Thursday 29 November 2012

Anime REVIEW: Full Metal Panic!

Originally a light novel series and then animated by popular studio Gonzo (Hellsing, Strike Witches), Full Metal Panic! is a series that garnered reasonably popularity both in Japan and the West and one I've been meaning to check out for a few years now. While usually I'd encompass multiple seasons of a show into one review, the noticeable different in tone between Full Metal Panic! and The Second Raid to the middle season, Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu suggested I should perhaps look at each season one by one. The first Full Metal Panic! season originally aired in 2002, running for a total of 24 episodes.

Sousuke Sagara: Great soldier, not so great socialiser

The series follows Sousuke Sagara, a member of an anti-terrorist military organisation known as Mythril. Tasked with the mission of protecting high school girl Kaname Chidori, Sousuke moves to Japan to study at her school undercover while being aided by his comrades Kurz Weber and Melissa Mao. Lacking social skills and viewing everything from a combat perspective, Sousuke is considered a military maniac by his classmates and Kaname often finds herself frustrated with him, though she does show some genuine interest in him too. As criminal organisations begin to target Kaname, she soon discovers Sousuke's true motives. But why is she being targeted? And more importantly, why does she have expert knowledge of top secret technology she's never even heard of?

The constantly angry Kaname Chidori

Full Metal Panic! encompasses two very different styles in its story telling. The first of which is comedy, which begins with Sousuke's failed attempts to fit in at school before moving on to various other things. The second is the gritty life of a Mythril soldier, which involves everything from political intrigue and terrorism to sci-fi weaponry and mecha action. Had these two elements been properly integrated than Full Metal Panic! could easily be an award-winning series, but the two never really overlap well and instead the story progresses in awkward chunks as it switches between styles. While both styles start out very strongly in their respective chunks, its unfortunate that they soon decline into mediocrity. The comedy just stops being funny, and the seriousness is mostly dull save for a few moments and a reasonably strong finale. As it the series draws to a close, the audience is no wiser about what exactly "Whispered" and the "Lambda Driver" actually are, leaving a lot of unanswered questions which could have been easily avoided.

16-year old submarine captain Teletha "Tessa" Testarossa

The real highlight of Full Metal Panic! is its colourful cast of characters, and more importantly the interactions between them. Front and centre is the coupling of Sousuke and Kaname, which varies from comedic (usually due to Sousuke's social ineptitude) to something deeper as Kaname is thrust into a world she has no experience in. Sousuke's relationship with main antagonist Gauron is also interesting as it plays into Sousuke's backstory, but a little on the underdeveloped side. The relationship between the perverted Kurz and the more serious Mao is another high point. Even Kaname's school friends, who offer very little to the story, have their own fun and distinct personalities. The only real weak link is Captain Teletha "Tessa" Testarossa, who despite being the closest thing the show has to an annoying character still manages to have some pretty good development in the final few episodes.

Crazed mercenary Gauron

And just incase you'd forgotten, Full Metal Panic! features a good dose of mecha action! The generic Arm Slaves (the umbrella term for mecha in the show) are fairly bland and militaristic, but it does help give a good sense of the kind of combat the show is about. It also means that when the Arbalest (Sousuke's AS) and later the Venom show up, the stand out far more making it easier to follow the action. Though the animation itself is somewhat dated, the character design and action sequences are still as sharp now as they were ten years ago.

The Arbalest, poster child mecha of the show

Full Metal Panic! isn't a completely bad series, but one that has become slightly overrated with time. The series tries to spread itself across two very different genres, and only at the very beginning manages to get a reasonable balance. The early comedy episodes are golden, and the first serious story arc gripping. Following that, the comedy episodes tend to fall flat on their face while the serious episodes are prominently dull save for a few gritty action sequences. The series ends with a lot of unanswered questions, and without a great cast of characters (and in hindsight: the knowledge of a further two seasons) pushing it along getting through all 24 episodes would feel like a chore. The foundations for something great are definitely here, but they never fully get off of the ground.

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