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Review: “Full Metal Panic” Ultimate Blu-ray Set (UK Edition): I Didn’t Know They Stacked Quality That High!

by on May 5, 2016
 

FMP-ULTIMATE_3D_open_BOXThe mecha genre is an ever evolving tapestry, with ideas constantly advancing from the groundwork laid by big names such as Tetsujin 28, Mazinger Z, Gundam & Macross. Like most genres these key milestones for a time will generate satellite works that emulate them while waiting for the next true innovator. Full Metal Panic joins that hierarchy nicely. Anime Limited’s release of Full Metal Panic is no slouch, containing three series spread across seven Blu-ray discs: three for the first series and two for the second and third.

The first 24 episode series introduces us to Mithril, a private armed organization which uses advanced technology to stealthily intervene in armed conflicts and crisis around the globe. Staffed primarily by mercenaries, the group’s secondary goal is the protection of a secret branch of humanity called “Whispered,” who possess knowledge of lost, ancient technology inside their brains and could be exploited by less scrupulous parties. When Japanese school girl Kaname Chidori is identified as a targeted Whispered, Mithril responds by inserting their single minded operative Sousuke Sagara as a secret bodyguard at her school. Attempting to pass himself off as a student is no easy task for the child soldier and Kaname is quickly infuriated by his antics. Can this mismatched pair work together?

Mysterious transfer students and extraordinary things intruding on school life are common staples in anime, but the first season of Full Metal Panic presents them in a way that is highly palatable. While not a thorough deconstruction, the show is aware of the clichés of the industry and works to address them. A perfect example is the relationship between Kaname and Sousuke, with the former being a good natured if irritable honour student and the latter a single minded soldier who misinterprets easy going school society for a metaphorical minefield. The show wastes little time in suggesting Kaname is more attracted than her annoyed outbursts let on, but when the tsundere role has become a sexist quagmire for many reasons, it’s immensely welcome that her reactions always feel justified and are never over-played. You believe that she’s a nice person simply irritated by an oblivious pest, much as Sousuke’s own behaviour is comical, but also logical for someone who was fought in wars since childhood and is aware of a danger he can’t reveal.

Similarly, the more outlandish elements of the plot are gently questioned, such as the surprising youth of Mithril’s commander Tessa, and how mankind has functioning giant robots. In a day and age when Japanese productions increasingly seem to run on the logic of “Because anime, so shut up,” such awareness shows a respect for viewer’s intelligence.

The initial episodes make good use of the school setting to provide viewers with a familiar reality to buy into before our antagonists play their hand during a field trip. The juxtaposition of Kaname, her classmates, and teacher suddenly being tipped into the realities of Sousuke and Mithril perfectly summarises the stakes while also explaining the need for his presence. The arc also introduces us to the face of evil for the season in Gauron. An elite mercenary with a hand in Sousuke’s past, Gauron is the kind of fascinating villain you hate for what an evil bastard he is, but who is also charismatic and capable enough to be genuinely intriguing. Seemingly playing a long game for his own benefit, the major obstacle he presents is his mastery of a rare mecha system that transforms pilot’s thoughts into combat realities.

fmpUK2The mecha of the show, termed Arm Slaves, are very much from the “real robot” school of thought, with simplified, functional designs which clearly show no-nonsense mechanical engineering and effective armour. The Mithril units, including Sousuke’s prototype Arbalest, definitely indicate their more advanced technology by displaying a post-Gundam heroic aesthetic, as is probably no surprise for current Gundam designer Kanetake Ebikawa. Unfortunately, this provides the ideal opening to discuss the elephant in the room.

In past reviews I’ve mentioned my love for Gundam 00. Full Metal Panic predates that series by at least five years, and in watching the show it’s hard not to acknowledge the similarities between the two, such as how Sousuke is a former Middle East child soldier now piloting a super advanced mecha for an independent army that intervenes in global conflict as it sees fit. I feel it’d be an insult to Full Metal Panic’s quality not to at least mention this, and while there are abundant clear similarities (Shinichiro Miki even plays the main character’s sniper surrogate big brother in both!), I don’t think it’s a case where Gundam 00 ripped Full Metal Panic off. Imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery, so they say.

Although the story is strong, the budget doesn’t seem to match. The first season is produced by Gonzo and all too often the animation seems flat and off-model, especially with human characters. The lack of budget is most visible in the opening and ending titles, which take advantage of clips from episodes and even pans of promotional artwork. Mecha animation is usually far more consistent, but overall the visuals are where the season shows its age.

