'Fullmetal Alchemist': Film Review | Tokyo 2017

FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
The closest thing to a Japanese 'Harry Potter.'

Hiromu Arakawa's long-running manga springs to life in a mixture of live action and advanced CG.

In a mildly steampunk world that resembles a militarized early 20th century Tuscany (the film was shot in Volterra), two young brothers dabble disastrously in alchemy in the action-fantasy Fullmetal Alchemist. Directed by Fumihiko Sori, the film is the first live-action version of Hiromu Akakawa’s popular manga series, which was published in Japan from 2001 to 2010 and was made into a 51-episode anime TV series for MBS in 2003/04. Massively augmented with advanced CG work that is a joy to behold, the film looks poised to sweep Asian markets beginning in December when Warner Bros. Japan releases domestically. But its exotically facetious tone, cultural confusion (Italy populated exclusively by the Japanese?) and reckless narrative gaps will keep newbies to the story at a distance. 

The film is opening the Tokyo International Film Festival.

The heroes are Ed and Al, who have practiced the esoteric science of transmuting matter from a young age. Esoteric to us, but in this world, playing around with alchemy is as normal as being a science nerd. In a lightning-swift opener, they are small boys who live happily with their mother in a stone house amid rolling green hills. All at once, Mom falls to the ground dead (reasons not supplied, though there is a sinister intercut that may having a bearing on her demise). Edouardo, the older boy, and Alfonso, the younger tyke, rush to their alchemical circle inscribed with indecipherable symbols and, using a forbidden formula, attempt to bring her back to life.

Clearly the filmmakers expect the audience to be well versed in the story, because only a later flashback explains how they lost control of the forces unleashed in this scene by their alchemical brew, and in the fearsome tempest that followed, Al was killed and Ed lost his leg. It is the exchange demanded by the universe for attempting to create human life. However, Ed was somehow able to salvage little Al's soul by attaching it to an oversize suit of armor belonging to a Medieval knight, which they happened to have in the house, though it costs him an arm as well as a leg. But all this is revealed later.

The next scene is an exciting, no-holds-barred battle in the town piazza between Ed and the evil alchemist Father Cornello (Kenjirou Ishimaru), who appears to possess the powerful Philosopher's Stone that Ed so desperately wants. Ed is now a fearless blond teenager (Ryosuke Yamada) with quite a temper and lots of tricks up his sleeve. He has qualified as a State Alchemist and is nicknamed Fullmetal Alchemist because of his prosthetic arm and leg, devised by the bubbly, affectionate schoolgirl Winfry (Tsubasa Honda), who tags along without much to do other than keep him in repair. And poor Al is still a towering, hollow suit of mail.

Slowly, the non-initiated learn that Ed feels he is to blame for the disastrous accident when they were children and has vowed he will not rest until he reunites his brother with his body, presuming it still exists somewhere in the universe. That's why he is hunting for an authentic Philosopher's Stone, which will do the job. It would have been better had this key motivation been revealed earlier in the film, but once again, the filmmakers seem to be story-telling to the choir.

After the battle, the medieval town is a wreck, including the ancient bell tower which has collapsed. The handsome Col. Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka), aka the Flame Alchemist, appears on the scene to do damage control and reprimand Ed and Al. He uses his own considerable powers to show them the Philosopher's Stone is a fake, so the hunt goes on. It seems a civil war is in progress in this state run by a Generalissimo, though there is no screen time to show it. Another old friend appears, Capt. Hughes (a winning Ryuta Sato), who introduces them to Prof. Tucker (Yo Oizumi) and his adorable little daughter and dog. But not everyone is on the side of the just, and treachery abounds.

Ed's main antagonists, however, are a trio of immortal homunculi who are hell-bent on killing the good guys, although their motives remain murky. They are led by a vampish Goth named Lust (actress Yasuko Matsuyuki, dressed for Halloween), who has extendable fingernails that are sharper than knives, backed up by her henchpeople Envy and Gluttony, with their own chilling specialties.

Characters come and go quickly, leaving a feeling that there is too much compression of the multi-episode story. The stalwart is, of course, Ed, played by a bleached blond Ryosuke Yamada as comically over-the-top and recalling a younger Toma Ikuta from The Mole films, especially when he gets mad and his voice breaks into a roar. His farcical persona is only set aside in a wrenching, knock-down fight with Al, in which the brothers' deep feelings for each other movingly emerge.

The breathtaking CG effects explode in the final scenes of homunculi holocaust, ending the tale on a high note, but the film carefully leaves the gate wide open for a sequel.

A 'Fullmetal Alchemist' Film Partners production led by Warber Bros. Pictures Japan
Cast: Ryosuke Yamada, Tsubasa Honda, Dean Fujioka, Misako Renbutsu, Kanata Hongo, Jun Kunimura, Kenjirou Ishimaru, Yo Oizumi, Ryuta Sato, Natsuki Harada shinji UchiyamaFumiyo Kohinata, Yasuko Matsuyuki
Director: Fumihiko Sori
Screenwriters: Fumihiko Sori, Takeshi Miyamoto, based on the manga series by Hiromu Arakawa
Producer: Yumiko Yoshihara
Executive producer: Kazuya Hamana
Director of photography: Keiji Hashimoto
Editor: Chieko Suzaki
Production designer: Takeshi Shimizu
Costume designer: Ria Nishihara

Music: Reiji Kitasato
World sales: Warner Bros. Japan
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (opening film)
133 minutes