The Live-Action 'Fullmetal Alchemist' Feels Like An Early 2000s Comic Book Movie

Today, a live-action version of Fullmetal Alchemist, based on the popular anime and manga series, made its world premiere as the opening film of the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival. As numerous sites have reported, this film adaptation is unique in that it has eschewed the usual whitewashing in favor of a homegrown Japanese cast. Some have cried foul over this, given the story's European cultural background. Yet while the original manga volumes have sold over 70 million copies worldwide, Fullmetal Alchemist was written and illustrated by a Japanese woman. In a poll conducted by the Japanese television network TV Asahi, it ranked as the most popular anime of all time in Japan.

In a year when Hollywood has already tied itself up in screenwriting knots trying to justify uploading a Japanese woman's consciousness into a white woman's body (see: Ghost in the Shell), it is understandable why Japan would want to be protective of this property and why it would want to maybe tip the balance of racebending in favor of non-Caucasian for once. The issue is more complicated than that, of course, but ultimately, regardless of the politics of its casting, Fullmetal Alchemist has to be evaluated on its own merits as a film.

So how does the film measure up?

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Fullmetal Alchemist tells the tale of two brothers, one of whom, Ed, uses a metal arm and leg to battle for the state, and the other of whom, Al, fights alongside him while existing only as a soul bound to steel armor. Together, these two brothers, the Elrics, try to navigate a world where alchemy — the art of manipulating matter — thrives. Their ultimate quest is to recover the elusive Philosopher's Stone and use it to restore their full humanity.

Since it is, after all, a comic book movie (albeit a Japanese one), it is easy to find oneself drawing comparisons between Fullmetal Alchemist and American superhero films of the early 2000s. Back then, the genre was still finding its footing. It would not really start hitting its stride until the mid-to-late 2000s, when Christopher Nolan's Batman films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along. Before that, however, fans had to endure a lot of stinkers, like Daredevil and Fantastic Four.

Unfortunately, the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist hews closer to Daredevil or Fantastic Four on the quality spectrum than it does anything in the MCU, even the abominable (pun intended) Incredible Hulk. The look of the main character, Ed, never rises above that of bad cosplay, while the production value of the film never rises above that of a TV movie, something you would see on Syfy. It almost seems unfair to hold the film to a Hollywood standard, when its budget must have been much lower, but Fullmetal Alchemist has an undeniably televisual look, which is somewhat shocking to see in a film given the prestigious opening slot at an international festival.

In the film's cold open, a couple of blonde-haired kids come running on-screen, but at first, we only see them from the back of the head. When the camera does show their faces to be Japanese, it does so matter-of-factly, in a way that feels natural to the director's professed intent of color-blind casting. One of those kids, however, grows up to be the adult Ed, played by Ryosuke Yamada, a teen idol and J-pop boy band member whose dyed yellow hair (or is it a bad wig?) feels like a stunt Justin Bieber would pull if he were cast as some heretical new Spider-Man.

In the manga, Ed is described as a 15-year-old runt; here is played by a 24-year-old of medium height. In principle, of course, there is nothing wrong with letting a character be played by an actor who is older or taller than they should be (Hugh Jackman is certainly no runt, yet he took the character of Wolverine and made it his own). Yamada, however, seems out of his depth. In the end, despite emoting with many tearful outbursts, he just seems woefully miscast.

Which leaves only the hulking, armored Al to pin our hopes on. After making a grand entrance, the character of Al, potentially the film's greatest asset, is squandered as he literally lays immobilized for much of the film. Echoing through his steel helmet, Al's gentle voice almost seems like it is deliberately channeling Baymax from Big Hero 6. We do get to see him in action, but the character feels neutered by budgetary constraints.

Instead of more screen time for Al, what we do get are beefed up roles for the human characters, like Winry, played by actress Tsubasa Honda, who struts through the movie like a runway model trying to keep a straight face. If anything, Winry supplants Al as the true deuteragonist of this movie. She is the one who tags along as a sidekick on Ed's big train adventure, which inadvertently leads him to Dr. Marcoh, a fellow alchemist who was instrumental in the project that created the Philosopher's Stone. Played by Jun Kunimura, who gave quite the memorable turn last year in the South Korean horror film The Wailing, Dr. Marcoh is but one of several supporting characters given short shrift by the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist.

While the first three volumes of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (where much of the story is taken from) had ample time to flesh characters out, here the story is so truncated that some of those characters, like the early villain Father Cornello, just show up as glorified cameos. Other important manga characters, like the serial killer Scar, are absent from the film entirely. Only the Flame Alchemist, Roy Mustang, and the Sewing-Life Alchemist, Shou Tucker, played by Dean Fujioka and Yo Oizumi, respectively, are given their proper due.

To his credit, director Fumihiko Sori, whose background includes a stint working on the VFX crew for James Cameron's Titanic, does manage to mine arresting visuals out of some scenes, such as when Ed must outrun a series of cylindrical alchemy constructs, or when he visits an all-white plane of existence where the Gate of Alchemy stands and a mist-bodied God dwells. But for every scene like that, there is another scene where spiky rock hounds or cyclopean CGI monsters suddenly assail the film like a storm of bird droppings (not a random metaphor, in the latter case, as they do hit the ground just like that in one scene).

The first line on the first page of the English-language edition of Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 1-3 is, "I love B-movies." That line comes from the manga's creator, Hiromu Arakawa. Who knows: maybe she and some fans might enjoy this live-action adaptation on the level of a ripe B-movie. But the film is probably not going to have much mass appeal beyond that. In the final analysis, it feels destined to become one of those bargain-bin features that show the weird growing pains of a sub-genre (in this case, the live-action manga adaptation).

Maybe someday we will get an elegantly staged live-action Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion adaptation with Japanese stars. In the meantime, there are turkeys like Fullmetal Alchemist. It just goes to show that bad comic book movies truly are color-blind.

Fullmetal Alchemist makes it U.S. premiere on November 19 at Anime NYC.