The subsequent two seasons make the jump to Kyoto Animation and the benefit becomes clear very quickly. Subtitled Fumoffu, the second season makes the interesting choice of switching gears to comedy. Although set in continuity after season one, Fumoffu focuses on the insane daily antics of our lead pair, their classmates, and the school faculty. It would be easy to see this as a bad choice, given there were dangling plot threads leftover from the first series, but these twelve episodes are a masterclass in comedy, alternating between full-length episodes and paired eleven minute stories. Unlike certain recent Western animated comedic spin offs I could name, the cast remains in character as they proceed through lunacy such as investigating a haunted hospital, dealing with an admirer or Sousuke coaching the school’s failing rugby club. The scripting is brilliant, but it is Kyoto’s animation that really makes this work. There is a perfect frantic energy that keeps things fresh. Anyone can draw silly visuals but the timing and motion on the over the top reactions seen here is genuinely hilarious, and shares the same genre awareness as the first season by playing with the flaws in most other comedy anime. The worst I can say is a pair of episodes with a guest spot from Tessa play her ‘rivalry’ with Kaname a bit too generically and the second part descends into a tired ‘pervy male cast at the hot springs’ story.

FMP-ULTIMATE_3D_open_DISC-AMARAYDespite initially retaining the levity, things take a darker turn in the final season The Second Raid. It’s here that Fumoffu actually gains a bit of further significance as the issue is the question of just how successful Sousuke has been in integrating to Japanese society. What Fumoffu plays as amusingly over the top starts to become genuinely tragic, and the question is raised as to if he even wants to continue being a Mithril operative anymore. I don’t want to go too far into the details on this as I found it to be a fascinating plot thread, but a key reason why came from not knowing what turns were coming next.

The face of the enemy this time is Gates, a character similar to Gauron but very much his own man. He possesses the same mastery of combat tactics as his predecessor Gates, but has a sheer bipolar insanity which makes him darkly hilarious. The series has a lot of fun exploiting his brand of madness to really make him a wildcard. The Japanese audio in particular benefits from the casting of the legendary Hochu Otsuka, long famed for his portrayal of hammy, larger than life characters. Less memorable are a pair of sisters who serve as his underlings and carry disturbingly incestual tones. It’s clear they are intended to be mirrors of Sousuke’s own path as a child soldier, but such characters are hardly rare in anime and come off as questionable cheap titillation in an otherwise masterful series.

Video and audio quality are both of high quality. Although the first two seasons predate high-definition standards, this is only really apparent for the first season. Even then, what you’ll get is better than the washed out look of even a DVD presentation. Both the original Japanese recordings and the ADV dub audio are selectable, and I give my preference to the former. While there’s good to be found in the English dub, the Japanese has A-list talent such as Tomokazu Seki as Sousuke, Satsuki Yukino as Kaname and the aforementioned Shinichiro Miki and Hochu Otsuka. There’s charm to these characters as written but the nuanced performances of the Japanese cast really will give them a place in your heart.

The final disc for each season comes with a selection of extras, with Fumoffu losing out to its siblings with only the standard textless credits and Japanese TV commercials. The first season bolsters this with an interview between the original author, producer, and director and in-character anti-piracy warnings. The interview is the clear winner with tons of interesting and amusing anecdotes. Second Raid receives two OVAs, a documentary covering the evolution of the light novel genre, and a set of films about the research for the finale in Hong Kong. The two OVAs strike very different tones, with one being a prologue to the season that has some very cool moments for daydreaming mecha fans and the other a comedic/fanservice romp which involves Tessa waking up drunk and trying to puzzle out what happened the night before, revealing amusing quirks of the Mithril staff in their downtime. Humorously, sponsorship gives us a very dated reference to the ill-fated Newtype USA publication (an ADV/Kadokawa team up that didn’t turn out nearly as well as TSR).

FMP-ULTIMATE_3D_open_BOOKThe retail release also comes with a 76 page exclusive hardback artbook, full of the lovely production artwork that makes nerds like me squee.

Full Metal Panic really carries a distinct charm. Its themes are very familiar to the mecha genre, but I think very few other series manage to put such a fresh spin on them without wallowing in self-aggrandising pap. The mecha concepts are self aware and distinct but as with any tale worth telling it’s the characters that shine through, a fact proven by the second season’s successful sidetrack into pure comedy.

1000 units of this set have been produced. No second run will be available and Anime Limited have stated Fumoffu will not be available separately when they later do standard releases of the two more serious series. As such, I heartily recommend picking this up while available from them, Amazon or other reputable retailers. Fans eagerly awaited this release and it’s easy to see why. This is panic you don’t want to avoid.

Full Metal Panic Limited Edition Ultimate Blu-ray is available to purchase from Amazon UK.

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