Ghost in the Shell (1995) Vs (2017)

From the 2017 live-action remake trailer itself, I already knew there were two major narrative alterations to the original 1995 Original Video Animation (OVA) that I didn’t like and didn’t agree with. Watching the film only confirmed my suspicions that these were poor changes to make.

For the purposes of this entry, I will refer to the 1995 OVA as Ghost (1995) and the recent remake as Shell (2017) cuz that’s how i feels about them >_<

Existential Crisis in Ghost (1995)

In Ghost (1995), having android parts was more or less status quo. There was no evil corporation out to exploit their human customers. This streamlined the animation’s philosophical enquiry into the nature and value of human existence. It allowed the film to create multiple characters that functioned as clear foils to one another, with each character adding more and more focus to the central question of what is a “ghost.”

There are the side characters with token android enhancements like the super speed typing android fingers, or Batou’s electronic eyes. These characters represented the norm. Then, there were the two extremes – Togusa who was transferred into Section 9 because he is mostly human, and Major Motoko Kusanagi who is all android, except for her human brain. In a poignant exchange between Togusa and Kusanagi, the film weaves in an explanation of how these characters are meant to function as counterpoint to one another (without sounding like heavy-handed exposition):

Togusa: … There’s something I’ve wanted to ask ever since I’ve started. Why did you transfer a guy like me from the Police Force?

Major: Because we need a guy like you… except for a slight brain augmentation, your body is almost completely human. If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable. And there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple. Over-specialise and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.

Togusa, thus, is the human element – random, creative, supposedly not overspecialized the way the other members of Section 9 are. Much like the random mutation in a genetic code, he is generative of new potential, he introduces diversity/diversification. And to be sure, this film is about the evolution of humanity, from man to android. Togusa’s role in the thematic scheme of things is reinforced by how he is the one to spot that Section 6 has been infiltrated by someone wearing thermoptic camouflage. Unfortunately, in the live-action remake, Togusa plays a much reduced role.

So, together, these three categories of characters places the human experience in this fictional world along a spectrum and implicitly asks audiences to consider what constitutes humanness. This line of questioning is mostly carried by the main character, Major Kusanagi who struggles with her identity .

If we have an android limb or android organ like a liver that can help us breakdown alcohol faster, are we still human? Most people would say, yes. But in the case of Kusanagi who only has a human brain, is she still human? If you say, yes, what does that say about the way we value the brain – repository of memory and experience – as the locus of identity? Is humanness found in the brain/mind or the body? If you no longer look like you, are you still the same person? The Ghost in the Shell manga, actually has Batou sourcing for a male android body to store Kusanagi’s mind in; at the end of the OVA, Major’s mind is transferred into a child android body since her original body is completely destroyed.

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The film also asks if having a completely android body, changes the brain/mind and makes a person less human? Consider the end of the film when Kusanagi rips up and destroys her own body trying to disable the spider tank. The lack of self-preservation instinct, the willing and careless destruction of the body, is something most humans cannot fathom, but is something Kusanagi with her android body can do despite her human brain. It’s an act that screams how unlike a human she has become.

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What further complicates the film’s focus on questioning the boundaries of authentic human existence and its value is the introduction of the Puppet Master – a spontaneously occurring Artificial Intelligence. With the appearance of the Puppet Master, the value previously attributed to Togusa gets short-circuited. In the face of a fully sapient, hyper-intelligent being, the value of human identity and human consciousness is undercut. It would seem that all we’re left with is the next step to the evolutionary process, the true hybridization of man and machine. This is represented by Kusanagi’s decision to join the Puppet Master at the end of the OVA.

By joining with the Puppet Master, the text opens up. It becomes generative, it prompts thought experiments, and intelligent guesses about what comes next. What is this larger existence/android consciousness that Kusanagi now gets to experience?

In some sense, I can’t help but feel that Her (2013) is like a spiritual sequel that represents what this other android-consciousness-led world is like. When Samantha (Scarlett Johansson)  tells Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) that she is having 8,316 other conversations while she is talking to him and admits to being in love with 641 others, there is an expansiveness to the cybernetic universe she exists in, and a freedom from human taboo because she’s not just involved in polyamory but polyamory on such a massive and inconceivable scale.

