Tag Archives: anime

The Secret World of Arrietty

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Kari-gurashi no Arietti (original title)
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki & Keiko Niwa, based on the novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton; directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Almost two years after it was released in Japan, U.S. audiences can finally see the latest animated film from Studio Ghibli, producer of animated classics such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Co-written by Studio Ghibli’s guiding force, Hayao Miyazaki, it is directed by relative newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi in a style very reminiscent of Miyazaki.

While not as rich a story as Spirited Away or some of Miyazaki’s other films, Arrietty nevertheless drops us into a fully realized world where tiny humans live undetected by their giant counterparts. These “Borrowers” live simple lives off the land, only taking things they really need from the “beans.”

The detailed drawings, done with traditional hand-drawn animation, bring this world to life. No detail is too small. Even the physics of this miniature land are well handled, such as showing water droplets their true relative size–as giant globs to the Borrowers (pedantic note: you can always tell when miniatures are used in live-action movies because the size of water droplets is dictated by surface tension).

The plot is pretty basic. After living unseen but rumored to exist for many years, Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler) is accidentally seen by a sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie), which prompts Arrietty’s parents Pod (Will Arnett) and Homily (Amy Poehler) to decide to move rather than risk inevitable capture. Predictably, Shawn wants nothing more than to coexist peacefully with the Borrowers; it’s his guardian Hara (Carol Burnett) who wants to exterminate them.

The film is a series of chases and adventures as Arrietty and her family try to avoid ending up in Hara’s clutches. Nonetheless, there is plenty of time to linger on the beauty of the world and be amazed at how everyday objects are reutilized by the Borrowers.  Much of the humor in the film stems from seeing things like Arrietty lugging giant sugar cubes around.

The excellent camera work showed the immensity of the giant house from the perspective of the Borrowers. An effective sound mix gave an eerie echo to the giant world, subtly reinforcing the vastness and challenges of navigating through such an alien landscape.

The dub for the U.S. version was overseen by the folks at Disney, and they do their usual excellent job. There were a few points where the lip movements didn’t quite sync with what was being said, but these were minor. The voice actors provided the right inflections for this kind of tale.

The one thing I found slightly annoying was that despite being a confident, capable, and compassionate young woman, Arrietty is forced to obey her father’s command to move the family rather than try to resolve their differences with Hara. At the end of the story it is clear that Arrietty will be matched with a monosyllabic suitor, clearly her inferior, rather than be allowed to strike out on her own to explore the world which she obviously loves and is curious about.

Notwithstanding this peeve, the ending is satisfying, with everyone learning important life lessons about bravery, cooperation, and heart. This is a beautiful, thoughtful film that is the perfect antidote to the noisy, inane animated fare from  most American studios.

Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos

Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos (2011)
Original title: Hagane no renkinjutsushi: Mirosu no seinaru hoshi
Screenplay by Yûichi Shinbo; directed by Kazuya Murata

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Snapshot: An exciting return visit to see the characters that we’ve grown to love, but ultimately it doesn’t add much to the overriding continuity.

(Minor) spoilers ahead!

Last night I enjoyed the English dub version of Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos with a packed theater of enthusiastic FMA fans. It was obvious that everyone was happy to see their old friends Ed and Al Elric along with Winry, Col. Mustang, Lt. Hawkeye, and especially Maj. Armstrong. As a stand-alone movie, the events take place somewhere in the middle of the FMA: Brotherhood continuity. The movie is structured so that you don’t need to know anything much about the background of the characters (what little background that is needed is provided through expository dialog–more on that in a moment). There are no mentions of any plot points from the TV series, which is why I place it nearer the beginning of the storyline than than the end. Characters such as Scar, Führer Bradley, Van Hohenheim, etc., are completely absent.

When a powerful alchemist named Ashleigh Crichton escapes from the Central City prison, the Elrics track him to Table City in the western holy land of Creta. They hope he can lead them to a possible unknown form of alchemy that can help them in their quest to regain their bodies. They stop the alchemist from kidnapping his sister Julia, who is part of a dissident faction in the slums of Milos trying to regain control of the holy land that they were forced out of by the Cretans. Table City is aptly named, because it sits on top of a mesa and its waste is dumped on the heads of the Milosian people who live at the bottom of the valley surrounding the mesa.

