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"Full Metal Panic The Second Raid Vol. 2,3,4": Lock and Load High School

I find the recent deluge of school-based cartoon series to be both curious and tiresome. One would have to think the last thing a kid wants to see after a trying day of math and history is yet another classroom. Thankfully some series try to put a spin on this overly familiar environment, such as the highly successful classroom comedy and high tech action blend of Full Metal Panic, and its outrageously funny spin-off Fumoffu. The original series returns for another exciting engagement in The Second Raid, recently completed with the DVD releases of volumes 2, 3 and 4.

ImageA big reason why the Full Metal Panic formula is so effective is its very Japanese ability to compartmentalize. The large amounts of winning slapstick and Hollywood quality fireworks peacefully coexist, never allowed to pollute one another.

The Second Raid finds earnest teenage hero Sousuke Sagara again hard at work protecting the peace in the service of the secret military organization Mithril. Half the time he masquerades as a student at Tokyo’s Jindai High to protect the lovable but fiery tempered Kaname Chidori, who, as one of the very rare individuals known as Whispered, latently possesses advanced scientific knowledge. Otherwise he’s off piloting an armored slave (AS) mecha on risky commando missions with his Special Response Team (SRT) comrades, the butch Melissa Mao and jokester Kurz Weber, under the command of the wise but girly Teletha Testarossa on the massive submarine TDD-1.

Following Vol. 1′s nearly disastrous showdown with the Amalgam terrorist group in Nanjing, Vol. 2 opens in Italy where the SRT tries to kidnap a traitor from under the nose of his mafia guardians. Later some tender moments between Kaname and Sousuke nearly lead to her confessing her romantic feelings. Unfortunately the Mithril high command decides it is more important for Sousuke to focus his efforts on mastering the experimental, highly advanced Arbalest AS, and takes him off bodyguard duty. Sousuke is less than comfortable with turning Kaname’s well-being over to his coldhearted replacement Wraith, and Kaname herself is heartbroken to find Sousuke suddenly gone without a word.

In Vol. 3 Sousuke returns to the TDD-1 to find Teletha has become more than a little jealous of his closeness to Kaname, and that the SRT has been assigned new team leader Lieutenant Clouseau, surprisingly not a bumbling Frenchman but a no nonsense Canadian with attitude to spare. Meanwhile, desperately lonely and unable to contact Sousuke, Kaname becomes increasingly paranoid and sets out to track down the unseen Wraith, while simultaneously being stalked by renegade Amalgam assassin Xia Yu Lan. Sousuke and Melissa are dispatched to Hong Kong to track down an AS piloted by Yu Lan’s sister Yu Fan, which is wreaking random havoc and bringing the divided China to the brink of civil war.

“You want a look, you got it. Lightning Legs!”

Sousuke uncharacteristically abandons his team in Vol. 4, instead wandering the evacuated Hong Kong streets overwhelmed with thoughts of Kaname. With only hours to go before war breaks out and still no trace of Yu Fan, the rest of the SRT prepares for an all-out assault. Elsewhere Amalgam’s loopy leader Gates also prepares a strike force, annoyed that Yu Fan is endangering his carefully planned arms deals. Following a trail of clues, Sousuke is shocked to discover a nefarious figure from his past is the one really pulling the strings behind the whole scenario.

As always Sousuke and Kaname make a very entertaining pair, she is often comically exasperated by his one-track military mind and general cluelessness regarding everything else. When she drags him to a hair salon for the first time in his life he tries but ultimately fails to keep his weapon holstered, suspecting the barber at every turn of trying to kill him.

“Damn, I got served!”

The real standout of this series however is the delightfully perverse, murderous, vain and just plain wacky Gates, who sadly doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as he deserves. I suspect his assistant wishes he had even less, because his employer often takes out his frustrations via such methods as throwing him out of a helicopter, dunking him in a pool, and shooting an apple off his head. The hints of Gates’ sex life are bizarre to say the least, especially a scene where he appears to be enjoying himself while watching a video of kittens and squirrels. The Discovery Channel might be missing out on a major untapped audience here.