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Instead, we got the 2017 Live-Action remake. Right off the bat, instead of asking audiences questions and giving audiences an opportunity to work things out on their own, we’re given a hefty chunk of exposition explicitly telling us what a “ghost” (Your mind! Your Consciousness!) is and what a “shell” (Your Android Body!) is.

Instead of a spontaneously spawning AI like the Puppet Master, the villain is the company. So while it’s still a film about Man against the Machine, it’s man against the corporate machine. Unfortunately, by celebrating the human individual, the narrative shuts down the exploration of an alternate state of consciousness – one that is larger and beyond our own. Instead we sink back to a human consciousness that occludes all other possibilities. This is selfish and restrictive.

And while Shell (2017) does try valiantly (?) to explore the mind-body split, using race (supposedly) to augment the discussion of identity by suggesting a post-racial future, this narrative thread only fed the flames of the film’s white-washing controversy.

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So, spoiler alert, but the trajectory of Major’s search for her identity, leads her to discover that she’s been Motoko Kusanagi all along! A Japanese woman’s brain trapped in a white woman’s body! And don’t let me get started on the gravestone they gave her……….. ergh. So ugly. Tolong arh, more effort, can or not?!

The thing that struck me the most about this film is how the trajectory of her search takes her into the past instead of the future. This closes off the text, takes away the generative potential of the original narrative, and ultimately makes for some very regressive story-telling.

I understand that the film tried to do with race what the original did with gender, which is to turn it into a lyrical mode of expression, and a means by which to explore the subject matter. However, in order for race to have been used more successfully, it would have to have been seeded much earlier, and with greater frequency throughout the text.

This leads me to the other thing I didn’t like about the remake – the way the took gender out of the equation.

Gender in Ghost (1995)

The female body in Ghost (1995) is more than just the character’s physical form, it is the means by which the subject matter of the OVA is rigorously interrogated:

It is also possible to argue that, rather than making Kusanagi a feminist icon, Oshii is instead using her vulnerable female body and the “feminine” lyrical mode of the film itself to underline the vulnerability of all human beings in a world that is increasingly governed by oppressive and incomprehensible outside forces.

  • Susan J. Napier, “Doll Parts” from Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

This means the female body and elements associated with the feminine lyrical mode like water to represent the fluidity of the female identity and its potential for hybridization  makes Ghost (1995) a film that uses gender as a tool or technique to express ideas about the subject matter.

What’s more impressive is how these ideas are often represented subtly, and non-verbally.

This actually reminds me of my first contact with the film. I was in Secondary 2, and the year was 2000. Back then, Singapore still had Premiere 12 as a channel, and every month there would be Wednesday night movies, all programmed to fit a theme. Ghost in the Shell was one out of 4 animes being shown that month (the others were Spriggan, Wolf’s Rain, and Yu Yu Hakusho).

I remember turning the TV off after the first 5-10min of the OVA after watching Kusanagi disrobe to activate her thermoptic camouflage. I immediately thought it was one of those exploitative OVAs that fit the stigma that anime had that all of it was hentai in some way.

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Looking back now, that reaction wasn’t so far off from the truth. It is uncomfortable watching the nude female form on broadcast TV. It is awkward to get nude-ish to fight. The sense of discomfort and awkwardness comes from the enculturated knowledge that the female form is delicate, vulnerable, kept hidden.  Yet the film really plays up its use of the female form. From Kusanagi’s creation sequence to her thermoptics get-up to the final fight in the film where her body is completely torn up.

The dislocation of gender from denotative meanings is represented most acutely by the Puppet Master. As a non-gendered (over-gendered?) AI, he is a male voice issuing from a nude female body. Kusanagi’s own dislocation between mind and body is seen in her lack of embarrassment from being almost nude a lot of the time. This is seen in not just her thermoptic suit but how she undresses in front of Batou and he is the one who is embarrassed.

So for audiences the cognitive dissonance comes in the form of female bodies not behaving like female bodies – Major who is an accomplished fighter, male voices in female bodies, destroyed female bodies.

