The animated adventures of the prodigal mages Edward and Alphonse Elric came to a dramatic and seemingly definitive conclusion at the end of the television series “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood” in 2009. But the characters are so popular — Hiromu Arakawa’s original manga has sold more than 50 million books worldwide — that more stories were inevitable.
“Fans get emotionally attached to their favorite series and characters,” said Lance Heiskell of FUNimation, which releases the animated “Fullmetal Alchemist” in America. “ ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ has been on the air since 2004 and its popularity is the highest it’s ever been.”
Kazuya Murata, who directed the Fullmetal Alchemist feature “The Sacred Star of Milos” (link in Japanese), released last year and currently in limited release throughout the U.S., talked about the challenges of working with such a well-known and beloved property in an email interview.
“We had to develop a new adventure without altering the story of the original manga,” he said. “The story takes place in the land of Creta, west of Edward and Alphonse’s home of Amestris, which had never been shown, so we were able to create a new setting and visuals …. I discussed the movie with Ms. Arakawa and asked for her input on the new characters. We also sought her approval as the script progressed; all the artists wanted to maintain the integrity of her work. We incorporated many elements from the manga: for example, when Edward talks into a mechanical speaking tube, it turns into a caricature of him — which was taken from some early manga panels.”
Murata has worked on a number of popular animated films and programs, including “Eureka Seven,” “Planetes” and three of the “Pokémon” features. But he didn’t work on either of the “Fullmetal Alchemist” TV series or on the previous feature, “The Conqueror of Shambala.”
“I watched the first and second television series,” he said, “but our goal was to present a new visual expression of the property, with a new staff and an original story, so I purposely tried not to be influenced by the previous incarnations of ‘Fullmetal Alchemist.’ But the characters are well established. We paid careful attention to their mannerisms, expressions and language patterns to avoid changing their personalities, which are already familiar to the fans.”
With “Fullmetal Alchemist” enjoying an enthusiastic following in the United States and Europe, Murata knew the new film would have to appeal to international viewers. Although the initial Japanese audience was foremost in his mind, he said, “I believe a film that can entertain the people immediately around you can also entertain people all over the world. But it’s important that the director and his artists all believe, ‘This is a good film.’ ”
When asked about the global popularity of “Fullmetal Alchemist,” Murata initially cited the desire of Ed and Al to regain their bodies — they had been mutilated when the pair violated an essential law of alchemy in attempting to resurrect their dead mother. Ed lost his left leg; Al nearly died, but Ed sacrificed his right arm to preserve his brother’s soul in an empty suit of armor. His robotic “auto mail” prostheses won Ed the title of Fullmetal Alchemist.
“I think Ed’s fundamental love for his brother makes him a very sympathetic character,” Murata said. “Although the story treats alchemy as a science, the characters use it like a superpower, and overcoming obstacles with that kind of power invariably makes an audience feel good. Also, the unflagging good cheer of Ed and Al, even when they’re overcoming the brutal desires that lead some people to abuse alchemy, entertains the audience.”
“Star of Milos” is done in traditional, drawn animation, except for two important sequences. In one, computer graphics show that a ruined city is actually an enormous transmutation circle, created to turn human blood into a powerful philosopher’s stone. In the second, Edward and Alphonse battle a wolf-like chimera aboard a runaway passenger train.
“The three-dimensional transmutation circle wasn’t difficult because the graphics didn’t have to be integrated with the hand-drawn characters,” Murata explains. “But the action sequence on the train was very complicated. We tried to harmonize the imagery by drawing the outline of the train over the computer images to match the characters.”
Would Murata work with the Elric brothers again? “If I can find a new theme that I want to explore within the ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ world,” said the filmmaker, who is already directing a new (still unnamed) animated TV series.
— Charles Solomon
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