It turns out that Julia is searching for what the Elrics recognize as the description of a Philosopher’s Stone so she can use it to help the Milosians retake Table City. Complicating things are some nasty wolf chimeras and a mysterious masked man, as well as Ashleigh. There are a few other new characters, too, that flesh out this complicated story.

The animation is top-notch. The visuals of the holy land are stunning. The action is fast and furious, well staged, and smoothly rendered. The music is excellent and the dubbing is quite good (were the lip movements redrawn for English, I wonder?). The dialog has the same mixture of seriousness and humor that we’ve come to expect from the series. All of the voice talent from the series reprise their roles.

One place the movie could have been improved was the dialog. It may have been an artifact of the translation and dubbing, but I suspect it was present in the original script. There were a number of instances where “Exposition Man” took agonizing time explaining the obvious or unnecessary. I can understand that the producers wanted to be as inclusive as possible, but realistically, how many non-FMA fans will see this movie?

Another area the movie could have improved was its complexity. Even at 110 minutes, there just seemed like too much was crammed in. There were also layers and layers of plot twists that could have been streamlined, I think.

The story is a thinly veiled allegory of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with Creta standing in for Israel, Milos standing in for Palestine, and Amestris standing in for the U.S. As such, it had the potential to send a very powerful message, something the best science fiction offers. I think it somewhat missed the mark, however, by trying to shoehorn the story into the established FMA continuity. What was powerful was seeing the conflict from the oppressed viewpoint.

Despite some of the drawbacks I’ve mentioned, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos is must-viewing for FMA fans. This is an intricate look into another culture that upholds FMA’s rightful place as one of the top anime adventures of all time. Although the movie doesn’t add to the established continuity, it does add interesting new characters and is a satisfying visit with old friends. Even non-FMA should enjoy this movie. Let’s hope that more exploits of Ed and Al and the gang will come our way!

The Upcoming Year in Movies

2012 looks to be an amazing year for science fiction and animated movies. What will be the hits? Here are some of my predictions, but I’m sure there will be plenty of surprises in store.

January

Fullmetal Alchemist : The Sacred Star of Milos – This feature-length sequel to the hit anime series looks like it will take place somewhere in the middle of the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood storyline. The release is limited, but hopefully it will come to a theater near you. Click here for U.S. theater/Canadian theater listings in your area.

February

Chronicle – The movie dead zone of February starts with this story of high school students who gain superpowers. Go watch reruns of Heroes instead.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – The February movie wasteland continues with an inane adaptation that would make Jules Verne weep.

Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace 3-D – will George Lucas ever stop tinkering with his movies? And nothing could add dimension to the flat characters of Episode I.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance – a sequel nobody but Nicolas Cage demanded.

The Secret World of Arrietty – from Studio Ghibli, an adaptation co-written by Hayao Miyazaki (but, alas, not directed by him) of The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The trailer looks great; let’s hope the movie is, too.

Dr. Suess’ The Lorax – finally, an animated adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book that looks like it will be true to its source and actually be funny.

March

John Carter – a live action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars series by writer/director Andrew Stanton (WALL·E, Finding Nemo) starring a bunch of unknowns. With a screenplay co-written by Michael Chabon, I have high hopes that Stanton will bring his animation magic to this project, just as Brad Bird did with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Mirror Mirror – the first of two retellings of the Snow White fairy tale, this one staring Julia Roberts and Sean Bean.

The Hunger Games – will this be a juggernaut franchise like Harry Potter or a flop like The Golden Compass? A lot is riding on this film, and all signs point to it coming through.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits – Peter Lord (Chicken Run) of Aardman Animations seemingly can do no wrong, and the trailer is hilarious. I have high expectations for this animated film.

Wrath of the Titans – Another underwhelming special-effects laden quest of Perseus doing the gods’ bidding.

April

Iron Sky – You had me at “Nazi lunar base.” This indie will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in April. Let’s hope it makes it to the U.S. soon thereafter.