This cognitive dissonance helps to imbue Kusanagi with a subtle sense of otherness where even her smaller gestures add up to make audiences doubt her humanity despite her human brain.

Kusanagi’s otherness is also reinforced by how attempts to humanize her continuously comes from external sources – namely Batou. In the OVA, his attraction to her, his awareness of her femaleness and his need to clothe her, help to include her as part of the  human race. Kusanagi even says at one point:

That’s the only thing that makes me feel human. The way I’m treated.

But eventually, her Otherness, her femaleness, her predisposition towards hybridization because she is woman, lead her towards union with the Puppet Master.

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All of these subtleties were of course jettisoned in the Live-Action remake because there was no Puppet Master, no AI, just a Japanese boy (Hideo) in a caucasian android body.

Parasyte: The Maxim (2014-2015)

Parasyte: The Maxim is an anime the came out Fall 2014 and ended its run some time in March 2015. A total of 24 episodes, this anime was made by the anime studio Madhouse that is also responsible for other great anime series like Trigun (1998, 26 episodes), Death Note (2006-2007, 37 episodes), and most recently One-Punch Man (2015, 12 episodes). It also made the visually stunning Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (2000).

One of the best things about this series is that although it was only recently adapted into an anime series, the source material, Hitoshi Iwaaki’s manga, also known as Kiseiju, was actually written between 1988 and 1995.

Anime fans who grew up watching anime in the 1990s will tell you that this already sets the series a cut above two-thirds of the anime they watch that are laced with filler episodes and end with completely unsatisfying cliff-hanger or rushed endings. This long-time problem that beset various anime productions stems from how the weekly or daily release of serialised anime episodes based on the manga would invariably outstrip the mangaka’s ability to produce new manga chapters in time for them to be adapted into anime episodes. Thus, anime fans just had to deal with never being graced with any actual closure to their favourite childhood anime series.

However, because Parasyte: The Maxim is based on a complete work, the series comes replete with a well-rounded ending that ties up all the loose ends. The main plot lines are condensed into 24 intense, well-paced sometimes action-packed and gory, sometimes  deeply meaningful episodes. The main themes are delved into and explored all the way to their logical conclusions.

If you want a sense of how well this series did, just go to YouTube and look for reviews on it. You’ll find endless pages of people raving about Parasyte: The Maxim. The success of the manga and the anime has also resulted in two live-action films that unfortunately received mixed (mostly bad) reviews.

Still, binge-watching this thing was really one of my best ideas since coming back to Singapore after my MA.

There are a few things about the series that stood out to me and I’m just gonna discuss them in a very scattered, ad hoc manner. I don’t really intend to build this up into any kind of thesis about the series, only to point out some stuff about the mix of genres (Body Horror & Slice of Life), make some comparisons (The Body Snatchers, The Thing), and draw some connections between the series and socio-historical events in Japan (Zainichi & Zaitokukai)  that I haven’t seen anyone else do yet.

Aight. First up. To be perfectly honest, I only knew of this entire franchise when the first movie came out. It was the poster and the unusual colour scheme that caught my eye. This is in part because I had just watched a YouTube video analysing movie poster designs.

The pastel blue and the amount of light filling the poster that even casts a halo about Izumi Shinichi gave it a kind of pleasant, light-weight feel that one might associate more with Slice of Life/Romantic Comedy/High School Drama film and anime genres. But this choice of colouration is thrown into sharp contrast with the mutated hand in the foreground. And if anyone watches the trailer, the contrast between the tone set up by the poster and the amount of body horror contained in the actual movies/series becomes even more obvious.

So my first thought was that Body Horror and Slice of Life/RomCom/High School Drama are not genres that normally go together. But the more I thought about it the more I saw what a great fit these genres really are for each other because of the way the contrast brings out some of the main themes in the series.

