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Interview: Live-Action Fullmetal Alchemist Director Fumihiko Sori

by Rai Kelly,

Earlier this year, the hotly anticipated live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie made its overseas premiere at AnimeNYC. To commemorate this event, the director himself, Fumihiko Sori, attended the convention on Sunday. I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one interview with Sori the morning of the screening. He was very kind and welcoming during the interview, and I was able to ask a fair amount of questions regarding the live-action film.

How do you feel about the movie premiering in the United States?

I must say I am very excited because I want to know how US fans feel about Japanese live action adaptations.

I heard that it took an incredibly long time to create Alphonse's 3D armor. What in particular was so challenging about creating the effect?

Until now, Japanese visual effects have lagged behind Hollywood standards, so first, getting our visual effects up to world standards was something that took time. Then, I wanted to make sure we got the armor realistic enough that the audience couldn't tell if it was CGI or not, that it looked natural and moved like real armor would.

Did you ever consider making or attempt to make his armor using practical effects? 

In terms of using more conventional methods, if you mean something other than CGI, then that was kind of out of the question. There is a scene where the brothers get into an all-out physical fight. Well, Edward is petite while Alphonse is something like 2 meters (around 6.5 feet) tall. Even in scenes where Alphonse is standing still, a true-to-scale suit would be impractically heavy, especially if it's built durable enough to last the whole shoot. So, if you want to make something

that huge move fluidly, you would need the power of CGI.

How challenging was it to decide which parts of the Fullmetal Alchemist story you were going to adapt? It's a long story; deciding what you wanted to include in a single film must have been challenging.

In Japan, recently it has been quite common to create film adaptations that span two to three movies. But what I wanted to do was make everything into one movie. That was a key concept that was there from the beginning. I wanted the movie to not end with a “to be continued” cliffhanger. As you said, the original series is very long, so I had to be very practical with what I chose to put into this movie. In that sense, I was only able to keep about a third of the original content. That was a relatively good thing to do considering that if you get too greedy, you may not be able to get anything done. Since we put about a third of the manga content in the movie, that means we still have two thirds of the story left.

How do you think the experience of watching your film is different from watching the anime, other than the obvious story changes?

What we referenced (heavily) was the original work, the manga, so the events came from the comics. Because we only had two hours to work around with, we had to choose what parts to do exactly like in the manga and which ones we would need to arrange. The ratio of things that we kept the same and those that we had to change are about half and half. According to Arakawa-sensei who created the comics, she explained it as the comics being “her child”, with the two anime series being “her grandchildren”. In that sense,  this live-action film is her newest “grandchild”. You can consider them different branches of the same family tree that all trace back to the same comics.

How did you originally become a fan of the Fullmetal Alchemist series?

The comics started in Japan roughly around 16 years ago. Back then, I actually happened to pick it up and read it while it was still early in serialization. I was touched by how good the story was, so I've been a fan from almost the very beginning.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that it was your greatest wish to turn the series into a film. When did you realize that this was a personal dream of yours?

I've wanted to make a live-action adaptation ever since I first came across Fullmetal Alchemist. However, I knew that its content would require extensive use of visual effects, and back then, ten or so years ago, Japan wasn't quite there yet in terms of the technology. It actually took the form of a realistic dream roughly five years ago because of breakthroughs in effects technology in Japan. That's when I first thought maybe this was something that was actually possible.  

You have worked on a lot of other movies in the past. Did you take any inspiration from previous movies you've worked on?

I believe it is not just me - many other people also in this industry share the idea that comics and animation are difficult to adapt into live action. But I do have experience with adaptations. And with Fullmetal Alchemist, my focus was not on the costumes, or the actors’ looks, or those kinds of visual aspects. Yes, they need to be there, but they are not the things to get perfect. What I believe is more important is the core elements of the story, and that is what I try to convey truthfully. As you know, all of the cast members are Japanese, even though the characters they play don't look Japanese in the original manga. You will be able to see that these aren't Japanese people. So, there were some changes that needed to be made with that aspect.

The characters may be European in the manga, but I feel that they are Japanese in terms of their personalities and their mentality - they do have aspects that are relatable to Japanese people. They have the same kind of heart and soul that Japanese people have. For example, sibling relationships are different in different cultures, such as how brothers relate to each other in Japan versus America. (But) I believe that Alphonse and Edward have a more Japanese-style sibling relationship. Also, in terms of religion, I feel that the religious aspects of Fullmetal Alchemist are a lot more relatable to a Japanese audience. With all of this, I believe it would have been a difficult movie to pull off without Japanese actors.

There have been a lot of live-action adaptions recently. Were there any that you particularly liked or that you thought were done very well?

One that I thought was done really well was the live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin, in part because there was a lot of action. Also, I believe that what makes live action unique is the infinite range of emotional expression that human actors possess (and their physical actions). In that sense, I believe the Kenshin was a very well-made live-action film.

What feeling do you want the fans to take away from the film?

As I said, the characters look different from the original Fullmetal Alchemist manga. But I believe that the core elements of the story and the themes are still preserved strongly in the movie, and that was more important to me rather than getting the costumes and the look right. So, I hope that this resonates with North American fans. The original story of the Fullmetal Alchemist manga is a very deep story, and I wanted the movie to be as profound. I hope people can look past the surface, the characters’ external appearances, and appreciate its depth, and not just the way it looks on the surface.

I believe that Director Sori's wish came true. At the premiere later that day, many of the American fans were incredibly excited about the movie. When the film finished, the audience cheered enthusiastically and a whole line of fans queued up to meet Director Sori. The film and story itself resonated with them, just as Sori wanted. You can check out a more detailed review of the movie here.

Fullmetal Alchemist is in theaters now in Japan – expect an international release soon!

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