Extracted – Sasha Roiz (Caprica, Warehouse 13, Grimm) stars as a brilliant engineer who invents a device that enables him to enter another’s mind. While testing it on a convict, he gets trapped and must race the clock to find a way out. Debuting at the Austin South by Southwest Festival, this indie could be one to watch for.

May

The Avengers – Joss Whedon’s take on the iconic Marvel team is the dream movie for comic book fans. I’m not a big fan of Whedon, and my concern is that he won’t be able to corral the egos of his large cast of stars, and the film will veer off into incomprehensibility. Nevertheless, this movie should deliver blockbuster numbers, no matter how good or bad it is.

Dark Shadows – Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team up once again to revive the 1960’s soap opera about Barnabas Collins and his wacky household of vampires and ghouls. I expect campy fun.

Men in Black 3 – another sequel nobody clamored for, but Will Smith will put butts in seats.

Dorothy of OZ – I saw a preview of this animated musical at San Diego Comic-Con last year, and it looked HORR! I! BLE! Why or why can’t someone just make a successful, straight adaptation of the marvelous source material?

Battleship – very loosely based on the popular board game (coming soon: Candy Land, I kid you not), the trailer is just a mess and a half—lots of explosions and women in bikinis. And it will make a ton of money.

June

Snow White and the Huntsman – the second Snow White adaptation; this one a bit edgier than the first.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted – I have to admit that the first two in the series were lighthearted fun, and I don’t expect them to deviate from the formula.

Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s triumphant return to science fiction as co-written by Lost’s Damon Lindelof, this will either be astounding or a big, fat mess. No one seems to know whether this is a prequel to Alien or whether it morphed into something else during filming, but the trailer definitely makes me want to see it.

Jack the Giant Killer – another fairy tale retold, this time “Jack and the Beanstalk” as directed by Bryan Singer.

Brave – Pixar’s big release of 2012, their first starring a female protagonist. The trailer looks amazing, and I expect this will be the animated feature to beat at next year’s Oscars.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – cheesy fun from producer Tim Burton.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation – stars Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson should ensure this will be better than the first G.I. Joe movie, but director Jon M. Chu’s background is from the music and dance world (most notably, the Step Up franchise), so it’s hard to imagine it will be much better.

July

The Amazing Spider-Man – July will be the battle of the titans: Spider-Man vs. Batman. This reboot of Spider-Man will hopefully reinvigorate the franchise, but I think it will be overshadowed by…

The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan’s final entry into the dark world of Batman. Will Nolan be able to pull off a tour de force without a force of nature like Heath Ledger? Most likely it will be an emphatic “yes.” Here is a clever mash-up trailer for the film using footage from Batman: The Animated Series:

Ice Age: Continental Drift – at least we get to laugh at Scrat try to rescue his acorn, regardless of the other dreck that may be in the movie.

August

Total Recall – this new Total Recall will supposedly stick close to the original Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” it’s based on.

ParaNorman – this animated fantasy/horror/comedy from the makers of Coraline could be a sleeper hit.

September

Hotel Transylvania – Director Genndy Tartakovsky (The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack) animates Adam Sandler as Dracula in this Sony Pictures Animation presentation.

Dredd – Karl Urban stars in a new take on the ultra-violent British comic book. Without Sylvester Stallone to muck it up, it might actually turn out ok. Lena Headey co-stars.

October

Frankenweenie – Tim Burton’s feature-length stop-motion remake of his infamous 1984 short. Will audiences flock to see a black-and-white animated film in 2012? The hip ones will.

November

Wreck-It Ralph – Disney Animation’s big film for 2012 features the voices of John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer in something to do with video game characters coming to life.

Rise of the Guardians – Dreamworks Animation brings together the voice talents of Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Chris Pine, and Alec Baldwin in a story that has Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and Jack Frost banding together to fight the Bogeyman.

December

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the one every fanboy has been waiting for—Peter Jackson’s long delayed adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved children’s book. My only question is whether it will remain true to its source material or whether it will be Lord of the Rings, Part 4. Either way, it should be awesome.

