Have you ever had trouble fitting in? You arrive in a new environment, be it a new school or a new workplace, and for whatever reason you’re just not clicking? Maybe you have to adjust your routine, your mindset, to new, foreign practices, or maybe your personality just makes it hard for you to build new friendships? Enter Sagara Sousuke, the latest transfer student to attend Jindai High. He tries his best, but nothing he does ever seems to work out. He frequently annoys his classmates, misinterpreting innocent scenarios as deadly ones, or vice versa. Setting traps, tackling teachers, intimidating bullies with a pistol, you name it, he’s probably done it... but there’s a good reason for this. Sousuke is not your average student. Indeed, he is not technically a student at all, but rather an undercover military operative, assigned to protect the teenage Chidori Kaname at all costs. I mean, why wouldn’t he be?
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
I kind of already gave away the premise in the intro, but a little repetition won’t hurt. Sagara Sousuke is a young, straight-laced mercenary working under Mithril, an international peacekeeping anti-terrorist organization (with mechs). Sousuke’s latest mission is to protect a high-value target that the KGB seems dead-set on abducting for reasons that aren’t yet made entirely clear.
It just so happens that this high-value target is also a high school girl, because this is anime, and if it can be high school, it will be high school. The plan is to protect this girl, Chidori, without her realizing she’s ever in danger. Sousuke, a lifelong soldier with no handle on what it means to live a normal life, might not have been the best man for the job… but, naturally, we wouldn’t have much of a show otherwise.
The thing about Full Metal Panic is that it’s the story of the intersection between two different worlds, high school slice of life and advanced mech military, and that dichotomy is expressed in a lot of different ways, from divisions among the cast and characters to major differences in the usual setup from episode to episode. Essentially, there are two kinds of Full Metal Panic. The first is the comedic high school half, which usually involves Sousuke misunderstanding or misinterpreting some aspect of civilian life and the hijinks that ensue, like assuming that every person that comes up to him is an undercover terrorist and not just a fellow student trying to strike up a conversation, which usually ends with him blowing things hilariously out of proportion and being scolded by Chidori, the very person he is trying to protect.
The other half of Full Metal Panic is rooted in the serious side of the premise, in that there are bad guys out there waiting to snatch Chidori, and it’s the duty of Sousuke’s team to protect her. A lot of this drama is somewhat standard fare, with lots of mech-on-mech action and a ruthless head honcho pulling the strings. Where I have to give credit is that Full Metal Panic manages to very deftly transition between these two sides of its identity. One episode could be about, say, Sousuke blowing up his locker for fear of it being tampered with (when it’s actually just a love letter), while the next could be the beginning of a multi-episode story arc about a grueling desert mission to prevent the smuggling of illegal nuclear goods. There’s a definite difference in tone between the two, but there’s enough of an overlap and balancing act that neither one feels out of place. (Although eventually they decide to pretty much just cleave the show in two, splitting the humor and drama into Fumoffu and The Second Raid respectively, but more on that later.)
For the span of Full Metal Panic’s first season, the first 24 episodes where they did maintain a prolonged dual focus, I usually preferred the comedy over the drama, because while Sousuke’s over-the-top fish-out-of-water antics were reasonably funny and memorable, the action wasn’t so much. It wasn’t bad, but it was rather unremarkable. Right off the bat, in the first three episodes, I thought to myself “this is great! It’s a riot!”, because those episodes were just about the high school and the laughs, but then they did a whole drama plotline involving hijacking and kidnapping and dubious technology, and my interest started to waver. Ironically, while I preferred the ensemble cast of the military episodes (the womanizing crackshot Kurz, the tough, teasing Mao and even the teenage CO Tessa), I was more engaged by the actual execution of the comedy episodes. Something about the way all the pieces fit together in the dramatic stretches felt fairly by-the-books. It didn’t do anything wrong, but it didn’t do much to surprise me or make me think “wow, I’ve never seen anything like that in a mech action show before”. However, I have to reiterate that that’s only for the first season.
The second (or technically third) season is The Second Raid, which has a much stronger emphasis on the action and the seriousness, and since beforehand I liked the comedy so much more, ramping up the drama sounds like something I’d hate. I expected to. I didn’t. Why? Firstly, The Second Raid’s serious mode is not at all identical to the first season’s serious mode. The Second Raid has a distinctly different feel to it. The military is more military-y, and the violence itself is much bloodier and grittier. The original series had action, it had guns, it had explosions, it had death, but The Second Raid goes further. At one point (in The Second Raid), a soldier’s throat is slit and the camera makes zero attempt to look away or even cover things up, which I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen.
