Let's Film This is an ongoing series where we explore the idea of adapting different anime as live-action productions: what it would take, which shows would make for the best adaptations, and what issues would be raised in the translation.

From the outside, the news seems about as straightforward and joyous as it can get: Director Fumihiko Sori (of the live-action Ping Pong, among others) will be sitting in the director's chair for a live-action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, set to be released in 2017. Casting has already been announced, too. But the other details of this adaptation make this a project that's at least as curious as it is exciting — in part because it's a Japanese-language and Japanese-cast production of a story that could also have been filmed in the West with no lossage.

Adaptation alchemy

In my previous discussion of adapting Fullmetal Alchemist to a live-action production, the scenario I had in mind was vaguely analogous to adaptations of other major fantasy franchises like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter -- a multi-film story cycle, since that seemed like the only fair way to do justice to Hiromu Arakawa's sprawling plotline. The details released so far hint at the first half of the planned film hewing closely to the original story, but with the second half departing heavily from it.

Longtime fans of FMA might well draw comparisons between such a plan and the way the original TV adaptation of FMA deviated, willfully and with the sanction of the creator, from the original storyline. I had no problem with that; even before seeing the show, I knew full well Arakawa had given the okay to the production team to branch off and do their own thing. (By that logic, she has most likely taken the same tack with this live-action version, too.) And on seeing the original TV version of FMA end to end, I realized a lot of the criticism aimed at the show had been off-target. No, it didn't adapt the story as it was written, but it gave us another story that had some immensely strong points of its own, and that was worth telling. Even the botched ending — intended mainly to leave things open for the inevitable movie or other follow-ups — didn't totally sabotage how I felt about it.

I have the same attitude towards the news that the filmed FMA will also be a ... yes, I'll say it ... homunculus of sorts, a crossbreed the old and the new. If they want to experiment with the storyline and not be totally faithful, that's fine. That we have already had something like this happen is a big part of why I take this stance, since the results there were mostly successful. It also helps that we had a follow-up adaptation that stuck almost note for note and beat for beat to Arakawa's original story, so we have both of those takes on the same source material to fall back on if need be.

But again, the story we get has to stand up on its own merits. I haven't yet seen the live-action Attack on Titanbut I understand it deviated from the original material in ways that undermine, and sometimes outright sabotage, its original intentions. It's not that they change things, but the specific things that are changed, and to what end, are what matter, and there's no way to tell in advance if the planned changes are in the proper spirit or not. This is not a project that is existentially questionable, like the Western live-action remakes of AKIRA or Ghost in the Shell.

A version, not the version

That leads me to the second big line of thought I have about this project. Another key point I made about FMA as live-action is that it's one of a number of anime/manga projects I like to call "pre-localized" — works that could be filmed very easily in the West without needing to change anything: Black LagoonSoul EaterClaymoreVampire Hunter DGuin SagaLegend of the Galactic HeroesBerserkand many others. (Attack on Titan, too.)

What's interesting is how, most likely for practical and budgetary reasons, this is a Japanese production with a Japanese cast. Some of this is, I suspect, my own expectations being subverted. FMA's setting was inspired by the world of post-WWI and pre-WWII — specifically, the Europe, Middle East, and Asia of that time period (although in Asia's case more China than Japan). Such a flavor, when translated into live action, seemed to translate most readily into a Western production than a Japanese one.

This is not me saying such a thing is bad. It's just a counter-intuition based on my own expectations, and I suspect there are other people who might feel the same way. Watch FMA with English audio and no knowledge of its origins, and you could readily conclude it was a Western production. In that light, a Japanese-language adaptation might well seem downright strange.

This also does not mean that I think the only "proper" live-action adaptation of FMA would be a Western one, because of its pre-localized flavor. The adaptation we're going to get might well be a great movie, and a Western one could sit comfortably side-by-side with it, should such a thing ever be made. For all we know, the Japanese version might well be the trigger for a Western version, with a Western cast, a budget an order of magnitude larger, and a one-for-one reading of the original storyline. But it would still be version, not the version — much as this adaptation is likely to be as well.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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