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"Full Metal Panic FUMOFFU" Vol. 1: Jokes That Blow Up Real Good

Many people imagine the Japanese to be quiet, unassuming, and earnest, hardly words to describe the life of the party. Those assumed traits are accurate often enough, but not in the case of Japan’s rich comic tradition. Largely unknown to the rest of the world, Japanese TV is full of goofball comedians who ham it up at every available opportunity. If you’ve seen those evergreen classics Major League 2 and 3 you may have noticed the wacky Japanese player portrayed by Takaaki Ishibashi, one of the kings of Japanese comedy in the 90s. Anime fans of course are no strangers to this tradition, which is heavily featured in many series. Unfortunately, as humor is an extremely subjective business, much of it is so strongly Japanese flavored that it translates rather poorly. Green tea ice cream is one prominent example (at least, I assume that stuff has to be a joke). Anyway, one anime with no translation problems in the humor department is the popular Full Metal Panic franchise’s latest installment, the very funny and accessible FUMOFFU.

The anime bearing that rather dirty-sounding acronym tells an offbeat story that may sound familiar to Full Metal Panic enthusiasts. Teenager Sergeant SousukeThat's long enough, get back to reading Sagara is no ordinary transfer student at Jindai High School. An undercover and heavily armed elite mercenary determined to protect classmate and friend Kaname Chidori by any means necessary; he sees enemies everywhere and has a history of wanton destruction. His permissive principal chooses to overlook his outrageous indiscretions over the strident protests of the faculty, perhaps because someone has made a generous financial contribution to the school on Sousuke’s behalf. All of this is of course supremely silly. Partly love story but mostly comedy; FUMOFFU requires no great appreciation of Japanese culture to share in the laughs with the inspired and eminently likeable comedy duo of Sousuke and Kana. That said, one can pick up a lot of interesting detail about what life is actually like for high school students in today’s Japan if you ignore the surreal parts. For example, they don’t as far as I know plant land mines on school grounds, but they do bash watermelons with baseball bats. No, I haven’t been drinking, officer.

Volume 1 contains three episodes. One is a full half hour, the other two are split into two separate stories a la SpongeBob SquarePants. In episode one, part one, The Man from the South, a great misunderstanding over a shy classmate’s love letter in Sousuke’s locker leads him to believe she is a hitman trying to kill him. In part two, A Hostage with No Compromises, a teenage gang takes Kana hostage, leading to a tense eye for an eye showdown between Sousuke and the vengeful gang leader.

In Episode 2 part one, Hostility Passing By, Sousuke’s gun-waving antics scare off the school’s baked goods supplier, so it falls to Sousuke, Kana, and company to run the lunchtime sale of baked goods themselves. The short-tempered gym teacher Mr. Kogure is outraged by Sousuke’s misbehavior and sets out to sabotage the students’ efforts. In part two, A Fruitless Lunchtime, Sousuke forgets Kana’s homework at his apartment and they set off on a breakneck, madcap adventure to retrieve it before class time.

Episode 3, Summer Illusion of Steel, takes place at the beach where Kana is frustrated that Sousuke isn’t paying her enough attention, and accepts an invitation from frail rich boy Masatami to have tea at his fabulous mansion nearby. When Sousuke tries to find her to apologize he is turned away, and thus begins a pitched battle between him and Masatami’s lethal bodyguards.

Although FUMOFFU is a wacky comedy full of nutcases on the surface, it is suggested by little character moments here and there that on some level we’re supposed to relate to the cast as real people. Which brings into question what exactly the audience is to make of Sousuke’s behavior. Of course his ultraviolent shenanigans are not intended to be taken seriously, but at the same time he seems to be the hero and romantic lead of the piece, and I cannot think of another teenage animated hero who is so deserving of hard jail time. In particular there is a scene in which he precariously involves a young child in one of his violent schemes. It’s safe to say that would never air on U.S. TV, comedy or not. Sousuke’s whole philosophy of violently resolving problems is very un-Japanese for this day and age. One supposes it is intended as satire of more trigger-happy cultures, but then again perhaps somewhere deep down the writers admire that Dirty Harry mentality they can never personally exhibit in harmony-driven Japan.

Sousuke is truly a unique piece of work. Noble, respectful, disciplined and an expert soldier on the one hand, he is prone to wildly irrational outbursts of extreme violence and paranoia on the other. He’s also largely clueless on the topic of human relations, especially with the female of the species. Therein, of course, lies the series’ humor. Sousuke is much like a teenage Sledge Hammer who can only relate to people with a gun, although Sledge was at least sometimes aware that society considered him a little nutty. If Sousuke is Sledge, then the lovely Kana is Kaori Makumura of City Hunter fame, literally smashing her man back to his senses when he inevitably and frequently steps way out of line. It’s evident quite early to the audience, if not to Sousuke, that her feelings for him are more than friendly, but their relationship doesn’t progress very far in this volume. The cool and sophisticated student council president Atsunobu Hayashimizu is oddly empathetic to Sousuke’s outlandish behavior, often agreeing with his loopy logic to Kana’s great consternation. There are a number of well-developed minor characters, but the only one that really deserves mention is the raving mad Mr. Kogure. Much like Commissioner Dreyfuss, Inspector Clouseau’s boss in the Pink Panther films, Kogure is driven round the bend by the fact that he alone notices what a screw-up his oblivious nemesis Sousuke is, and eventually resorts to countermeasures so drastic people think he is the nutcase.

Nearly every story is packed with plenty of great laughs. Usually the humor lies in the interplay between Sousuke’s perfectly earnest rationalizations of his insane hijinks and Kana’s outraged reactions. For example, he detonates his locker with high explosive because he’s found a suspicious hair nearby and one point starts slinging lead to make his way to the front of the lunch line. Kana violently reprimands Sousuke with a variety of weapons including a baseball bat, but in her most shining moment she lets loose with her own patented reverse body slam.

FUMOFFU‘s vibrant, attractive animation is a clear cut above most TV programs. If not always complex, it never looks cheap, and some of the action scenes are very slick. The great attention to background detail brings out the distinctive Japanese setting. The show’s opening and ending themes both feature very catchy pop songs, and the next-episode previews use a fun martial score that is almost surely based on The A-Team.

The special features are decent enough for a TV series. The best is a nice, colored gallery of all the main characters and some paraphernalia. The Mysteries of FUMOFFU are brief, awkwardly translated notes that explain in a roundabout way the title of the series and some editing issues. A few Japanese TV spots reveal that the show originally aired at 2:30 in the morning! No wonder I always missed the cool anime when I was in Japan. Finally there’s a neat board game insert based on the events of these episodes that plays like Life. I admire the effort, but only hardcore fanatics would be likely to break it out at parties.

To be perfectly honest, I am a longtime fan of anime and comedy, but have almost never found the two to mix effectively. That drought is now at an end. Full Metal Panic FUMOFFU Volume 1 is hysterical, and I can’t recommend it enough to fans of anime or good laughs in general. It’s a fun means of wish fulfillment as well. After all, who hasn’t fantasized about tear-gassing your gym teacher? Just kidding! Really!

Full Metal Panic: FUMOFFU Vol. 1 is in stores starting today, May 10.

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