  • Trisha Elric’s death scene is unintentionally hilarious, and a really bad start to the film, given that she just kinda… falls over.
  • The film is able to retcon Winry’s hair colour, but not Ed’s or Riza’s?
  • General Halcrow is given an expanded role in the film, but the Fuhrer isn’t in it. Halcrow’s role is that of a face for military corruption, but I really don’t see why they couldn’t have used the Fuhrer. I’m guessing this was to do with leaving him for a sequel, but it just makes Halcrow’s role very weird and underdeveloped. (Also, if he is supposed to be a symbol of widespread corruption, then why does he claim that no one gives him orders? Doesn’t that mean that everything that happened in Lab 5 was just down to him? Did Bradley even know in this canon????)
  • Also Tucker comes back for no reason at the end of the film. Basically he just says some exposition then is killed.
  • Speaking of ‘no reason’ – there’s no reason the Homunculi keep Ed alive. They keep saying he’ll be a good sacrifice, but this is never bought up. Instead, all he does is hinder their plan, so them keeping him alive is baffling.
  • The soundtrack is really awful – not just bland, but at times jarring.
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