It’s Binge Live-Action Anime Adaptations Time! Fullmetal Alchemist (2017) and Tokyo Ghoul (2017)

The Fullmetal Alchemist (2017) live action adaptation just dropped worldwide, and because I heard it’s… less bad… than some live action films of anime, I gave it a try. And it’s… less bad… than others. But it’s still really bad. More on that later.

The absolute first thing you’re going to notice is that the wigs in this film are horrendous. The direct seems committed to slapping them on everyone who needs to be blonde but, being Japanese, are obviously not. Ed’s wig is almost exceptionally terrible, though Riza Hawkeye’s doesn’t fare much better, but Ed’s wig in particular is inescapable due to the frequency of close-ups to his face. The second thing you’re going to notice is that Yamada Ryosuke has either been cursed with a truly bad script (pretty likely) or simply cannot act.

I’ll give the film that they were very committed to getting the actor with the right body type: Yamada clocks in at 164 cm, making him pretty short for a guy, and he also has the trademark Arakawa bull neck. Not much chin, head disappears into neck, neck appears to disappear into shoulders. You know what I mean. It also makes him look oddly waxy, especially in the Gate of Truth scenes where it’s more glaringly obvious than ever that this guy is standing in front a bunch of blue/green screens.

Which brings me to the next point: the action scenes–and by god there are many–look so badly choreographed that it feels like an expensive fan film where a bunch of idiots are LARPing in front of really beautiful sets. Yamada as Edward Elric in particular just can’t pull it off. He runs weird, he hits weird, he moves weird. I’m not sure if it is supposed to show that Ed’s prosthetics weigh him down, but the results are very strange and again give you the distinct impression that yeah, he’s rolling around a bunch of blue screens.

I also get the feeling that the director couldn’t decide how to… well… direct. Ed, in the anime and manga, is a goofy idiot sometimes but also brash and competent. The anime gives him enough dimension and interiority that it’s not an issue; the movie has no such luxury and runs on a script so aggravatingly awful that there is no room for interiority, resulting in an Edward Elric who’s a goofy idiot all the time and who has the emotional range of a spoon. By and large Al is a better actor and he’s probably a CGI suit of armor, awkwardly voiced by someone who I suspect hasn’t done much–if any–voice-acting before. (I’m not sure why they didn’t just book Kugimiya Rie, who voices him in the various anime.) He sounds unsure and I don’t think he–like the rest of the cast–can take the (really bad) script seriously. Can’t blame them. It is bad.

Unintentionally hilarious
Unintentionally REALLY hilarious

Which… look at these shots. I’m sorry but, bad. The CGI is truly horrid for something that supposedly had such a big budget, and the stuffed toy they used for the Nina chimera more closely resembles an adorable donkey with a wig than the result of a terrifying human experiment. Yeah, the thing looks kind of like that in the anime too, but it’s live action. The creature should be photorealistic, not a muppet.

It’s not all bad. Al looks great (even if he doesn’t sound great), Lust (Matsuyuki Yasuko) chews up the scenery with gusto and perfectly plays the whole slinky seductress thing, and Hughes (Sato Ryuta) is perfectly cast. These two are arguably the only people in the cast who can act and who haven’t suffered as much as the rest from terrible direction. And you do have to give it to the director: he’s fully committed to hiring not even a single white extra.

You see this crowd scene? All Japanese. If you opt to watch FMA, keep an eye out for every crowd scene, because you’ll find that it’s all free of white people whatsoever, despite the setting being vaguely Germany or European or whatever this is. It’s interesting to see that in a steampunk film.

Winry and Riza Hawkeye are pretty shafted by the script: Winry tags along with every scene to be weepy (she looks and sounds like a none-too-bright schoolgirl who wandered it from a shoujo title). Riza er, exists, I guess. She does get to wear neat combat gear and shoot zombies? Many of the characterization issues could probably have been fixed if the movie weren’t determined to cram in so much–covering about 13 episodes (?) of the Brotherhood anime–and made weird decisions to include subplots like Al thinking he might’ve been implanted with false memories.

