Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Animondo: Full Metal Panic!

Hey, everyone--welcome to Animondo, the unnecessarily specifically labeled Mondo Bizarro anime review series!

Al's been asking me to start reviewing anime for his site for a while now, so I figured, what the hey, he's pestered me enough on it so I might as well start. I've got some coming down the pipe I'd like to rant about a bit, but to start things off I figured it'd be good to talk a bit about a series I particularly like: Full Metal Panic!

Full Metal Panic! is an action comedy (with a title obviously referencing Full Metal Jacket) about a mercenary sent to protect a girl who may have subconscious knowledge that could lead to amazing technological developments--the sort of thing many organizations would kill for. Sent undercover to the girl's high school, the mercenary has to defend her against threats she doesn't know exist...and somehow avoid destroying her high school life in the process. The setting is the late 20th or early 21st century, though with the alteration that the Cold War is ongoing. The story focuses both on the high school life of the two main characters and on the various dangerous situations they end up in, and features a blend of comedy and action as a result. Thrown in the mix due to the heightened tech level are giant robots that are coming into use by advanced militaries and mercenary groups. It is based on the light novel series of the same title.

Our main characters, Kaname and Sousuke, are both teens, but come from very different life experiences. Kaname's a fairly ordinary (albeit strong-willed and determined) teenaged girl, while Sousuke is a mercenary working for an organization of do-gooder mercenaries called "Mithril", and is a former child soldier who fought in the Middle East. They're joined by a collection of other Mithril agents, like Sousuke's squad members Kurz and Mao, and the captain of the Tuatha de Danaan submarine, Tessa. The main villain of the series is Gauron, a mercenary with a decidedly less noble intent than the Mithril group.

The story consists of a few major plot arcs, with a few minor episodes between each arc. The first concerns Sousuke's initial assignment guarding Kaname and the first major attack that interrupts their lives. The second concerns a group of terrorists who have come into the possession of a big weapon...a very, very big weapon. The third is a very dark arc featuring Sousuke's return to the Middle East. The final one concerns an attack on Mithril itself, and a dire threat to the Tuatha de Danaan. Episodes between these arcs are generally more on the comedic side, featuring Sousuke's misadventures as he tries to live like a normal high school student and fails to turn off his soldier side.

Full Metal Panic! really works...quite a bit better than some other shows I've seen that try to mix comedy with a serious running plot. The action is quite good, and the comedy is a lot of fun, but more than that, I think it works well because the characters really feel like they're the same people whether the show's tending more towards its comedic or serious sides at the moment. Sousuke is a soldier, and the comedy in the show often comes from the fact that he reacts to ordinary situations the way he'd react to dangerous ones. The thing is that while the show may sometimes push his behavior up a few notches, it's generally careful to keep things such that you can understand why he acts the way he does--Sousuke's lived his entire life in horrible situations and can't turn off his defenses.

(I won't get into it fully now, but there's a wonderful episode in the sequel, Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, which demonstrates that point amazingly well...more on that when I later review it!)

The serious parts of the show build naturally and explore some surprisingly deep themes of warfare, terrorism, greed, guilt, and brotherhood. The plots of these sections are very good and quite well developed--as is the general world of the show, with near-future science explained to an acceptable, if not entirely believable, degree. Villains and heroes alike are given plenty of screen time and the watcher is allowed to get to know all of them quite well. The stories flow nicely, and there's no sign of the stalling or needless fight extensions you get in some battle anime--this show wasn't trying to reach 100 episodes, it was trying to tell a good action story, and that's what you get. Some scenes are genuinely heart-wrenching, and there are some edge-of-your-seat action moments (particularly in the second main plot and final main plot, which carry a lot of major, intense sequences).

Overall, the action is good, though sometimes handicapped clearly by the show's budget or the amount of time the animators had to work. Repeat animations rear their ugly head in a few of the fights, particularly in Sousuke's first confrontation with Gauron, and there are times when you can tell the show's creators wanted to do something a little more awesome if only they'd had the time. That said, there are some great action moments in the show, both involving and apart from the giant mechs. Of particular note is an amazing concept for a mech battle in the final plot, in which the two giant machines fight using mech-scale combat knives in a CQC battle. Never thought I would see a mecha fight that stayed that close-quarters!

The comedy worked well for me as well. I've already noted one reason, the fact that the characters feel like the same people either way--this makes the show's comedic mood feel natural rather than forced. But really, there's an endearing quality to it all. It feels like a rest from the action and a return to normalcy, which is then interrupted again by more danger. In a way, the show's comedic moments emphasize the theme of never-ending warfare even more than the action does...they show the parts of life that are sacrificed when Sousuke and Kaname are forced into trouble again and again. Your mileage may vary a bit on how far the comedy pushes things--it can get pretty over-the-top at times, but as anime goes it tends more towards the sane. There are some very fun concepts for full comedy episodes, too, such as one in which Sousuke gets roped into pretending he's a girl's boyfriend while her friends are in town, or one in which Tessa ends up challenging Mao to a mecha duel despite a total lack of training as a pilot.

If there's one complaint I have, it's that Full Metal Panic! does somewhat fall into the trap of some other mixed-mood shows, and lets its comedy side fall away in some of its serious plots. This isn't a huge problem--even when the comedy totally leaves the show it isn't gone for that long--but it does throw the viewer off just a bit. This becomes most notable in the plot in which Sousuke returns to the Middle East, which is purely a war story with no trace of the series' usual humor. The other plots do a better job of mixing in at least some more lighthearted points, so all in all, this show manages the mood changes much better than some others I've watched.

(What was that one Gackt movie we watched, Al? The one that was like 15 minutes of fun comedy action followed by an hour or more of complete despair?)

A couple odd little notes--which may be meant as a tribute of sorts, if I'm being generous with my interpretation--there's one particular recurring theme on the soundtrack which sounds very much like the theme to The A-Team. Like I said, could be a tribute...could also be plagiarism. I think there is actually a point where the characters lampshade it, and from what I understand the title of the song is actually referencing the Japanese title for The A-Team, so I'd lean towards the former, could be a bit of a black mark on the show since it's used pretty often. That said, one possible musical misstep does not a ruined show make.

Also, you can't help but notice that Sousuke bears a certain resemblance to the earlier Gundam Wing's Heero Yuy. The same? No. Inspiration? Maybe.

Overall, Full Metal Panic! is a very fun show that also features some excellent serious plots and good action scenes. It's dragged down a little bit by animation limitations, and your mileage may vary on the level of over-the-toppishness the comedy goes for, but in my judgment, it manages a very good mix and the various parts of the show come together quite nicely to support the show concept. With some excellent characters, a fun concept, and a good plot that keeps things moving forward and escalating naturally, Full Metal Panic! is an easy recommendation.

Full Metal Panic! has two sequels--the full-comedy Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu and the action comedy Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, which tends more closely to the original in tone. I'll review both in time more fully, but for now, if you enjoy the first series you'll most likely enjoy both of those as well.

Dubbed or Subbed?: For Full Metal Panic!, having seen it both ways, I prefer the dub. Chris Patton does a great Sousuke voice in particular, and after hearing his version I can't go back to the Japanese voice. The other actors and actresses are all quite good, and everyone has a natural sound for the role they're playing. The original Japanese voice acting is totally fine, of course, but this one has a very high quality dub that works very well.

1 comment:

  1. Who said that negative reinforcement didn't work?

    To answer your question, the movie with Gackt was 'Moon Child.' It sucked. It sucked hard.