One of the main questions that runs through the series is this question of who has a right to live – is it a matter of survival of the fittest as the alien parasyte, Migi, argues, or a matter of ensuring the community/society survives through the ability to embrace self-sacrifice, an instinct that seems to be predicated on the ability to feel emotions like love. Or is this “emotion” just our biology tricking us into sacrifice ourselves for the survival of the species? hmm…

Either way, a lot of the series comes down to question of being able to access the softer parts of ourselves – our emotions. We are also made to question the authenticity of the characters’ emotions and how they are ennobled by them. Oftentimes, emotions especially those like despair and love are held as benchmarks of a character’s humanness.

This reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Thing (1982).

In Don Siegel’s 1956 classic, a lot of the differences between the pod people and actual people are hinted at through the dialogue rather than through visual representation. For instance, when Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine) talked about how her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) is not himself, the best description she can give about what is wrong is only that something is “amiss.” Furthermore, in the scene where they find Jack Belicec’s (King Donovan) pod person, there is not close-up of the pod person. It is only after Becky Driscoll’s (Dana Wynter) conversion that we finally get a close-up of a pod person. What is truly horrific is that she is not some visibly monstrous prosthetic. Becky Driscoll, the actress Dana Wynter, IS the alien being. There is no way of separating alien from human, they are one and the same. The sheer absence of any other visual representation of how these pod people, who are perfect simulacra of their human counterparts, are different points towards how it is only the invisible, unverifiable inner world of emotions that marks the difference between human and alien. The rising hysteria in the musical score in the scene, which is itself something that can only be heard and felt but not seen, serves to drive this point home.

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As a side note, for those of you who are familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers  and its various incarnations (eg. the 1978 remake of the same title and the 1993 remake titled just Body Snatchers), you’ll know that this issue of emotions features very heavily in all the films. For instance, in the 1978 version, Leonard Nimoy, an actor who creates an intertextual link between the 1978 remake and the StarTrek franchise, in which he plays the emotion eschewing Vulcan, Spock, is the character who delineates the pod people’s worldview of an “untroubled world… free of anxiety, fear, and hate” but also faith, beauty and love.

On top of this, Kevin McCarthy who plays the lead, Dr. Bennell, in the 1956 original, has a cameo in the remake where he runs down the highway banging on cars and shouting, “They’re here already! You’re Next!” His hysterics are shrugged off by an apathetic public and comes to serve as an indictment not of the aliens but the human race for losing touch with the one thing that makes us human, our ability to care for one another. The 1993 remake set on a military base further highlighted our estrangement from ourselves and our interchangeability with pod people through the use of a setting that actually encourages the compartmentalisation of emotions

Ironically, it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) that takes this moment of existential horror even further. The delightfully gruesome moments of body horror scattered throughout the entire film belies a deeper layer of existential horror – the suggestion that the simulation is beyond skin deep. This is seen time and time again throughout the film where until the characters reveal themselves to be infected in a moment of body horror, they are able to react and emote like any other human being so much so that right at the end of the film, audiences are left genuinely wondering if it is Childs (Keith David) or MacReady (Kurt Russell) who is infected.

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Parasyte: The Maxim revisits these questions about what it means to be human and whether it is our physical form, genetic make-up, emotions and/or actions that define us. Parasyte‘s own angle to the question is fleshed out in Shinichi’s moments of existential crisis over his own identity. After a pivotal moment in the series, Migi and Shinichi have their respective genetic codes so intermingled that Shinichi becomes more level-headed and pragmatic (and totally more badass), but somewhat less emotional.

What I really appreciated about the way the narrative and characters developed is that Shinichi’s angst over his inability to feel sadness, loneliness, despair becomes a credible plot point and not just an excuse for melodrama. The various relationships he tries to maintain in the moments of the plot that conform to the RomCom/High School Drama generic conventions actually feed into these larger questions the series tries to deal with.

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Other than the main character and his parasyte, the other character that best embodies (hur hur… geddit geddit? body horror… embody… nevermind) this thematic line of questioning is Tamiya Ryoko, a woman whose biology has been fundamentally transformed by the alien parasyte. As an experiment, Ryoko decides to have sex with a male human-parasyte hybrid to get herself pregnant. For the longest time the viewer is left wondering what her intentions towards the baby are (born completely human, by the way). Eventually though in a scene that aptly captures the two sides of her character – alien and human – she walks through a hail of bullets, shielding the child with her body so she can deliver it safely into Shinichi’s arms before dying.