Now, at this juncture, you would not be faulted for thinking something along the lines of “so what? They made the show darker. Are you really the kind of guy who will say drama is ‘better’ just because there’s more gratuitous gore?” Not this time, because the increased realism occurs in proportion to increasing stakes in the plot, which brings me to the second reason why I liked The Second Raid: its plot was just more interesting and felt more important to the viewer. When there’s a big mech rampaging through the city that you’re told will cause countless deaths if left unchecked, you feel something, sure, but if the story threatens to tear apart a pair of characters that it’s spent the last 30-some episodes endearing you to, then you feel a lot more of something.
That pair of characters naturally being Chidori Kaname and her undercover protector, Sagara Sousuke. Chidori… there’s not a whole lot to say on, really. Most of her traits could be summed up by picking and choosing phrases from the TVTropes entry on tsunderes, but that’s fine, because Sousuke himself is also a somewhat drab character. His militaristic paranoia and rigid personality make for great gags in the comedy, but that same deadpan delivery and lack of assertiveness can come off as boring when the tension dials up a notch. The real meat of what makes them a compelling pair is not either in isolation, but instead how they play off of each other, in that Sousuke’s obliviousness is a perfect match with Chidori’s penchant for exaggerated emotional and/or physical reactions. They balance each other out, but at the same time feel like two people that could become good friends, as indeed they do.
And I have to back up a little to rectify what I just said about Sousuke being boring when the show gets serious, because that is not true in The Second Raid (noticing a pattern here?). The Second Raid deals with an inevitability that logically had to have come eventually: what happens when Sousuke’s mission to protect Chidori… ends? Will he just nod and obey the orders as he has always done, abandoning whatever friends he’s made along the way? Or will he stand up and shout “no!” for possibly the first time ever? This is great because Sousuke is forced to take real agency, come to terms with his thoughts and emotions in a way that he never has before, and in direct conflict with the more-or-less unquestioning loyalty that has defined his life so far. And with that, we’ve come back full circle as to why The Second Raid kicks ass… but there’s one more reason.
The first season of Full Metal Panic was animated by Gonzo. Let’s see, they’ve done Welcome to the NHK, the original Hellsing, last year’s Shirobako: Voice Actor Version (Sore ga Seiyu), and Gankutsuou, to name a few. Their work on Full Metal Panic was workable, sure, competent, decent enough, not “wow” but easy to look at (except for the early 2000s CGI, which is an unfortunate product of its time)... but then, after that, Kyoto Animation took over, which I was hyped about before I even started watching, because KyoAni is KyoAni. Have they ever made a bad looking show? (Don’t answer that, they probably have, but not that I’ve seen.) The Second Raid released about three years after its prequel, but even considering that time difference, even then, it looks good. You could tell me The Second Raid aired ten months ago (instead of ten years) and I’d half-believe you. Part of it might be a psychological thing thanks to the modern aspect ratio compared to its predecessors, but I think there’s more to it than that. And this is where, in the video, I’d play you a few clips to see for yourself, but that’s not as feasible in a text article, so just take my word for it. It looks really good.
On that note, KyoAni actually took the Full Metal Panic reins a little earlier, with the 2003 release of Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, which I have yet to say anything on besides a single brief mention, so let’s change that.
Fumoffu feels like a care package to the people like me, who very much enjoyed the comedy of the first season but were left wanting by all the not-comedy. So Fumoffu is only comedy. Not a mech in sight for even a second of its twelve episodes, and it’s as great as it sounds. Every episode is a rapid-fire of jokes and more jokes, all about the wacky misadventures of Sousuke and his troubles fitting in, while somehow managing to slip in some nice character moments too. So if you came out of Full Metal Panic thinking “man, I wish there were more scenes of Sousuke’s hilarious ineptitude at being a high school student”, Fumoffu is right up your alley. However, however, I must note a small thing that irked me. I couldn’t get away from the nagging feeling that Fumoffu altered Sousuke’s character ever so slightly from what it had been previously. He was paranoid and prone to taking action according to his military training, but he kept on a lid on being too unusual. He’d come off as eccentric, but wasn’t one to whip out his pistol and fire off gunshots just to silence a crowd, but when it’s all in the name of a good laugh I can let it slide.
What this all ultimately boils down to is that, whether you enjoy the comedy or the drama of Full Metal Panic’s first season, you’ll find something to like in the seasons to come.
But what if you don’t like either? Which there is an argument to be made for, because neither is flawless. Let’s start with the comedy. The only thing that really ground my gears with the high school scenes was the side cast, everyone that wasn’t Chidori or Sousuke. They all felt one-note, sometimes bordering on outright annoying. For example, you’ve got the gun nut otaku who… well, that’s it, he’s the gun nut otaku. That’s the entirety of his character. Like I said, one note. The way I look at it, most of these characters exist more to fill out the requisite lineup of students and faculty, rather than contribute much to the gags or the humor, because the humor almost exclusively revolves around Sousuke himself, not the camera girl or the I-want-a-boyfriend girl or the karate kid. Everyone could have been anyone and much of the series would have been exactly the same.