World War Z – based on Max Brooks’ tongue-in-cheek zombie book, this adaptation co-written by J. Michael Straczynski and staring Brad Pitt could be a surprise hit.

Unscheduled

Robot and Frank – A well-reviewed entry at the Sundance Film Festival starring Frank Langella as a burglar who teams up with a robot to commit his crimes. Co-starring James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and Susan Sarandon.

Upside Down – A man searches an alternate universe for a long-lost love from his youth. Stars Kirsten Dunst.

The Prodigies – Warner Bros. Pictures is planning to distribute this French animated superhero movie from 2011 sometime this year; my guess in limited release.

Legend of the Millennium Dragon

Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011)
Onigamiden (original title)
Screenplay by Naruhisa Arakawa & Hirotsugu Kawasaki, based on the novel by Takafumi Takada; directed by Hirotsugu Kawasaki

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jun Tendo, a shy boy whose father has died in a tragic train accident, is magically transported into Japan’s medieval past. Sorcerer Gen’un hails Jun as the savior in a violent, long-running war between humans and monstrous Oni. Gen’un assigns a young warrior named Raiko to mentor Jun. Jun learns to control a dragon called Orochi. When Mizuha, a young Oni girl, is hurt Jun flies her home to find things aren’t quite what they seem.

The story is a jumbled mess and the animation is strictly low-budget. Some of the action sequences are interesting, but this film seems aimed for indiscriminating children.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva (2009)
Story by Akihiro Hino, screenplay by Aya Matsui; directed by Masakazu Hashimoto

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Based on the popular Nintendo DS video game series, Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva was released on video in the U.S. in November 2011. The movie follows the same basic format as the video games: amateur detective Professor Layton (Christopher Robin Miller) and his apprentice Luke Triton (Maria Darling) must solve a series of puzzles to crack a mysterious criminal plot.

It starts out with Professor Layton receiving a letter from his former student, opera singer Janice Quatlane (Emma Tate) inviting him and Luke to see her perform. It turns out that the patrons at the opera were there to receive the elixir of eternal life. The only catch is that only one person can win—whoever solves the puzzles presented by a mysterious voice—and everyone else will be killed!

Similar to the video games, the plot becomes more and more convoluted to the point of almost incomprehensibility. However, plots are not the main features of the Professor Layton series, it’s the puzzle solving in exotic locations among eccentric characters, and the movie provides these in abundance. The art direction and character design are identical to the games, with Miller and Darling reprising their roles. Fans of the games will get the in-jokes, and non-fans will enjoy the over-the-top action and humor, too.

If you’re a fan of the Professor Layton games, definitely check out the movie. If you haven’t had the pleasure of Professor Layton’s acquaintance, I encourage you to try out this movie.

Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion is an amazingly successful anime series and companion manga. The anime, directed by Hideaki Anno, consists of 26 episodes first broadcast in 1995-1996. The manga, written by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and originally produced as a marketing tool for the anime, ran from 1995 to 2011. Other spin-offs, such as video games and toys, have made this one of the most profitable Japanese franchises. This despite the production company having financial difficulties that severely compromised the ending of the series as originally envisioned. A revised ending, supposedly closer to the original intent, was presented in the 1997 film The End of Evangelion, but it did not meet audience expectations. The first of four animated films (collectively called Rebuild of Evangelion) to remake the series was released in 2007, with a second in 2009. The first three movies of the new series are slated be an alternate retelling of the TV series and the fourth movie will be a completely new conclusion to the story.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is an apocalyptic action story that tells of the efforts by a paramilitary organization called NERV to fight merciless invaders called Angels. The story never really explains what the Angels are or why they are attacking Earth, although it is implied they are aliens. NERV’s primary weapons against the Angels are giant mechanized humanoid-shaped exoskeletons called Evangelions that are piloted by specially chosen teenagers, one of whom, Shinji Ikari, is the main point of view character.

Shinji is a reluctant hero. As the estranged son of the Evangelions’ designer, he is pressed into service against his will. Much of his motivation seems to be his desire to please his cold-hearted father in the hopes that their relationship can be mended. As an Evangelion pilot, Shinji witnesses many terrible sights that contribute to his melancholy. Nevertheless, Shinji perseveres against the horrible odds with which he is faced, sometimes using only his force of will to move forward against his numbing fear.