To tie off this first part of the my observations of Parasyte: The Maxim, I wanna say that the series’ emphasis on crafting moments of perfect human emotion whether it be the various incarnations of romantic love, platonic love between friends/nakama (Migi & Shinichi), or the bond between mother and child serve as the perfect counterpoint to the violence and the body horror seen in other parts of the series in order to give real weight to the kinds of questions it raises about what it means to be human.

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Anime Book Review

I’ve never done a book review before but I thought I’d just pen a few thoughts about these two anime-themed books I’m currently reading.

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I’ve just finished Susan Napier’s Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. The book is published in 2006, so it unfortunately does not contain the most updated view of anime, however, it is a second edition of the book that previously stopped at an analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). The book is published by Palgrave, which I find is a publisher I’m very comfortable going to for academic books with high quality insight, argument, thought and readability.

Napier’s academic writing style is thus highly readable even to non-academics and effortlessly deep. The conclusions she arrives at and her analysis of various animated texts are not only insightful and well-argued, but also very naturalistic. There are no jarring leaps in logic and her argumentation style flows from one logical conclusion to the next. Her writing is well substantiated and often reads like a blockbuster list of who’s who of the academic world. The theorists she chooses to quote and the actual quotations she picks are appropriate and fit seamlessly into the argument she is trying to make. If one were to level one critique at her choice of critical writing and academics to reference it would be that perhaps there are too few Asian critical perspectives being referenced.

She identifies 3 big overarching types in the genre as a whole – the apocalyptic, festival and elegiac modes. However, she is fair enough of a writer to acknowledge that even these 3 trends or themes are not exhaustive. She even throws in the occasional exception to the rule whenever appropriate. The surety of her stance coupled with her self-reflexivity about the limitations of her argumentative framework leads to a very balanced writing style that put me as a reader, at ease. It helped me to take on her conclusions in the comfort of the knowledge that this is a trustworthy writer who is not trying to push for a specific reading or agenda, who is just trying to share her view on the subject.

Her observations about anime were presented in a forceful writing style that was ever conscious of the reader. Mindful of his/her possible doubts, rejections, questions and other reactions that may arise in the reading of the views being presented. Every chapter was poised to address an obvious question about the genre and had a clear claim that was supported with in-depth textual analysis of 3-4 anime series or OVAs to support that claim. Her efforts to make meaning of the genre were also very well seasoned with historical readings and a socio-cultural understanding of the other arts originating from Japan. This caused an unusual pleasure to bloom within me even as I read the very objectively written chapter Napier had on anime porn.

Perhaps one other critique that one could level at the way the book, if at all,  is with regards to its use of examples. Each chapter of Napier’s book is organised such that it can accommodate about 3-4 examples before it starts to feel over-long. Due to this, there is a slight sense of the author cherry-picking examples that best prove the claims made in the chapters.

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Conversely, I am currently trying to struggle my way through Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime. The book is a much more recent work of academic writing about anime published in 2013, but a far less fulfilling read. It is published by Duke University Press and the reason why I picked it up is because it had a 3.7/5 rating on Goodreads.com, the same rating that Susan Napier’s abovementioned academic book got.

Silly me, I should have checked the number of reviewers. Napier’s book was reviewed by 405 readers, while Condry’s was reviewed by only 62. And if that didn’t give it away, I should have looked really hard at the book’s subtitle which reads, “Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story.”

Not to say that that’s not an interesting area of focus or that it’s not a worthwhile area of study or that this comparative book review is even a fair one (because it’s like comparing apples and oranges in terms the books’ foci). I just really wasn’t expecting the writing to be so wishy washy. I’m two and a half chapters in and all I’ve gotten from the book is that the author is trying to make the argument that the soul of anime IS the collaborative framework that surrounds it from source material mangas/mangakas, light novels to producers/studio houses, and fan communities. And that it is these interconnected networks that have led to the success of the genre.

These are not new findings or new arguments, and as a whole, it just seems that every chapter he is repeating this same conclusion. If the books starts out in the intro chapter saying that this is what the book wants to prove and then repeats this claim at the end of every chapter with no nuance to the argument presented in the introduction it just comes off sounding tautological and repetitious.

