Friday 31 August 2018

Anime REVIEW: Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory

Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory
Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

Good things eventually come to those who wait, and given that fans have been waiting nearly 13 years it's fair to say they were long overdue a new season of Full Metal Panic!. The military-charged mecha series by Shoji Gatou finally returned to television screens in 2018, for a new 12-episode season entitled Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory. But despite all that time away it seems very little has changed for the franchise (other than some sharper animation and CGI mecha designs) - animation duties may have now moved from Gonzo and Kyoto Animation to Xebec, however the original cast have all returned to reprise their roles.

Taking place shortly after the events of The Second Raid, tensions between the anti-terrorist organisation Mithril and the shadowy Amalgam has begun to rise. After their leader Leonard Testarossa warns Sousuke Sagara that they will begin taking more aggressive measures to obtain Kaname Chidori, Amalgam launch an offensive on two fronts – attacking the Mithril base directly as well as holding Kaname's friends hostage. With Sousuke and the Arbalest soundly defeated by Leonard's own Arm Slave, Kaname eventually agrees to come quietly.

With Mithril divided and Kaname missing, Sousuke is going it alone. Taking him spectator sport Arm Slave fights to Amalagam's hideaway in Mexico, Sousuke gains new allies and weapons as he begins his mission to find the girl he swore to protect.

In the run up to Invisible Victory's release Shoji Gatou went on record saying that the series would be "full throttle" from the get-go, and it doesn't take that long for that statement to prove true here. If you aren't up to speed with the events of the first season and The Second Raid you'll find yourself lost pretty soon, as the narrative launches straight into the meat of the series without any time spent on reminding the viewer what has previously gone on in the world of Full Metal Panic!. However the story doesn't stay with this break neck pace forever, and following an action packed first "arc" Invisible Victory settles down into a whole new setting - one which doesn't immediately let you know exactly what's going on.

After four episodes the viewer is treated to a three month timeskip, and the bulk of the cast is pushed to the wayside as a whole new bunch of characters are brought in for Sousuke to interact with. While there's nothing inherently wrong with any of the characters - in fact Nami would makes a great alternative to Kaname in her absence, but these are the people you want to see when the story should be continuing to build momentum. The same can be said of the "Arm Slave Fighting League" side plot that it runs through, which might prove fun at any other time (even with the shameless real-life product placement logos sucking any of the immersion out of the scene). It's a massive shame because there is some good quality stuff in here, but Invisible Victory just doesn't have the time to be playing around.

Despite this rather questionable diversion, Invisible Victory does succeed at continuing the development of its primary cast rather nicely. Sousuke and Kaname's relationship has evolved significantly over the course of the series, now reaching the point where they aren't just able to admit their feelings for each other but are also able to stand as equals in some respects. Kaname might not have the training or combat experience Sousuke has, but we can see from her actions in this season that her resolve is just as strong. And though time with the other members of Mithril is far more fleeting, there's still plenty of time to show off just how much of a badass Tessa is. Not only does she completely steal the scene talking down a potential deserter during Amalgam's attack, but then later she goes undercover in one of the show's finest episodes.

However as great as these character moments with the heroes are, the villains on the other hand leave quite a bit to be desired. Leonard Testarossa was barely introduced in The Second Raid, and then Invisible Victory immediately expects the viewer to buy into the fact that he's a credible threat. His initial exchange with Kaname and Sousuke and later battle against the Arbalest work to some degree, but otherwise he's so far detached from the story that he never manages to be a compelling villain. That role instead goes to Kurama, who has far more of an active impact on events and is responsible for one of the season's most shocking moments.

But undoubtedly one of the biggest problems Invisible Victory has is its formatting. While Gatou's comments about the series "not featuring any expository episodes" may have been true to some extent, those watching the series as it aired will have been treated to a number of recap episodes which neatly break the series up into three four-episode "arcs". Given that four episodes is barely any time at all to forget anything important that may have happened, what purpose these recap episodes serve other than to stall for time (the final two episodes were delayed by a week because they fell behind schedule) is pretty questionable. Those able to marathon the series now that it's complete can just happily skip these episodes, but for those watching weekly they would often break the flow of what was otherwise a fairly tightly packed story when it came to plotting.

Coming so long after the previous instalment it also means that the animation style has changed somewhat. Despite the new studio handling animation not all that much has changed when it comes to character design other than things being a little sharper and less in that 2000 anime era style. The Arm Slaves are now fully rendered in CGI though, which given that it's pretty much the industry standard now should be expected really. In terms of movement the models work well and give the action scenes a much faster pace, but the problem lies in the detailing of said models. It isn't necessarily a complaint unique to Invisible Victory, but the designs are just too clean and lack the grit, detailing and battle damage the kind of skirmishes in the series command. As it's the show's first attempt at CGI mecha you can perhaps be a little more forgiving, but if this style of animation is to continue into future instalments then Xebec definitely need to work on bringing the 2D and 3D elements in line so that blending them doesn't seem so jarring.

Full Metal Panic! is a franchise that seems to build upon itself each season when it comes to story and Invisible Victory certainly doesn't fail in that respect. But after being absent for well over a decade, even a season that pulls out all the stops may not be enough to whet the audience's appetite. Invisible Victory has plenty of fast-paced explosive action and great character moments, but with a somewhat superfluous diversion halfway through and a lack of any real resolution one can only hope that the next instalment isn't quite as far away.


Anonymous said...

Just a correction regarding the part you said - Xebec "still" handling the animation. This is their first time animating the franchise, the previous three were animated by Gonzo and Kyoto Animation. I think it is best to compare this to TSR, animated by KyoAni and I believe the best in terms of animation.

Alex said...

Thanks for the correction! Not sure why I was confusing Xebec and Gonzo but that’s clearly what I was doing >.<