Against this backdrop, the series presents a number of philosophical, psychological, and religious themes; using symbols and allusions drawn from both Eastern and Western spiritualisms. However, reaction to the bizarre ending of the series was mixed at best. The revised ending of The End of Evangelion was perhaps even more incomprehensible.

In an attempt to rectify the original’s shortcomings and to employ the latest animation techniques, writer Hideaki Anno and directors Hideaki Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Masayuki produced Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone (2007) and Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance (2009). The two films retell Shinji’s story with better production values and a leaner plot. The Angels have a much more alien appearance, and much of Shinji’s high school antics are omitted, leaving the core battle with the Angels as the central focus. It retains Shinji’s conflicted emotional and proto-sexual relationships with co-pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Shikinami. There is a new subplot, however, of an Evangelion prototype being manufactured on the moon for secret reasons. Unfortunately, the resolution to all the loose ends will have to wait until at least 2012 when the third and fourth movies are scheduled to be released in Japan; who knows when they will surface in the U.S.

Comikaze

Comikaze is a new comic-centric convention in Los Angeles. It appears to be making a bid to eventually replicate the multi-media San Diego Comic-Con experience, with something for fans of anime, movies, TV, and gaming. Comikaze was held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on November 5-6, 2011. I attended on Saturday only.

I went in not expecting much. A similarly publicized convention in Pasadena a couple of years ago was a dismal failure. I had purchased tickets through Goldstar, a popular discount ticket broker. The tickets were “free” for a $4.50 handling fee, so I didn’t have much to lose by going.

Fez-o-Rama Booth

The Comikaze web site indicated the dealers’ room would open at 10:00 a.m., but when I arrived shortly before 10 I discovered that the floor was not going to open until 10:30. So I had to wait a bit, which was ok. I had to redeem my Goldstar receipt for a wristband, and that took a few minutes. To give Comikaze credit, they had workers in the crowd giving out wristbands to full-paying preregistrants, enabling people like me to get to the registration table relatively quickly.

Girls and Corpses Magazine Booth

At 10:30 the door opened. Yes, door, singular. The long line slowly snaked in, single file. The cavernous hall was already bustling when I managed to get in. There were a lot of vendors selling a wide variety of products. There were also many tables for artists and celebrities. A large area at the back of the hall

Gaming Area

was reserved for gaming tournaments, so there seemed to be something for everyone. In an unusual setup, there were five panel rooms created by curtaining off sections of the hall.

Having looked at the online schedule ahead of time I knew there was to be a screening of the trailer for Daniel Radcliffe’s new horror movie, The Woman in Black, at 11:00, but none of the panel rooms had it listed on the cards in front of the room entrances. Because there was no overall printed schedule or facilities map, or signs of any sort, I ended up having to ask about four or five people where the screening was

Even the Muppets were there!

before I eventually found it in a meeting room on the third floor of the convention center. I was late, but it didn’t matter since they were still struggling to get the audio-visual equipment working. I waiting until about 11:35 when they announced it would be another 20 minutes to get ready. This was not an auspicious start to the convention!

Performance art?

I spent the next hour and a half walking the dealers’ room, by the end of which I had pretty much seen everything. There were a number of interesting vendors, including a lot of comics, toy, video, and clothing and jewelry dealers.

There were quite a few celebrities in attendance, most charging for their photos and autographs. Stan Lee and his entourage strolled through at one point. Wax figure Morgan Fairchild held court while her handler shielded her from any unauthorized (unpaid) photographs.

Not Ernest Borgnine

Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine apparently didn’t have anything better to do, but looked in amazing shape for a man of 94, certainly better than 85-year-old Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man), who sat looking wrinkled, sad, and lonely. Other famous and not-so-famous stars that I recognized included Butch Patrick (The Munsters), Richard Hatch (Battlestar Galactica), Alaina Huffman (Stargate Universe), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager),

A melange of costumes

Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Carel Struycken (The Addams Family). There were many more that I didn’t recognize.

