Hiromu Arakawa’s smash hit manga Fullmetal Alchemist has inspired two anime adaptations, two animated movies, several video games and now, as seems inevitable, a live action movie. And that movie has premiered for US audiences on Netflix now. But don’t let the “Netflix Original” label confuse you- this movie was made and produced in a Japanese studio, directed by Fumihiko Sori and merely picked up by the streaming service. Therefore, it features an all-Japanese cast, starring Ryosuke Yamada as protagonist Edward Elric.
Ryosuke Yamada as Edward Elric with CGI Alphonse Elric
The movie competently lays out the basics of the story of a young boy, Ed, and his brother, Alphonse, who try to do forbidden alchemy to bring their mother back to life. As a result Al loses his entire body and is reduced to a soul bound to a suit of armor, while Ed loses some limbs. The childhood sequences are a bit awkward thanks to the wooden acting of the very young children but the movie smartly avoids using them too much. It quickly skips forward to a young adult Ed, who is on a quest to get his brother’s body back, even if it means getting entangled in a military conspiracy and facing monstrous beings.
Ryosuke Yamada as Edward Elric
The humorous fight scene that begins this part of movie is probably its strongest sequence that isn’t a word-for-word scene from the manga. It’s well choreographed with nice effects and demonstrates the main character’s immaturity and recklessness in a charming way.
For a while after that, the movie focuses a lot on character interactions and it’s quite enjoyable to watch. The performances are sometimes over-the-top in a way that’s fine for anime but a little weird for live action and they immediately come off as more two-dimensional than their original counterparts (take a shot every time Ed says “I’ll do anything for Al” or “I want to get his body back” or some variation. You’ll die. He can’t even eat a pie without launching into it.) But the actors put a lot of heart in their performances, which keeps things entertaining. Ryuta Sato as Maes Hughes is a real stand-out, he’s instantly endearing and loveable and just perfect for the character.
Ryuta Sato as Maes Hughes
There’s a lot of condensing and mixing elements from large swathes of the manga and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Characters tend to suffer for the rushed nature of the storytelling. Ed and Roy, Ed’s superior officer known as the Flame Alchemist, are at least given some depth. Al also has an arc, but he is significantly sidelined compared to his manga counterpart, getting held hostage and taken out of the action a lot.
Tsubasa Honda as Winry Rockbell
Winry (the Elric's childhood friend and the mechanic for Ed’s prosthetics) has it even worse though. In the manga, she had her own narrative arc about her turmoil over losing her parents in the war and there was also focus on her career aspirations. This is completely left out of the movie, as is the Ishvalan war plot in general, so her character entirely revolves around her relationship with Ed and Al. It's somewhat understandable considering the film's focus, but still a shame.
Misaka Renbutsu as Riza Hawkeye
But at least Winry got to have lots of presence and effective moments where she asserted herself and impacted those around her- the same sadly can’t be said for lieutentant Riza Hawkeye. In the manga, she’s a talented officer and the right hand woman to Roy. She’s a fully formed character with her own backstory and she performs some truly cool heroics that impact the narrative a lot. But in the movie, she’s just an accessory to Roy and not even a cool accessory. She doesn’t even get a nice scene where she battles by his side. The poor treatment of her character is really surprising, since the team of her and Roy is very popular with the fans and Riza herself was even voted the third most popular character in the manga at one point.
Also, Riza’s cute dog was on the poster but not in the movie! What madness is this? I think the movie would have been 500% improved with this puppy.
Unjustly ommitted dogs aside, the narrative in general starts to falter and get much weaker at the end of the movie due to the story trying to cram too much in at once. Important moments aren’t given room to breathe. A major character dies, but the characters aren’t given time to really grieve and react to it. A character is set up by the villains in a dramatic way, but then it’s immediately cleared up five minutes later so the plot point feels unneeded. The movie tries to cover two major fights from the source material at once,but cramming them together robs them both of their impact. The action sequences in the final scenes were decent, but sadly uncreative in how they are staged, lacking any evocative visuals. Some emotional moments were pulled off well though, and it was at least a mostly cohesive ending that left room for other aspects of the story and characters to be fleshed out in a sequel.
Ryosuke Yamada as Edward Elric
As for the visuals in general, the effects are often pretty decent considering it’s not a big-budget Hollywood film. They can verge on goofy at times, but it’s very respectable for the resources they had, especially Al's armor. I do wish they had poured some of their budget into getting better wigs for their main characters. Ed’s was so bad it sometimes got distracting.
So was the Fullmetal Alchemist movie good? Well…it was okay. There was some clear affection for the source material and an understanding of some of what made it work, which puts it a cut over many of the soulless anime adaptations Hollywood has churned out. It also managed to be coherent, which is impressive considering the amount of story it covered. However, condensing a complex narrative into this small amount of time and making it work was just not a task this movie was completely up to. I don’t even know if it can be done. The original manga is so tight and well-plotted that it's hard to cut things without gutting it. A live action version of FMA may be more suited to a high budget TV series than a movie, but that's a pipe dream.
Fullmetal Alchemist Main Cast
Though the movie isn’t a great introduction to the story of Fullmetal Alchemist, It’s something that’s worth a look for those who are already fans, for the novelty of seeing your good perfomances of your favorite characters and also seeing some nice moments play out. I wouldn’t be uninterested in a sequel. (It'd be nice to see the Ishvalan war plot that was cast aside explored, and important characters like Scar included). The movie may be flawed, but it has heart….not quite a heart made fullmetal, but something sturdy enough.