Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society’s Animation Festival, I was able to attend a screening of the FMA film tonight. After a harrowing odyssey of bizarre Sunday-night traffic that turned a normally 20-minute drive into a 90-minute serpentine through unfamiliar surface streets, I found a parking space and pulled up at New People at exactly the 8:30 PM showtime. The following review does contain spoilers, so be warned.
In terms of the mythos of the series, this story takes place somewhere around episode 20 of the “Brotherhood” TV series. Ed and Al are aware of the location of Al’s real body, and in the midst of their quest to find some way to restore it. The film was written by Shinbo Yuichi and directed by Murata Kazuya, neither of whom worked on either TV series. Mangaka Arakawa Hiromu had no direct involvement and the film is completely non-canon as far as the original story is concerned, though it generally does a good job at capturing the feel of the characters.
I’ll say it up front and get it out of the way – I was quite disappointed with the animation here. It’s quite starkly different than either TV series, right down to the character designs (which are fine) and has an almost proto-Ghibli look at times. While the big action set pieces – and there are some really big ones – are always good and occasionally stunning in terms of choreography, on balance the animation looks surprisingly cheap for a theatrical release. Especially considering this is the studio that gave us the likes of Sword of the Stranger, I expected more, and in terms of character facial movement and background detail this is not only a step down from BONES prior theatrical work, but I would judge it a step below their better TV work (including most of Brotherhood).
Apart from that, “Sacred Star” succeeds at creating what plays effectively as a mini-arc of the TV series. The subjects of politics and oppression are never far from the heart of FMA, and this movie is right in that sweet spot. The focus is on the tiny country of Milos, a barren valley sandwiched between Amestris and it’s powerful neighbor to the West, Creta. Both nations have plundered Milos’ resources, stolen their holy sites and literally use the valley as a garbage dump. Not surprisingly a resistance movement has grown up among the harried remains of the Milosions, complete with their own aerial attack squad the “Black Bats”. When Al and Ed have a random confrontation with an escaped prisoner who practices alchemy using unfamiliar transmutation circles, they end up pursuing him to Table City, the Amestrian frontier town on the border with Creta.
In addition to the political drama this is also a family drama centered around two siblings, Ashleigh and Julia Crichton, whose parents were alchemists from Milos who were taken to Creta to work for the state. There’s a terrible secret hidden underneath Table City (well, there’s always a terrible secret hidden under everything in FMA) and soon both Julia and Ashleigh are revealed to be more than they appear. Julia is the most interesting of the supporting cast, not least as she’s played by the great Sakamoto Maaya. Julia ends up having quite a chemistry with Al, who I suspect would have overcome his shyness and kissed her on a couple of occasions if that were biologically possible. The subplot involving Ashleigh and a man named Melvin Voyager (Morikawa Toshiyuki) is less interesting and relies a bit too heavily on deux ux machina and coincidence for my tastes.
In terms of the regular cast, it’s mostly just Al and Ed. Roy Mustang, Riza Hawkeye and Winry Rockbell all have small roles, but the main cast are the two pairs of siblings and the aforementioned Mr. Voyager. The Elric boys are very much in character here, adding some nice elements of humor to an otherwise very dark and action-driven script. If you like Ed and Al you should be happy with what you get here. Overall, I found “Sacred Star” dragged quite a bit in the second act, lingering too long after setting up the premise before jumping into the resolution. The first and last thirds of the film are very strong, however, packing some spectacular action sequences that look great even if visibly done on the cheap.
It’s hard to know just what BONES expected from this movie, and it’s surprising they didn’t sink a little more money into it. The film did quite well at the box office in Japan and is even getting a limited US release (100 screens) so I’m sure it’s been a financial success for them. FMA is a valuable property, and it certainly wouldn’t shock me to see the studio continue the franchise through a few more anime-original films or OVAs, taking the low-risk approach in terms of budget. While I wouldn’t say “Sacred Star” is essential to understanding the heart of what FMA is, it should prove a pleasing diversion for fans of the series and I, for one, would have no complaints if we see more releases in a similar vein – I just wish BONES would pump a little more cash into the production side of things.