Full Metal Panic’s dramatic side also has some problems with its characters, but not Sousuke’s squad or his CO. I mentioned them earlier, I actually liked them. No, what it needed to brush up on was its villains. The antagonist of the first season is this guy Gauron, and Gauron didn’t do much for me. His role and personality as the villain were pretty typical. In fact, it’s hard for me to nail down a succinct description of Gauron’s personality, not because it was particularly complex or memorable, and actually the opposite. He has all the makings of classic “villain” material. He embodies Sousuke’s dark war-torn past, a figure from his childhood who ruined his life. He’s a puppet-master, working behind the scenes to make sure everything goes according to keikaku. He’s the kind of guy who’d gladly kill himself if it means tormenting his enemies, laughing all the while. He’s… he’s a villain. He was the best villain Full Metal Panic ever got, but he was never more than just a villain.
As much as I liked The Second Raid, its antagonists were pretty lame too. They come in a couple varieties, either the sexy monotone killer twins or Sideburns Guy, who would be comparable to the Joker, if instead of being twisted and funny, the Joker was just obnoxious.
As much as I would wish otherwise, the villains are not the sole issue with Full Metal Panic’s action. The plot itself (particularly before The Second Raid) has a certain undeniable repetition to it, with Chidori commonly being kidnapped or taken hostage to easily build tension (which even Fumoffu is guilty of). This development struck me as odd whenever it came up, because it highlighted a classic anime disparity between a girl being physically over-the-top during comedy sketches, easily able to send grown men flying with a simple punch, but once it comes time for drama or seriousness, that seemingly supernatural athletic ability is all but forgotten, and physically she might as well be Clannad’s Nagisa (with admittedly a bit of a mouth). You could chalk that up to anime’s tendency for comedic exaggeration, but it’s more noticeable with a show like this, that routinely oscillates between overblown jokes and fairly grounded military combat.
“Fairly” is a key word there, because Full Metal Panic’s technology and in-universe explanations can border on the fantastical, mainly when it comes to the Lambda Driver. The average Full Metal Panic mech (called an Arm Slave) comes outfitted with the usual mech weaponry (that is, oversized guns and knives), and as such the combat is not unusual. However, a handful of machines are installed with something called “Lambda Drivers”, which vaguely operate on the pilot’s mental state and imagination, in a way that I didn’t feel was ever sufficiently explained. Basically, as I understood it, if a pilot conjures a mental image of anything, like a shield in front of them to deflect incoming missiles, it will come into existence. Sound overpowered? Yeah, that’s kind of the point, but the extent and limitations of the Lambda Driver abilities are left hazy at best.
You need a certain mental clarity to properly operate it, that much I understood, but it only ever seems to affect our heroes, not their opponents, and the effectiveness of the Lambda Driver in combat seems to ebb and flow as dictated by the needs of the plot, more than the world and characters themselves. Then there’s a whole thing with these entities called “Whispereds”, which I won’t spend much time on, but they were similarly explained only to the extent that was necessary for the story to function, and no more. Don’t ask “why” or “how” when it comes to these aspects of Full Metal Panic’s lore, because it won’t answer you.
The combination of all these factors (the poor villains, the questionable pseudo-science and some uninspired plot points) are what can give Full Metal Panic’s drama the dull edge I’ve mentioned more than a few times now. Not all three of these problems are always in play at the same time, but when they are, the show becomes somewhat tedious. Again though, at risk of sounding like a broken record, this was most prevalent during the first season.
All in all, I had a good time with Full Metal Panic. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t revolutionary, but it was fun and reasonably entertaining, especially in its later seasons. The ending doesn’t tie up everything in a nice little bow, but it ties up enough that I’d be satisfied if The Second Raid was the last we ever got. And for a long while, people assumed that would be the last we got, but pretty recently (maybe four, five months), everyone was thrown off-guard by the announcement of another season, more than a decade after Second Raid’s finale, as well as more than four years after the conclusion of the source light novels. So that’s pretty cool, and definitely something I’m looking forward to whenever it comes out.
So after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S... Fumoffu and The Second Raid make a solid case for an A, but considering that they are only half of an almost 50 episode series, I have to bring us down to an overall strong B. Nonetheless, give it a try, Fumoffu’s worth it if nothing else.
Where can you give it a try? Well, since you asked, all three seasons of Full Metal Panic, being the original 24 episode series plus Fumoffu and The Second Raid, are currently available for legal streaming on Funimation and Hulu.
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