Written by Richard Brown
The Full Metal Panic franchise has enjoyed respectable, but not huge, success. There’s a lengthy light novel series, 3 animes, assorted manga,and a humoured Hollywood adaptation involving Zac Effron. No! Wait! Come back! This isn’t about that! This is about the anime that introduced us in the west to Sgt. Sousuke Sagara and co, the simply titled Full Metal Panic! But is it any good? Has it stood the test of time? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
In a world like our own, the Cold War continues, enabled by giant robots and technology of unknown origin. Individuals known as “The Whispered” are sought by the world’s superpowers, as locked in their brains are technical information for the next generation of weapons. A mercenary group called Mithril seeks to protect these people, being general do-gooders, often stepping in to resolve situations even the Americans can’t handle. Fearing for the safety of Kaname Chidori, one such Whispered and a Japanese schoolgirl, Mithril dispatches its youngest agent, Sgt. Sousuke Sagara to act as her bodyguard. Chaos follows.
Whitney Houston was not Involved in this anime
Just going by the DVD covers, Full Metal Panic sells itself as a serious mecha series, but it isn’t really. Sure, the idea that a mecha pilot would act as bodyguard to a schoolgirl doesn’t immediately leap out as comedy material. Teenagers have a long-standing relationship with giant robots, after all. Never the less, FMP is one of the most unexpectedly humorous animes ever made. You see, Sousuke is hugely bad at covert work. He can only think in military terms, he has no experience with civilian life, no real emotional awareness, and a tendency to select overkill as a solution to any problem. If it’s possible for him to get something wrong, he will. Sousuke isn’t stupid, far from it, he is hyper skilled in his chosen field, but social circumstances outside the military are not something he is prepared for. This causes problems for his charge, Chidori, who is initially unaware of his job, and has a firebrand temper. Sousuke, with Chidori acting as the straight man and foil, is one of the best comedy characters in anime. While there is a lot of plot intrigue and plenty of action, comedy is the most memorable aspect of this anime, and arguably its greatest strength.
The mecha aspects aren’t to the same standard, but are nicely done, and the anime holds a story pretty well. Combat scenes are nicely executed, maintaining a good level of tension, and I quite liked the design style used for the various Arm Slaves. The Russian made “Savage”, for example mixes a utilitarian feel with AK-47 inspired weapons, and a slightly frog like appearance. The hero mech, the Arbalest, is a leaner machine, angular, but noteworthy for its comparatively unusual weapon selection. The fact that it carries a shotgun is a nice touch, but that one scene where it has a combat knife stowed on its face, like it was holding it in its teeth, is a classic image. I also liked how the victory usually went to the most agile of the Arm Slaves, rather than simply the one having the biggest gun or thickest armour. The series also handles man to man fighting far better than mecha animes usually do. I did not however like the whole “Lamda Driver” concept, which was used as a convenient hand wave too many times, and undermines the realism the series otherwise has. Aside from the existence of giant robots that turn invisible, this series doesn’t really have anything that couldn’t exist in the real world, technology wise it’s actually a few steps below Ghost in the Shell, for example. However, this is all spoiled by the Lamda Driver, which comes along neatly providing an excuse for Sousuke to see continued combat duty and for his hated enemy Gauron to survive just about anything.
A strained simile
While solid entertainment, Full Metal Panic’s primary problem is one of expectation and tone. If you are going into it mostly for the mecha aspects you have a problem, as this means you are gonna expect a certain level of plot and character development, which is something the anime just doesn’t offer. This seems to be due to the source material, as the series adapts the first 3 light novels of 28 and counting, so deeper questions you may have, like what the Whispered actually are, are not answered. You can see the seams, actually, as the narrative tends to build up to a climax, then stops for a filler episode, before building again. You might also take issue with the logic behind Soukose’s continued status as Chidori’s bodyguard, as Mithril seem to be a fairly sensible group of mercenaries,and yet they allow him to break his cover on a daily basis. On the other hand, if you go into it for the comedy, you have to accept that the anime will abandon its greatest strength for repeated episodes; in favour of fairly routine scifi mecha plots. Each of this animes sequels acknowledged this conflict in different ways; the oddly named Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu dumped the serious aspects completely and was so funny it took a year off my life, whereas Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid took a sledgehammer to the status quo and was all the better for it. As it stands, this anime is the weakest of the three, because its elements aren’t getting along well. To get an idea of what the series as a whole is like, consider a gaming PC built using spare parts and creative over-clocking techniques. It boots and runs ok, but lingering hardware conflict causes problems occasionally, and you find yourself wishing for something a little better put together. There’s plenty of good stuff in here, but it isn’t being used to its full potential.
Fun but flawed, Full Metal Panic is a good time waster, but unresolved plot threads and questionable pacing prevent it from being more. In terms of overall quality, its sequels have surpassed this anime. However, it remains enjoyable, and worth it simply for the humour.