When aspiring alchemists Edward (Ryôsuke Yamada) and Alphonse Elric (Atom Mizuishi) are robbed of their mother at an early age they decide to turn their prodigious talents to the taboo practice of human transmutation in the vein hope of bringing her back. Working against the laws of nature, however, they each pay a heavy price for their transgression when Ed loses an arm and Al loses everything to the powers that be. Sacrificing another limb to bind his brother’s disembodied soul to a nearby suit of armour, Ed vows to track down the only item he believes capable of restoring his brother to his former body: the Philosopher’s Stone.
A live-action adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa’s beloved manga, previously retold as a pair of revered animes currently streaming alongside it on Netflix, Fumihiko Sori’s Fullmetal Alchemist was always going to struggle to extrapolate the enduring story of the Elric brothers and the endearingly idiosyncratic world in which they live. The film is set in Amestris, a fictional country still reeling from civil war and currently under military rule. It is policed by State Alchemists and presided over by an almighty Führer (Fumiyo Kohinata). Having offered to serve in exchange for access to their resources, Ed travels the country with his civilian brother Al and their childhood friend Winry (Tsubasa Honda) — now an automail mechanic who maintains his prosthetic appendages — seeking out individuals associated with a shady government programme he suspects may have been covered up.
It’s ironic given the furor surrounding the whitewashing of Japanese characters by American actors in Hollywood appropriations such as Dragonball: Evolution, The Last Airbender and Ghost in the Shell that a Japanese production of a Japanese property should provoke equivalent controversy for putting together an exclusively Japanese cast. Nevertheless, many had taken the manga’s pan-European setting and the anime’s depiction of a blonde-haired Edward to mean that the Elric brother were white. Regardless, Sori and his compatriots filmed on location in Tuscany, resulting in a fascinating transnational mash-up reminiscent of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo that pitches Fullmetal Alchemist somewhere between Death Note (2006), Death Note (2017) and, of all things, Asterix & Obelix. At one point Captain Hughes (Ryuta Sato) even uses a British telephone box, just to compound things further.
After all, such coalescence is intrinsic to the saga’s chimeric identity, and like the manga it’s based on Fullmetal Alchemist works a strange alchemy of its own that is as compelling as it is incongruous. Variously an action adventure, a biological horror, a political thriller and a family melodrama, there is a fluidity to the film that might confound the uninitiated if it wasn’t for the dedicated efforts of all involved. Having proven himself with 2002’s Ping Pong, another such adaptation, Sori certainly seems to know what he’s doing — even when it comes to the special effects, which are both extensive and expensive by Japanese standards. The alchemy itself is rendered beautifully, from Edward’s manipulation of masonry to Colonel Mustang (Dean Fujioka) and his explosive work as Flame Alchemist, while the animation of Al — an achievement in CGI comparable to Gollum or Snoke — is integrated seamlessly.
If Fullmetal Alchemist falters it is in the cast’s inconsistent responses to those effects, with instances of emotional dissonance sometimes detracting from the dramatic weight of the otherwise exceptional set pieces. Edward is a tempestuous protagonist, often verging on hysterical, and while Sori dials his mood swings down for the film Yamada still struggles to capture the character’s spiky personality and reconcile it with the responsibility he feels for his brother’s plight. That is not to take anything away from the actor’s performance, as for a singer in a J-pop band it is all the more impressive that Yamada is able to encapsulate Ed’s occasionally cartoonish emotional range as often as he is. In fact, it’s uncanny just how successful most of the actors are at realising their characters, with Fujioka and Sato in particular standing out as State Alchemists Mustang and Hughes respectively. Yasuko Matsuyuki too seems to have slinked straight off of the page as Lust, the matriarch of a cabal of preternatural creatures known as homunculi, who seem almost as interested in the Philosopher’s Stone as Ed.
A fantastically faithful adaptation of the early chapters of the story (at twenty-seven volumes there is more than enough material for a trilogy, should Fullmetal Alchemist get the sequels it so obviously deserves), Sori builds his introduction to Amestris around some of the manga’s most indelible moments; whether it’s the horrifying failed resurrection of the boys’ late mother, Ed’s interaction with the entity that stole his brother, or the wholesale destruction (and later reconstruction) of a picturesque market town, Fullmetal Alchemist is inherently cinematic and consistently spectacular. Fittingly, for a film predicated on the rule of equivalent exchange, this particular adaptation is precisely the sum of its parts.