I’m sorry if I come off sounding too harsh but it’s really, really boring. There are a lot of references to Henry Jenkins and this leads me to think that the big chapters where the book’s premise is supposed to really take off is chapter 6 (Dark Energy: What Overseas Fans Reveal about the Copyright Wars) & 7 (Love Revolution: Otaku Fans in Japan), because they are devoted to fan culture. But other than that, the interviews he cites from his field work and close observations of various recent anime OVA productions, which really should be more interesting, come off sounding a little incoherent and pointless. The incoherence comes in part from the short, stuttering quotations he inserts into his writing which seem to defeat the purpose of using a quotation. You don’t want to quote someone just to prove that they said it. You quote someone because they’ve said something about something in the best possible way that something could have been said.

All I can say is that so far the book presents a very interesting argument that seems to have a lot of potential. And I would like nothing more than to see more depth in the analysis and use of the raw data gathered from such close on-the-ground work with animators and studio houses, but right now it’s just that, a potential argument that hasn’t actually been made. Even after almost 3 chapters. Ergh. So tedious.

Fullmetal Alchemist Comparison

So it’s been a long break and I’ve binge watched just about every good anime series on Netflix and rewatched a few episodes of some old favorites like Fullmetal Alchemist, Samurai X, Hunter x Hunter… As the winter break drew to a close though, I started to go stir-crazy from all the inactivity? So I started thinking back to Fullmetal Alchemist and I was struck by how despite the reboot in 2010, which was committed to showing a higher degree of fidelity to the source material from the manga, the 2003 anime still had its fair share of loyal fans, myself included.

Struck by this thought, I decided to do a comparison of the same arc in both animes and I realized that while the 2010 anime is almost a scene for scene match with the manga the 2003 version shows a higher degree of fidelity to the dark and disturbing tone of the manga. What follows is just a simple list of differences that gave the 2003 version a special place in my heart 🙂

For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my comparison to a single arc, it’s one of the firsts in the series so, spoiler alert, I guess? But I’ve always felt there was something about this arc that encapsulated the differences between the two versions of FMA so well, and I was very surprised to find that when I started really thinking about what these differences are, how much of it just came down to the look of the different series and how the story is told. So here’s a brief summary of what the arc is about:

The arc in question here is the Lior arc where Edward and Alphonse Elric go to the town of Lior to check out rumors of the philosopher’s stone and along the way, defrock a fraud masquerading as a messenger of god. In this arc, we are introduced to the Elric brothers’ backstory, their interest in the philosopher’s stone, alchemy, and the taboo of human transmutation. The events of the arc are actually pretty important because they become the foundations of a bigger crisis later on in the series. In the 2003 version it’s called “Those who Challenge the Sun” and is covered in 2 episodes. In the 2010 reboot, it’s called “City of Heresy” and is compressed to a single episode.

  1. The Placement, Length of the Arc

In the 2003 version, the series, like the manga, starts with this arc. Oddly enough, the 2010 reboot relocates this arc to the 3rd episode. My sense of it is because the reboot was committed to dramatizing the manga in full, the first two episodes of the series were dedicated to world-building – introducing the militaristic society, key behind-the-scenes puppet-masters that never got proper time of day in the 2003 version because that version was being made while the manga was still ongoing so animators didn’t really have a good sense of how the story was going to end.

The problem with this is that it slows down the action. FMA 2003 started with all the immediacy and excitement of a plot unfolding in media res. The piecemeal discovery of the characters’ backstory was made all the more exciting by the mounting excitement and tension of the fight scenes the flashbacks were interlaced with.

The fact that this arc was drawn out over two episodes was also a smart move. By ending the episode in a cliffhanger at the moment of highest possible suspense and tension brought about by the odds looking extremely unfavorable for our two main protagonists and the big reveal about a key event in the characters’ pasts, the series was able to bring viewers back for the next episode hungry and curious for more.