There were lots of costumed attendees. Just like at SDCC, they regularly blocked the aisles posing for photos. It’s just something a congoer gets used to.

Batman Panel

I attended four panels in the afternoon. At 1:00 it was “The World of Batman” with writers Gregg Hurwitz (Penguin: Pain and Prejudice) and Kyle Higgins (Batman: Gates of Gotham). They had a good discussion of what makes Batman Batman. Unfortunately, there was a very noisy cast reunion of Nickelodeon’s All That in the next room which tended to drown out what Hurwitz and Higgins said, not to mention that the acoustics to begin with were poor due to the room being a curtained off area in the giant, echoing cement hall.

Titmouse Animation Panel

At 3:00 I trekked back up to the third-floor meeting room for the Titmouse Animation Showcase. Titmouse produces Metalocalypse and other Adult Swim programs. They have taken over production of The Venture Bros., and series creator Jackson Publick was part of the panel. They also previewed Black Dynamite, a new series set to début next summer.

Back down to the hall for a panel at 4:00 called “From Robots to Monsters: Japan is the Original King.”  Moderator Jessica Tseang (ComiCast) did an excellent job of interviewing Tom Franck (North America’s largest Japanese robot collector) and Mike Costa (Transformers).

DC Panel

The final panel I attended, at 5:00, was “DC Comics New 52 Q&A” with a full table of DC writers and artists, including J. T. Krul (Captain Atom), Eric Wallace (Mr. Terrific), Phillip Tan (The Savage Hawkman), Scott Lobdell (Red Hood and the Outlaws), Brian Buccetello (The Flash), Kyle Higgins (Nightwing), Gregg Hurwitz (Penguin: Pain and Prejudice), Mike Costa (Blackhawks), and two or three others I don’t remember offhand. They all seemed genuinely excited about DC’s recent reboot and promised great things to come.

Overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by the size and quality of Comikaze. Considering that Comikaze was just one week after the Long Beach Comic-Con, the attendance was remarkably high. The organizers have shown that a successful large media convention can be held in Los Angeles. There were some things that need to be improved for next time. Not everyone has a smart phone, so they need to have better schedules and maps available for attendees (and the schedule needs to be cross-referenced by participants). Crowd control was generally pretty good, but flow into and out of the hall and the rooms were sometimes a problem. They definitely need to hold panels in the upstairs meeting rooms and not the makeshift curtained rooms. The L.A. Convention Center is not as well situated as the San Diego Convention Center, i.e., there are not nearly as many nearby hotels and restaurants. For Comikaze to grow to SDCC size, they will have to overcome those limitations, but it should be eventually possible.

For another look at Comikaze, check out this long and detailed report from The Fangirl Files.

Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist the manga, written and illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa, was published from 2001 to 2010. It was adapted by director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shō Aikawa into an anime (FMA, for short) that ran for 51 episodes in 2003-2004 in Japan; subsequently released on DVD in the U.S. in 2005-2006. In what is perhaps the fastest remake in history, it was readapted by director Yasuhiro Irie and writer Hiroshi Ōnogi as Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood for 64 episodes from 2009-2010 in Japan; released in the U.S. in 2010-2011. I haven’t read the original manga; this review will cover the two anime series (dubbed versions).

Fullmetal Alchemist is set in an alternate reality in which alchemy is an advanced scientific technique within a society that has a mixture of early 20th-Century industrial capabilities and modern sexual equality. Alchemy is based on the principle of equivalent exchange, i.e., “In order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed.” The story features brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, sons of master alchemist Van Hohenheim who left home for unknown reasons when they were very young. Their mother, Trisha Elric, died of a terminal illness a few years later, leaving the two brothers orphaned. The young boys determined to resurrect her, so they dug into their father’s reference books to learn about human transmutation, a forbidden branch of alchemy. Their eventual attempt ended in disaster, resulting in the loss of Ed’s left leg and right arm, and Al’s entire body. Ed managed to bind Al’s soul to a suit of armor, and Ed’s arm and leg were later replaced with automail, a kind of metallic prosthetic limb. The two then began a quest to find the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that they think will be able to make them whole again.