The English dub is very solid, and Gates in particular is exceptional. Teletha is actually better in English, as the Japanese voice actor speaks in a gratingly shrill and childlike manner.

“Oh, stewardess! Is that first class upgrade still available?”

One thing I don’t understand about this and certain other anime series is the insistence on setting the character ages so low, despite their generally adult behavior. It only serves to make the violent and sexual situations less plausible and more uncomfortable. I can understand that the studio wants young viewers to be able to relate to the characters, and that Kaname and Sousuke are in high school, but surely it does no harm to bump them up to 18.

On the other hand, there are some ways in which Full Metal Panic is a good fit for American audiences. Sousuke always carries a gun, the cast is full of American characters, and Mithril wages war on terror very aggressively. It’s a little like G.I. Joe with the kid gloves off, and better writing of course.

With that in mind The Second Raid contains some excellent action set pieces, though not as many as I’d like. One of the standout scenes is a harrowing car chase in which Sousuke, Melissa and Kurz try to escape a fleet of mafia enforcers, frantically trading gunfire along the way. Also excellent is the robotic Yu Lan’s relentless pursuit of Kaname across rain swept rooftops, bringing to mind the climactic confrontation in Blade Runner. Oh, and since it is Full Metal Panic there’s a lively mecha melee at the end, though it’s a little disappointing since it uncharacteristically hinges not on real world weapons like machine guns but on some sort of magical force field.

“Ulp! The target’s in range, and me without my armored suit!”

Kyoto Animation, whom I’ve never heard of before, delivers top-notch visuals. Sure there are the occasional shortcuts, but when it counts the animation is very fluid and detailed. CG is used for some chase backgrounds and the TDD-1, but thankfully not for the Gundam-ish mecha. By the end of Burst Angel I had almost come to terms with CG mecha, but you just can’t beat the real thing. Many of The Second Raid‘s backgrounds, especially in Hong Kong, are closely based on actual locations, and really help to draw the viewer into its world.

Of all the series’ music cues, my favorite is the “Next Episode” preview theme, which sounds almost exactly like the catchy synthesized score of the Airwolf TV series, also about high tech military machinery. The DVD menu music on the other hand seems like an odd fit, evoking the creepy atmosphere of Resident Evil.

I really have to hand it to Funimation for putting together a superb collection of extras for The Second Raid. To start with the packaging is beautiful and very slickly designed, coming in an eye-catching metallic blue tint. Inside each volume is an equally attractive booklet full of great illustrations and informative descriptions of characters, vehicles, and places.

In the army of the future it’s: “Lubricate, don’t tell”

Perhaps because the booklets are so thorough, the discs themselves unfortunately don’t provide galleries or documentaries. However lively commentaries with various Japanese voice actors are provided for every episode, which was a first for me. These don’t directly address the show very often, but most are a fun listen, especially those with the very amusing and more than slightly perverse Tomokazu Seki, who plays Sousuke.

Each volume also contains about 40 minutes of location scouting footage in Honk Kong, with commentary from series creator Shouji Gatou and director Yasuhiro Takemoto. This provides a travelogue that is both very thorough and quite funny, as these guys are both dedicated jokesters. There isn’t a great amount of insight about the show itself though, and they start to run out of steam in the last couple of segments.

Volume 4 contains the real gem: a lighthearted half hour OVA that follows Teletha around the TDD-1 as she gets entangled in various goofy sitcom situations. These include embracing Sousuke while sleepwalking and barely dressed, choking down an officer’s fiendishly rancid cooking, and mediating in an escalating war of juvenile pranks between Kurz and Clouseau.

The Second Raid is a no-brainer for Full Metal Panic fans and anyone else who enjoys tense mecha action with a side of wacky teen humor. Giant robots just make everything better, even terrorism in this case. Seriously, if you’re a dangerous political radical hoping for a one on one with Barbara Walters, 30-foot mecha are the way to go.

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