Full Metal Panic Anime Review
US Release By
Mecha Action/Schoolyard Comedy
26 25-minute episodes
2002-01-08 to 2002-06-18
Sagara Sosuke may look like a high school boy, but he is anything but your average teenager: hardened by years of battle, he is now one of the most skilled (and humorless) operatives of the secretive and powerful paramilitary MITHRIL organization. All this changes, however, when he, along with the lecherous sniper Kurtz Weber and ornery commander Melissa Mao, are assigned to protect pretty young Chidori Kaname, who may be one of the mysterious and sought-after "Whispered." Trained assassins, mech-piloting psychopaths, and booby traps, Sagara can deal with... it's infiltrating a Japanese high school and trying to blend in that's the real challenge. And he will learn that an enraged girl can be the most lethal opponent of all.
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Full Metal Panic is an all-around enjoyable series that combines the disparate genres of mecha war story and wacky high school comedy. It still fails to be very original: the genres alternate but rarely mix, leading to bit of a scattered feel, and despite a lot of grit and gorgeous Gonzo animation neither genre ever breaks from its respective cliches. The comedy end is the stronger half (in part because the dramatic story is left entirely unexplained and unconcluded), but looked at as a sort of two-series-in-one package, it's still fun on the whole. A very strong Japanese voice cast rounds out the picture.
The collection of likable and creative characters and comedy with an edge are enough to make Full Metal Panic memorable and fun, and it's definitely worth a shot if the idea sounds at all appealing.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Full Metal Panic takes the well-traveled genres of high school comedy and mecha war drama, mixes them together in the same series, dresses them up in beautiful Gonzo animation, gives them a gritty twist, and wraps them together in a plot hinting at unearthly technology and dark organizations at work.
Unfortunately, none of that can hide the fact that in the end Full Metal Panic is just another anime series, never breaking from the cliches of its two genres--the girls still club the hero in a berserk rage at the slightest perception of lechery, even hardened military professionals take time out for a soak in the bath, and you can never, ever use your ultimate weapon until the last possible second. That the plot ends up going nowhere at all (at least until the sequel series) and the two genres feel somewhat uncomfortable next to each other doesn't help, either. It's still well made and a lot of fun, but it isn't half the show it could've been.
Full Metal Panic is definitely at its strongest in the comedy department. The premise has loads of potential: a young soldier who knows nothing but battle forced to try and blend in at an average Japanese high school while undercover. Sosuke's deadpan determination and brutal practicality contrast perfectly with a lively cast of more standard anime characters to capitalize on it.
Sosuke is hilarious in his awkward attempts to fit in, and the series also takes the time to put his normal classmates into his world on occasion, providing a satisfying role reversal. Sosuke's foil, Chidori, is equally likable for the opposite reasons--a slight sidestep from your standard high school cutie, she's got a vicious temper and isn't afraid to loose it on Sosuke, but also has an earnest sweet side for balance. Chidori is something of a realistic caricature--you know the role, but something rings true about the way her exaggerated personality traits fit together, making her a particularly appealing character.
The quality assortment of supplemental characters include Sosuke's far livelier (and more mature, a nice departure from formula) military compatriots, who themselves have some amusing interactions with Sosuke's classmates. Those classmates range from Chidori's snapshot-obsessed best friend to a shy military geek (ironically, and amusingly, the only one who Sosuke can manage a conversation with). There are also a variety of more hardened military types who make appearances, most of whom are treated relatively realistically.
Unfortunately, those times where the fun characters in the series overlap with the serious ones are one of its weakest points. The biggest problem is that Chidori behaves more or less like your standard anime schoolgirl even in the face of life-or-death situations, cheapening the drama in the gritty parts of the story. Complaining about her lack of decency in the middle of a firefight, for example, showed little of the sense of reality or self-preservation you'd expect from her character. There are a few stronger points (a great nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example), but for the most part the humorous characters severely hurt the realism and sense of danger of the more serious parts when they interact.
That brings me to my second big problem with the series: the drama. On the positive side, the serious sections aren't bad by anime standards--they've got a gritty feel, Sosuke is, if nothing else, a competent warrior (a welcome change from all those kids uncertain of their worth), and the handheld-style camerawork gives the action a sense of reality. In a couple of places the tragedy of war also crosses briefly from action movie cliche to something a bit more affecting.
On the negative side, it still feels much more like a cheesy action movie than the military drama it seems to be aiming for, particularly in the grittiest story arc, a desert mission in the middle of the series. In contrast with most of the colorful characters, the caricatured military folks working with Sosuke feel hollow, and after all the talk about planning, strategy, and loyalty, having Sosuke inexplicably save his ultimate weapon until the last possible second is downright silly. The fact that the giant robots, for all their clunky "realistic" design, end up sporting emotion-powered ultimate weapons (and of course a big mane of hair on the evil mech) struck me as rather silly as well.
That Full Metal Panic is a better comedy than a drama perhaps isn't surprising, but what is is how the two are combined. Or rather, how they aren't; the series is composed of roughly equal parts schoolyard comedy and military action, and although the characters overlap, the two parts have absolutely no interaction. One episode will be a rather silly comedy, and the next will try for straight-faced drama and action. The transitions are a bit jarring at best, and leave the series as a whole feeling somewhat scattered.
One more big complaint before I move on: The plot goes absolutely nowhere. It starts right off with hints of powerful clandestine forces at work, mysterious technology and its connection to the Whispered, and a creepy villain who seems to be working behind the scenes as part of some dark conspiracy. The bad guy is a worthy rival for Sosuke's dry sense of duty thanks to his cheerful contempt and unstable persona.
