Matt Kamen checks out the feature sequel to the FMA franchise
What's left to do when a long-running and mega-popular series comes to an end? Make a movie to tie things up! Readers beware – spoilers abound from this point on!
At the end of the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series, the eponymous hero, Edward Elric finally restores his younger brother Alphonse's human body, freeing him from the suit of armour his soul had been bound to for the majority of the series. However, in keeping with the laws of alchemical equivalent exchange – that to create one thing through alchemy, something of equal value must be given up by the bearer – Edward pays a great personal price. Alphonse awakens with no memory of the four years he had spent travelling with his brother, while Edward finds himself trapped in a strange alternate reality. A world where alchemy is useless and he has no way of making his way home. A world recovering from one devastating war and heading towards another. Our world. Munich, 1923. Hope you survive the experience, Ed…
Conqueror of Shamballa is the true finale to the grander Fullmetal Alchemist story, reuniting Ed and Al for one final, big screen adventure. Picking up two years after the final episode, both brothers have moved on with their lives but neither has forgotten the other. Back in Amestris, Al has devoted himself to the study of alchemy in an attempt to find his brother, knowing the sacrifice Ed made even if he himself can't remember it. Here on Earth, Ed is living and working with this world's version of Alphonse, a young rocket engineer named Alphonse Heiderich. The arm and leg he lost are now mere prosthetics rather than the advanced automail of the series but despite this and the loss of his alchemist abilities, he still manages to live a full life, never afraid to jump to the defence of those in need. His sense of justice and refusal to back down from a fight leads him to rescue Noa, a Roma gypsy girl with powerful psychic abilities, from agents of the Thule Society. This mysterious occult group seek powerful weaponry that they believe they will find by opening a gateway to Shamballa, a mystic city spoken of in Tibetan Buddhist teachings. Believing Noa's powers hold the key to getting there, she becomes the target of their schemes. When they mistakenly open a portal between Earth and Amestris instead though, a brotherly reunion is clearly at hand.
The key factor that elevates Conqueror of Shamballa above most movie continuations is the historical placement of the piece. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for director Seiji Mizushima to churn out a brainless 90-minute action flick, knowing that the popularity of the Fullmetal Alchemist brand would bring in fans – and more importantly, money – regardless of the final quality. Instead, he chose to create a complex yet accessible film that takes the adventure expected by fans and places it alongside the political, military and social environments of Germany as it stood between World Wars I and II.
The backdrop to much of the movie covers the events leading up to the Beer Hall Putsch, a planned coup by the Nazi party in what was ultimately a failed attempt to overthrow the then-reigning Weimar Republic. Discontent was rife in Germany after the country's surrender at the end of the First World War. Following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms of Germany's responsibility for WWI, Germany had been ordered to pay reparations, which lead to near-total economic collapse and unstoppable inflation. To cover the cost, the USA loaned Germany the money but repaying that loan lead to even higher inflation and more disgruntlement for the populace. Though the Wall Street crash and America's Depression Era would not occur until 1929, having a knock-on effect on Germany's loans, leading to further economic downturns and the dawn of the Second World War, life was harsh for much of the country even in 1923.
Discontent inevitably lead to xenophobia, which was seized upon as an easy political tool by the emerging Nazi party to gain public support, and an environment where anyone who was not a 'true German' became viewed as suspicious and untrustworthy. This scorn was notably aimed at the Jewish community but travelling gypsies – such as Noa – were also victimised, often harshly so, as were other minorities.
A few deviations from history were made however. The movie director Fritz Lang appears in the movie, standing with Ed in opposition to the Nazis and the Thule Society and is said to be Jewish, whereas in reality he was raised Catholic (although a case could be made for accuracy, since despite his mother's conversion from Judaism to Catholicism when he was ten, under Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish then you will also be considered a Jew). The leader of the fictionalised Thule Society here is the female Dietlinde Eckhart, most likely inspired by Dietrich Eckart, a real member of Thule who died around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.
When Dietlinde sends a squadron of soldiers through the gateway to Amestris, all of whom come back dead, she discovers a world of real magic far beyond the occultism she had been familiar with instead of the advanced civilisation she expects to find. Reacting in fear and warped by crossing the divide, she tries to destroy Amestris. The merging of elements from each of the two worlds provides some wonderful opportunities for fast-paced steampunk action. Steampunk, for the uninitiated, is a vein of fantasy that utilises technology as would be found in the works of Jules Verne or HG Wells and applies it to an unfamiliar location. Though its original interpretation was fairly strictly related to the use of steam power in eras when it had not yet been invented or long since ceased common usage, it can now refer to any juxtaposed pairings of location and machinery. While the Fullmetal Alchemist TV series dabbled in this style, there was always something lacking without anything comparatively mundane to ground it against. Conqueror of Shamballa remedies this, the contrast of airships, rockets and armour from our world in stark opposition to the magic and alchemy of Ed and Al's home world. In a final battle that showcases the amazing animation quality of production house Studio Bones, Ed, Al and Flame Alchemist Roy Mustang face off against Deitlinde's flying war machine from Earth in the skies of Amestris while mindless Nazi soldiers trapped in suits of armour devastate the land below in an incredible final battle.
Conqueror of Shamballa has been a phenomenal success everywhere, and there's no reason to expect the UK to be any different. At the Tokyo International Anime Fair, the movie won the awards for 'Animation of the Year' in 2005 and in 2006 also earned composer Michiru Oshima the prize for 'Best Music' and Hiromu Arakawa – the original manga creator – was awarded 'Best Original Story'. The awards kept coming in from around the world too, next with the 2006 Mainichi Film Concours and the Canadian Fant-Asia Film Festival awards, both wins for Best Animation Film. The movie has also been nominated for dozens of fan run awards, and winning several of them.
The Fullmetal Alchemist series ended on a relatively open note, almost promising that there was more to the story. By the final episode, there were still Homunculi – artificial humans created through alchemy – unaccounted for, and several of the countries Ed and Al had visited on their journey were still rebuilding following wars, another parallel to our world in the years between the first and second World Wars. Returning to the characters two years later, Conqueror of Shamballa ties up the loose threads, giving a nod to even the smaller characters. All the story threads that the series itself moved through - devotion, growth, responsibility, the cost of power, war and more besides – have been leading here, to this movie. It's entertaining and exciting fare for any viewer but for fans of the series, it offers the final end point and real closure on the adventures of the Elric brothers and their comrades. It may be a bittersweet goodbye but if you've come this far on the journey, then you're not going to falter at the final step, are you?
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa is out in a UK double DVD pack with the Sacred Star of Milos from Manga Entertainment.