Of course it is possible to argue that part of the reason why FMA 2003 drew out the arc was because of the need to fill up air time with filler scenes to slow down its catching up to the manga, but hey, at least they did it meaningfully and to great impact because the drama in these two episodes completely trumps the 2010 reboot’s retelling of the same arc.

I suppose in all fairness, the reboot had additional issues to contend with like the roaring success of the 2003 anime, and how to tell essentially the same story AGAIN without boring fans of the original series while attracting a new audiences. Unfortunately, that line was so fine and difficult to tread that it often got lost and the reboot ended up feeling a bit like it was just going through the motions when it was covering material that had already been covered in the 2003 series.

2. The dramatic flourishes

In comparison though, the 2003 version really knew how to ramp up the dramatic tension in the telling of the story. It made full use of its medium and showed a great awareness of how to use its form to bolster its narrative.

Here are two clips I cut of the exact same scene and sequence from the two versions. At this particular moment, Edward reveals the price of human transmutation, a taboo form of alchemy in this world, and how it has marked him for life with steel prosthetic limbs, otherwise known as automail.

Let’s talk about this moment for a bit. Alchemy, whut? Human transmutation, whut? And what the hell is ‘automail’?! As with any fantasy/Sci-fi series, there’s a huge barrier to suspension of disbelief. How do you make an audience that doesn’t live in this fictional world, is unfamiliar with such concepts, come to feel anything about them or the characters?

The main difference in strategies in the two series is the difference between showing and telling. One of the main sequences I never forgot from the 2003 series when it first aired was the wild swinging motion of the ‘camera’ when Ed pulls off his cloak to reveal his automail arm.

It’s a sequence that’s arguably internally focalized from Rose’s point of view. Because of her own naivety and unfamiliarity with the concept of alchemy, she’s an ideal foil for the audience. And the effect of the perceptual internal focalization of the ‘camera’ movement simulates the swooning of the character and communicates the magnitude of the revelation to the audience.

But if you don’t trust Rose, the brief disorientation because of the ‘camera’ movement that leaves Edward obscured by his cloak and out of frame at times also seems to imply on its own the inability to take in the transgression in a single look.

There’s also the additional dramatic effect that comes from drawing out the revelation sequence which is markedly shorter in the 2010 reboot. There’s a sense of time stopping or slowing down that one gets when someone tells you something important.

Conversely, the 2010 reboot relies largely on having Edward tell you, verbally, with words, in a visual medium, what’s so taboo about human transmutation. Talk about a waste of an opportunity to do something interesting.

Furthermore, there’s a difference in the quality of the animation. I did a brief search online but couldn’t really find stats but I have a sneaking suspicion that it cost a lot more to make the 2010 reboot. The overall quality of the animation is a lot more consistent and the amount of fine detail given to some of the characters makes them look less flat and the designs of characters’ clothes and weapons more intricate. In the 2003 version, the quality really fluctuates. However, even so, the 2003 version has turned what could have been a weakness in the series into a strength.

During moments of high dramatic tension, there’s a sudden jump in the quality of animation. The animation is continuous, instead of in still frames, the quality and amount of detail ramps up, as do the colors and highlights. The effect of the confluence of better quality visuals and high dramatic tension is that there are specific scenes that stick out and really stick in one’s memory and leave a much deeper impression. If you look at the FMA 2003 video again, you’ll see it in the level of detail in Edward’s automail arm and the rips in his jacket, the blindingly white highlights against the steel grey of his arm in the dark setting, and (and I’m sorry to be such a girl about this) his abs.

I think, at the end of the day, the visual density in the 2003 revelation sequence and its awareness of its own medium really sticks out and foregrounds the fact that the series has been made very thoughtfully and with a lot of love and maybe that’s why it has such a loyal fanbase even though by the end of the series the story sort of devolves into a bit of a mess due to its deviation from the manga.

Not to say that the 2010 reboot is crap though! It’s got great production values, it looks fantastic consistently, it’s got great fidelity to the manga, a proper ending (omg the ending!); but it does have a lot to contend with with the greatness of the 2003 anime hanging over it like some spectral transmutation of manga source material and whatever the animators could come up with to give it a half-past decent ending.

Man, this was fun. Thanks for reading! 🙂