When the live-action adaptation of the wildly-popular manga-turned-anime Fullmetal Alchemist hits theaters next year, its entire cast of lead characters will be Japanese.
“I want to depict something that follows the original work as much as possible,” the movie’s director Fumihiko Sori told Natalie. “The cast is entirely Japanese, but the setting is Europe. However, their race and nationality isn’t expressed in a specific form.” This news is particularly refreshing in the wake of the upcoming Dr. Strange and Ghost in the Shell movies’ whitewashing of the Asian characters in their source material, tapping Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, to play them.
The world depicted in Fullmetal Alchemist is a complicated one. There, steam-powered technology and alchemy are the major forces that power the world. Amestris, the country where the bulk of the series takes place, is obviously fictional, but it’s heavily inspired by Edwardian-era Great Britain and German culture.
Edward (subtle), Fullmetal Alchemist‘s flaxen-haired protagonist, works as a State Alchemist tasked with traveling through Amestris to investigate various alchemy-related disturbances of the peace. As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Amestris is more or less a stand-in for Europe.
Everything from the names of some of its characters (like “Van Hoenheim”) to the tensions the people of Amestris have with their brown-skinned neighbors from the neighboring nation of Ishval scream, “This is an alternate history where alchemy isn’t magic and Europe just has a slightly different name.” All of that makes the filmmakers’ decision to cast their leads as Japanese that much more interesting.
There’s a long-standing, heated debate within the anime fan community about who Japanese creators are telling stories about when they design their characters with blonde hair, blue eyes, and features that (to Westerners) read as distinctly non-Japanese.
Some argue that Disney’s global influence on animation is what inspired Japanese artists to draw characters with large, round eyes and brightly colored hair. Others, like writer Julian Abagond, argue that non-Japanese people see “white” anime characters as white because of their own deep-seated media biases.
“If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being,” Abagond explains in a blog post for The Society Pages. “For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc. The Other has to be marked. If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed.”
Abagond hammers his point home by pointing out that Marge Simpson, a woman with jaundice-yellow skin and a blue, cylindrical, curly afro still reads as white because, in the world of The Simpsons, yellow is the majority. We associate the majority with white people.
At the end of the day, though Amestris, Edward, and the entire world created by Fullmetal Alchemist has always been and will always be Japanese at its core. Its characters speak Japanese, they abide by Japanese customs, the series itself is celebrated in Japan, and now, it will look more like Japan.