The climax, incorporating truly bizarre elements (many invented for the film exclusively), hurtles toward a nonsensical clusterfuck: Shou Tucker (whose actor honestly tries his best) is one of the final antagonists, this one general guy is actually evil, there’s a puppet zombie army and most of it doesn’t make any sense. You get a bunch of iconic scenes like Roy Mustang (Dean Fujioka) burning Lust to death, but they seem to exist just to tick the callback boxes: remember the anime we all really liked and which was really popular? Hey, remember that? Yeah we’re doing that, but shittier. There’s one moment of pathos which sort of works (Al asking if his body, left in the Gate of Truth, is taller than Ed; Ed answering, in tears, ‘Yeah’) but that’s just a few minutes in a film that goes on for 135 minutes. Not worth it.

My opinion of the FMA film took a nosedive pretty quickly after watching about five minutes of Tokyo Ghoul (2017). Because while FMA obviously has a much higher budget–I hear they flew to Europe to film and all–FMA lacks… well… actors who can act. Not just ones who can passably act, but who are really great at their jobs. They even found a child actor who can act–Sakurada Hiyori–to play Hinami. No small feat.

One of the best things about Tokyo Ghoul is that it takes time to incorporate the everyday elements from the anime: Hide and Kaneki hanging out, Yoriko bringing her home cooking to share with Touka, Amon having ramen with his coworker. Invariably food acts as a conductor that underpins these relationships–food, and the social aspect of it, humanizes. Which makes the later scenes where Kaneki tries and fails to eat human food (or throwing away food that Hide bought him), or Touka making herself keep Yoriko’s cooking down without throwing it all up, that much more poignant. At one point Touka throws cake she digs out of the trash at Kaneki while asking him if he knows what cake and tarts and fruits taste like–she is resentful that he has lived most of his life as a human, able to have fundamental everyday human experiences, while she’s never been able to despite her wish to form relationships with her schoolmates.

Of casting choices, some are a bit odd. Kaneki is played by a 29-year-old actor–Kubota Masataka–who looks about 40. Granted, Kubota is a fantastic actor and he can really scream in pain like his life depends on making it convincing (and given the role, he has to do that a lot; hope his paycheck includes medical bills for a throat doctor), and he pulls off Kaneki’s PTSD flashbacks like a champ. Rize, Touka, Yoshimura, Uta–really the rest of the cast–are meantime perfect.

If the cast of FMA acts like they’re perpetually staring at green screens, the actors of TG are the opposite: they feel authentic, and it’s clear that they didn’t cringe and grimace through rehearsals. The script is good and each character does their thing flawlessly–Touka as resentful and bristly, Kaneki as terrified and traumatized but trying to help, Mado as… Mado. There’s surprisingly little exposition (in FMA, there is so much to the point it stilts the dialogue), everything moves along at a good clip.

People who can actually act and convincingly emote!

While the FMA movie tries to cram in 13-15 episodes of the anime into a single film, Tokyo Ghoul makes the much more sensible decision of covering just 8 episodes or so of the anime while rigorously cutting subplots: no Tsukiyama, less Hide, and so on (though I’m sure one or both of those will appear in the sequel). It makes for a much more compact, focused film that neatly begins and concludes the murder and avenging of the Fueguchi family. By the time the film ends, Mado is dead, Amon is stricken with grief and desire for revenge, everyone is traumatized, Kaneki’s taking his first steps toward the self-destructive monster he’d later become.

It helps that TG has a relatively smaller cast, so not much screentime is given to tertiary characters who are important later. The focus is on Kaneki, Amon, Mado, and Touka. It really helps that unlike the female characters in FMA, Touka is blessedly not shafted. While Winry is around to be a weepy damsel and Riza is around to be… around… Touka has her own personality, agenda, interiority and self-loathing. The romance between Touka and Kaneki is fortunately not included–though again, I’m sure it’ll crop up for the sequel–and it shines a light on how horrendously awkward it is that FMA tries to push Edward/Winry as a thing. (They have shit chemistry. I’m sorry. At least Touka beats the shit out of Kaneki and has fun breaking his bones.) The kagune can look a bit silly, but by and large the fights look fine and appropriately brutal.

Tokyo Ghoul ends on a sequel-hook note without being incomplete, and I watched the credits roll with a distinct wish to see the sequel, while with FMA by the credit roll I just thought everyone should’ve been recast and the director fired. TG was made on a limited budget–the CGI is not exactly state of the art–but it works with what it has perfectly, whereas the most you could say about Fullmetal Alchemist is that it looks expensively incompetent.