Monday, February 20, 2017

Anime Review: Full Metal Panic!

When it comes to alternate history in anime there are a few names which immediately make it to the top of the list. Code Geass is probably the one that most people will think of, but the anime we're looking at today is defiantly a close second. What is this anime you ask? Today we are going to be looking at Full Metal Panic!

Full Metal Panic! takes place in a world where Mikhail Gorbachev was assassinated before he could implement his any of his political reforms. As a result, the Soviet Union never collapsed and the Cold War continues to rage on into the 21st century. The other major change to history is that combat mecha known as Arm Slaves are now commonly used by militaries throughout the world. Tensions remain high between East and West, but the international anti-terrorism organization Mithril is doing its best to keep the world peaceful and oppose the forces of tyranny.

The series follows the adventures of Sgt. Sōsuke Sagara. He may only be sixteen years old, but he's one of the best soldiers Mithril has on hand. Sōsuke has been on many dangerous missions in the past, but he's about to be deployed on his most challenging mission ever: High School! Technology such as the Arm Slaves is only possible because of a group of people, known as The Whispered, who have psychic powers that given them access to Black Technology. Mithril has identified a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Kaname Chidori who they believe to be a Whispered.

There are plenty of unsavory organization who would want access to the Black Technology, so Mithril has assigned Sōsuke to guard Kaname. There's plenty of laughs as Sōsuke tries, and fails, to fit into the life of an average high school student. There's also plenty of action and suspense as Kaname gets drawn into Sōsuke's life with Mithril. It's funny, charming, action-packed and at times even touching. Now let's go in more detail about all of that.

Like I said before, next to Code GeassFull Metal Panic! is probably one of the best alternate history anime out there. History diverged closer the present day, so the worldbuilding is a bit less exotic compared to Code Geass. That having been said, there are plenty of alternate historical details. For example, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a success. China experienced a civil war during the 1990s and is divided into a democratic south and a communist north, with the Yangtze River servring as the border between the two. Hong Kong has been split between the two Chinas, a la Berlin. The Gulf War still happened, but a small scale nuclear missile was used against the American-led forces.

Okay, so now for the moment you've all been waiting for. Which series is better: Code Geass or Full Metal Panic? Speaking for myself, I found Full Metal Panic! to be the better of the two. The plot and character development of Full Metal Panic! are much more streamlined and consistent than Code Geass. It also does a much better job of balancing the comedy/slice of life aspects with the action/drama aspects; so neither side ever overwhelmed the other nor felt out of place. Don't get me wrong, Code Geass has a lot going for it, but the choppiness and disjointedness of its plot and pacing kept it from achieving its full potential in my eyes.

Now then, let's talk about Full Metal Panic's plot and character development. A lot of the comedy of the series comes from the fact that Sōsuke has pretty much no clue about civilian life, and all of the misunderstandings and misadventures that result from that. Well, that and all of the times Kaname losses her temper and slaps Sōsuke around. At the same time there's plenty of serious moments as well. A big part of Sōsuke's backstory is that he was an orphan child solider in Afghanistan until his was eight or eleven and was adopted by a Mithril general. Kaname herself is a bit of an outsider herself since she was raised in America for most of her childhood. There's also a throwaway line that indicates that she also lost her parents, which would explain why she appears to be living on her own. Sōsuke and Kaname start off as a bit of an odd couple, but they grow closer over the course of the series, and their relationship feels genuine.

In other characters we have Melissa Mao and Kurz Weber. Melissa is Sōsuke's commanding officer and Kurz is an ace sniper. They have a sort of surrogate older sibling relationship with Sōsuke. They constantly trying convince Sōsuke to loosen up and have fun, but they're also there to provide moral support and guidance when Sōsuke needs it.

Rounding out the main cast is Captain Teletha Testarossa, but everyone calls her Tessa. She's a cute, clumsy sixteen-year-old girl who also happens to be the captain of Mithril's flagship submarine the Tuatha De Danaan. All of this is possible because she's one of the Whispered and in fact helped design the Danaan. I'll admit, I really wasn't sure about Tessa when she was first introduced. As time went on, however, she grew on me and proved to be a solid character.

Besides being alternate history Full Metal Panic! is also a example of the Real Robot genre even more so than Code Geass. The Arms Slaves are large, but not excessively so. Mithril and American Arm Slaves tend to be sleek and aerodynamic, while Soviet Arm Slaves tend to be bulkier and turtle-like. On the whole it's all fairly realistic and grounded, with the exception of Sōsuke's Arm Slave which is known as the Arbalest. It comes equip with a device known as the Lambda Driver that can convert emotions into energy shields and blasts. The Arbalest also has a limited AI operating system. The reason only Sōsuke has an Arbalest was that its creator died before it could be replicated, and apparently didn't leave any notes or blueprints. It's also acknowledged in-universe that Arm Slaves are only possible thanks to the Black Technology of the Whispered.