Sadly, though the villain comes back again and again as a part of various nefarious plots, there is never any explanation of where he keeps getting his extraordinarily nasty toys or who's backing him. There's also no meaningful connection established between the story arcs, it never reveals any details about what the Whispered are or where the mysterious technology comes from, and there isn't even an end more satisfying than "We got the bad guy. Yet again."
All the hints of mystery in the story and the creepy villain felt like an afterthought tacked on to try and cover for the fact that the plot as a whole has absolutely no substance, and doesn't go anywhere.
Fortunately, action fans will probably be more than willing to overlook the generic parts thanks to the gorgeous Gonzo animation. As with most of their work, they give even classic mech-vs-mech action scenes a sense of gritty realism by combining shaky camerawork with a lot of perfectly-executed digital effects (motion blur, glows, and various shockwave distortions). The mech fights aren't quite as down-to-earth as I was hoping (there are a disappointing number of energy blasts and flying jumps), but still rank among the best in the genre.
The quality art and animation don't stop at the action scenes--all the art is detailed and attractive, and the character animation is top-notch. Chidori in particular is amazingly expressive--her face and body language make her character truly memorable. The fancy action techniques aren't limited to the big fights, either--plenty of creative stuff around school, as well.
The Japanese acting is on par with the visuals--very good (I can't speak for the dub). The standout performances are easily Tomokazu Seki as Sosuke, for his unwavering deadpan delivery through both drama and comedy, and Satsuki Yukino as Chidori, for her endless reserve of energy and mix of ornery and sweet, all while staying believable as a character. The minor characters are just as good, though. Mao and Kurtz (Michiko Neya and Shinichiro Miki) both have likable voices with a touch of playful realism that breaks them out of their respective molds. Masahiko Tanaka gives the villain a smarmy evilness in his voice, tinged with just enough crazy to make him scary, and the collection of minor characters all work well.
The music isn't nearly as memorable, though it's still generally good, including the unoriginal-but-catchy opening theme.
In all, Full Metal Panic is an enjoyable series. It's also nowhere near as original as it initially appears, the transition between war drama and schoolyard comedy doesn't work terribly well, and all the hints at a larger plot go nowhere at all in the end. Still, the collection of likable and creative characters and comedy with an edge are enough to make it memorable and fun, and there are sequels. It's definitely worth a shot if the idea sounds at all appealing, and those less picky about details will probably love it.
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Full Metal Panic has a combination all its own, but random mixes of drama and schoolyard hijinks can be found in Dual (with more emphasis on the harem and mecha) and Jubei-Chan (much sillier, and ninja-ier). Other series with a similar mood include Martian Successor Nadesico (space opera with a similar flavor) and maybe GTO (more down-to-earth schoolyard dramedy). On the far opposite end of the schoolyard-mecha-war spectrum, Code Geass has just a touch of hijinks sprinkled amongst a brutal war drama.
Notes and Trivia
Full Metal Panic is based on a lengthy series of light novels and short stories by Shoji Gatoh, illustrated by Shiki Douji. Tokyopop released the first four stories (originally five novels' worth) in English before going under.
In addition to the 12 "main" books and 9 short story books, there are also two side story novels, for a total of 23 novels covering 21 stories. The novels were originally published from 1998 to 2011. After their completion, Naoto Ooguro began writing the "Another" series of novels (also illustrated by Shiki Douji); four books have been published as of this writing.
There is also a manga adaptation (which the anime actually predates by several months) by Retsu Tateo, which was available in English from ADV Manga. It was followed by two other hefty chunks of manga, "Sigma," by Ueda Hiroshi, and "Overload," by Tomohiro Nagai, and a manga adaptation of the Another series is underway. Sigma was available in English from ADV Manga, while Overload and Another have not been officially released in North America as of this writing.
Interestingly in terms of content, the novels are broken into twelve books in the main storyline, and nine standalone short-story books focused on the comedic elements; this is somewhat similar to the two mixed-genre "plot" anime series (this series and its Second Raid sequel), and the pure-comedy interim series Fumoffu. Retsu Tateo's manga version, in contrast, more thoroughly mixes the serious and humorous parts, with many of the more exaggterated crazy-high-school characters in the Fumoffu anime series making appearances.
I don't usually do this, but since I happen to have run across them I'm going to mention that Full Metal Panic, as with most popular TV series, can be found in a dirt-cheap bootleg import DVD set in addition to the official release. Aside from the fact that if you're going to steal it you might as well just download a copy for free instead of paying someone else for the same material, the FMP set is a prime example of English subtitling so atrocious it renders the series almost unwatchable, from unintelligible grammar to hilarious vocabulary mistakes.
US DVD Review
ADV's US-release DVDs were functional but little more; the video and audio (not surprising for a Gonzo production) are very crisp, but extras are limited to clean opening and endings, a few Japanese piracy warnings featuring the voice actors, and some production sketches. The complete set has the same material as the individual discs, but is packaged Thinkpak-style, with extra-slim individual DVD cases.
The license was later bought by Funimation, who released a remastered DVD set with similar content. They also released a 3-disc Blu-ray set at a very reasonable price.
A range of dirty-ish humor and lots of violence account for ADV's 15-up rating and Funimation's TV-14.
Violence: 3 - Little unnecessary gore, but several episodes are largely on the battlefield.
Nudity: 2 - A bit of fanservice, but not a great deal.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Light romance and the occasional moderately dirty joke.
Language: 2 - Some swearing.
Available on bilingual remastered DVD and Blu-ray from Funimation, as a box set of either. Originally available from ADV on 7 individual hybrid DVDs (the first disc came with or without a box to hold them all), which was supplanted by a complete 7-disc boxed "Thinpak" set.