The idea of a mecha show in this day and age seems like such a dull affair. Unless it has the name “Gundam” attached, a modern mech show needs something more to keep the viewer’s attention. Some shows like Patlabor blend in the drudgery of daily police life, while others go in a different direction entirely. In the case of Gonzo’s Full Metal Panic!, military action blends with the rigors of an average high school life. On the surface, the idea seems sound; however, it’s difficult to tell just how the formula works until one sees it in action.
The series revolves around Kaname Chidori, a seemingly-average high school student whose world gets turned upside down when a new student transfers to her class. Sousuke Sagara, the new guy, isn’t like most high schoolers. He’s a soldier from the international mercenary organization MITHRIL that was raised in the war-torn wastes of Helmajistan. As one would expect, Sousuke’s skills on the battlefield are second to none. In particular, he’s an Arm Slave pilot without equal (more on that in a moment). His social skills, on the other hand, need some work. This poses a problem for poor Chidori, since Sagara was recently assigned to be her bodyguard.
It turns out that Chidori is what the military brass call a “Whispered.” Whispered are gifted individuals with an innate knowledge of mathematics, physics, and other sciences that are beyond human comprehension. These special individuals are able to create “Black Technology,” which can range from appliances, to weapons, to a giant state-of-the-art submarine. The appearance rate of these special individuals is low, as one can imagine. It also comes as no surprise that many of the powerful and corrupt would desire the Whispered to further their agendas. To prevent this hypothetical situation from becoming a reality, Sagara is assigned to be the girl’s bodyguard. Given his lack of social skills and take-no-prisoners attitude, he may prove to be more of a handful than the enemy.
As one can expect, the Odd Couple-ish differences between Sagara and Chidori take a majority of the show’s attention. The first two thirds of the series can be explained as Sagara trying (and failing) to adapt to civilian life followed by a brutal, often comical punishment or retaliation by Chidori. The formula is simple, but it works well, especially when Chidori’s gossiping, snooping friends and Sousuke’s rowdy comrades enter the picture. However, there is a serious side to the show in its gritty, realistic depictions of war that can, and often do result in a body count. Battles are fought, mecha blow each other to bits, and people die, all with an unflinching dramatic bent. The battlefield is where the audience sees a lot more about Sousuke and company, and where many of the characters actually grow and change. These segments add layers to an already fine cast, and place the show as a whole in a darker light.
No costs were spared to bring the series to life. The world of Full Metal Panic! seems to thrive on its sheer variety of environments, from the colorful and vibrant parts of Tokyo, to the muted hues of the battlefields, to the brown desolation of outer Helmajistan. The character designs are similarly varied, from the bright-eyed students at Jindai high, to the more muted and solemn appearances of the various soldier troops, to the outright insane and twisted look of series villain Gauron. The whole package is tied together with fluid animation and decent use of CG visuals. The high quality of the visuals seems to be a direct contrast to the musical end of the show, which is forgettable and generic through most of the series. Even the show’s stand-out background track feels like little more than an alternate take on the popular A-Team theme song.
Despite the overall musical mediocrity, the opening theme Tomorrow and closing theme Karenai Hana are both fantastic, both as theme songs and as music in general. The acting, both in English and the original Japanese are fantastic, with spirited performances by casts that seem perfect for their characters.
Full Metal Panic! is one of the increasingly rare shows that does just about everything right. The blend of slapstick humor and gritty battlefield action works marvelously, and manages to avoid committing the misstep of going too far in one direction of the other. Fans of anime, no matter what type, should seriously consider giving Full Metal Panic! a look. They might wind up surprised as just how much fun they have with it.
Thanks to FUNimation for providing a screener copy for review.