To help facilitate their search, Ed enlisted in the state military, becoming the youngest state alchemist. Ed acquired the nickname Fullmetal due to his automail. Ed and Al soon got caught up in a conspiracy far beyond anything they’re prepared for. They discover a genocidal plot by the top military leaders. Meanwhile, shape-shifting monsters called homunculi, taking the identities of the seven deadly sins, begin preparations to take over the world for their mysterious creator.

FMA followed the plot of the manga until about halfway through, when it completely diverged (after all, the manga was far from complete at the time FMA was produced). FMA’s ending seemed a bit rushed and had some plot holes. Brotherhood followed the manga very closely all the way through, with a more logical and satisfying ending. Brotherhood is less centered than FMA on the Elric brothers, featuring a large cast of supporting characters. The villain of FMA is a little more believable; the villain in Brotherhood is more of a clichéd power-mad megalomaniac.  Does this make one series better than the other? Not really; they are two sides of the same coin. The two share most of the same voice talent (the one notable difference is that the boy who played Al in FMA got too old to continue voicing a pre-teenager, so was replaced by a woman) and the art direction and character designs are almost identical. FMA is darker in tone and has a more ambiguous ending than Brotherhood. Most reviewers prefer the soundtrack of FMA to Brotherhood. The animation of Brotherhood is probably better and more fluid than FMA.

Brotherhood condenses the plot of the first half of FMA to about a dozen episodes. Whether this is because FMA had filler not in the manga, or whether it was because the producers assumed the audience had seen FMA and didn’t want to sit through the entire beginning again, is not clear. For those who have not seen or read any version of Fullmetal Alchemist, I would recommend watching the first 26-28 episodes of FMA, then pick up Brotherhood at about the 12th episode. This will give the viewer a fuller and more nuanced picture of Ed and Al’s relationship as well as more details about their world, and avoid repeating essentially identical scenes. There is only one major plot change before this point that I can think of—one character dies in FMA that survives in Brotherhood—but I don’t think this is enough to hinder one’s understanding or enjoyment of Brotherhood.

Whichever version you watch, or perhaps both, you will be seeing one of the all-time finest examples of anime. Fullmetal Alchemist explores the themes of self-sacrifice, honor, and fighting against all odds for what is right, and does it with action, humor, and compassion in a steampunk world with fascinating characters.

The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers (2008)
Sukai kurora (original title)
Written by Hiroshi Mori (story), Chihiro Ito (adaptation); directed by Mamoru Oshii

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is hard to write a coherent review of The Sky Crawlers without revealing major plot twists, but I will try. I advise you to see the movie without reading too much about it beforehand so that you can enjoy and think about what happens without bias. Do stick around for the epilogue after the closing credits.

The Sky Crawlers is a thought-provoking alternate history that will appeal to literate science fiction fans. Mainstream audiences will undoubtedly be bored and confused by what happens in the film. The film examines weighty themes such as the meaning of war and the nature of memories. I was reminded of the death of famous amnesiac “HM” while watching The Sky Crawlers, as some of the characters suffer from a similar type of memory loss. Why they suffer this loss is one of the twists that will either spark heated discussion or bewilderment afterward. Like most good science fiction, The Sky Crawlers presents somewhat ambiguous characters and ideas. It is up to the viewer to interpret the meaning.

What worked: The CGI aerial combat sequences were amazing—dizzying and spectacular, with intricately designed air vehicles that spurred the imagination. The characters’ emotional depths were thoroughly mined—although not always pleasantly so. The character design and art direction were top notch—the CGI segments were almost photo-realistic, and the 2D segments were beautifully drawn and lighted, too. The Basset Hound was cute.

What didn’t work: The pacing was slow—this is a psychological drama, not an action adventure—and could have benefited from some judicious editing. Although I found the transitions from CGI to 2D and back to be perfectly fine, particularly after getting into the rhythm of the film, many viewers will likely find the transitions jarring.

If your tastes run more towards Blade Runner or A Clockwork Orange, you will probably appreciate The Sky Crawlers. If your tastes lean more towards Star Wars or The Incredibles, I advise you to see something else.