That all having been said, I'm not sure about the structure of Mithril. We get to see that their military forces are more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the American and Soviet militaries; yet they appear to answer to nobody's authority but their own. America and NATO are close allies with Mithril, but it seems a bit odd that America wouldn't be concerned about an organization that could potentially match them militarily and can't be held accountable to any authority. Perhaps, Mithril has some connection to the United Nations? If so, the anime never provides any evidence of this.

Now let's talk about how Full Metal Panic! came to be. The most common basis for an anime is for it to be an adaption of a manga series. There are some series that are entirely original, such as Code Geass, but those tend to be somewhat rare. The second most common source for anime adaptions is light novels. Light novels are a bit tricky to describe since they don't really have a counterpart in the West. I can best describe them as a spiritual successor of sorts to the pulp novels and magazines. They're primary targeted at a young adult audience, though not exclusively. They get their name from their short length, use of simplified kanji compared to more literary novels and include illustrations interspersed throughout the text.

The Full Metal Panic! light novels are written by Shouji Gatou. There are twelve novels in total along with several short story collections. Only the first ten or so novels have received an English translation, though that sort of works out since the anime gets its plot from those five. The plot is mostly the same between the light novels and the anime, but there are a few differences. The biggest being that in the light novels Sōsuke is from Afghanistan, but in the anime he's from the fictional nation of Helmajistan. This is due to the events of the War on Terror causing the production team to think it might be in bad taste to have an Afghan main character. I've said Afghanistan up until this point because Helmajistan is Afghanistan in all but name.

The anime is divided into three seasons. The first season is forty-seven episodes long and is simply entitled Full Metal Panic! The second season is twelve episodes long and is entitled Full Metal PanicFumoffu. The third season is thirteen episodes long and is entitled Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid. In 2015 it was announced that a fourth season of Full Metal Panic! is in production and should be coming out in the near future.

The first season does a perfect job of balancing comedy and drama, but as for Fumoffu? It...has issues. Fumoffu discards most of the action with Mithril to focus on the wacky antics at Sōsuke and Kaname's school. In and of itself this isn't a bad premise, but the problem lies with the execution. By the end of season one Sōsuke and Kaname go through some major character development. Sōsuke learns to loosen up and fit in better, Kamane realizes she's been unnecessarily mean to Sōsuke and they both grow closer together. Come Fumoffu, however, they both become almost caricatures of their pre-character development selves. Sōsuke was so oblivious I found it astounding that he could figure out how to put on his pants. Kaname was such in hot-head in Fumoffu that she came across a borderline sociopath at times.

The first six episodes are divided into two eleven minutes halves, and the quality suffers as a result. Look, I love a good screwball slice-of-life anime as much as the next guy, but in the context of Full Metal Panic! it just feels out of place. Also, little tip for all you aspiring writers, personalities are not punchlines. Having said that, about halfway through the quality of the episodes noticeably improves. They run a single plot for the whole episode and there's actually some legitimately funny and touching moments. Fumoffu certainly isn't the worst anime I've ever seen, but it is incredibly awkward at times.

Thankfully, Second Raid is a welcomed return to form. This is because it is a direct sequel to the first season, whereas Fumoffu was primarily a filler season. If you can't handle the wackiness of Fumoffu you can skip ahead to Second Raid without really missing anything. Second Raid picks up the plot a few months after the events of season one and follows Sōsuke as he finds himself increasingly torn between his duty to Mithril and his life with Kaname. I won't give away the ending, but I though it neatly wrapped things up while leaving open the possibility of future installments.

Now let's talk about the voice acting. I gave me spiel about why I only focus on the English dubs in my Code Geass review, but I'll summarize the main points. I'm a very audio oriented person, so if I can't understand the audio it significantly diminishes my enjoyment of a show. Anyway, let's get back on track. I thought that Chris Patton did an excellent job voicing Sōsuke. He was excessively formal with being completely stoic. Likewise, Luci Christian gave a pitch perfect sweet and spicy performance as Kaname. Really, the the whole cast gave great performances.

There have a couple manga adaptions of Full Metal Panic! though their plots are slightly different. Full Metal Panic! also managed to capture Hollywood's attention. In 2009 there were talks about a live action movie that would have starred Zac Efron as Sōsuke. Yes, the guy from Disney's High School Musical trilogy. That might actually have worked out considering that Zac Efron is a huge fan of Full Metal Panic! and of anime and manga in general. On the other hand, live-action adaptations of anime tend to not go that well. Perhaps it's for the best that the live-action movie never got off the ground.

Well there you have it. Full Metal Panic! is funny, action-packed, charming and even touching. It's got high school antics and military science fiction adventure. It's got a little something for everyone all wrapped up in an alternate history setting. It's one of my favorite anime and I'm sure you'll love it as well. And with that I'm off to find more great anime to review and share with you guys. See you next time. 

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