Looking for a hilarious comedy with a gripping political plot and a fantastic new angle on the mecha genre? Then stay away from Full Metal Panic. This anime is chock-a-block with familiar ideas, which should make it accessible to a broad spectrum of mainstream viewers; but on the whole these ideas aren't combined very well and FMP succeeds only at being totally average.
FMP's story begins with ultra-serious overtones; a tense escape-cum-rescue plays out in the snowy night, leaving you hanging nicely to the edge of your seat. The inclusion of the mercenary-style defenders of justice idea is promising, and in general, the setup seems to foreshadow an epic with powerful plotting, intrigue, exotic locations, explosions, tragedy and heroism. However, all of this posturing quickly dissipates into a fart of mediocrity as each new concept and plot point turns out to be generic, underdeveloped, or both.
So where exactly did FMP go wrong? Personally, I blame the storytelling approach, which is to tackle the plot from as many contrasting angles as possible. For example, while the strong military and political elements drive the action, most of the character development is presented through insipid romantic comedy subplots; the result is that I have no idea whether to take any of this seriously and engage or passively sit back and laugh at the silliness.
Examples of this messy storytelling are plentiful: one episode opens with humdrum comedic scenes and then switches quickly to Sousuke's tough life in a Middle Eastern desert without much explanation of how the two worlds tie in meaningfully with each other or with the rest of the anime. And soon after having survived a rather epic ordeal, Tessa turns her attention quicker than I can say ‘amnesia' to wanting an awkward romance with Sousuke. Even deciding to interpret FMP primarily as a comedy does not guarantee full enjoyment since many of the gags - especially the ones based on the Chidori-Sousuke dynamic - become repetitive and predictable.
Perhaps I do FMP an injustice, for it has quite a few high points to speak of. For instance, at one point, Chidori and Tessa are kidnapped by an interesting sibling duo, and the subsequent rescue mission culminates in a tragic mecha battle. Upon reaching this part of the story, FMP seems not only more emotionally accessible but also to have more of a purpose. Furthermore, some of the comedic moments in the first few episodes, although nothing new, are effective means of establishing the characters; Chidori and Sousuke settle easily into their roles as female abuser and male abused.
Regardless of these high points, I find myself in the following position: I have not laughed once, I cannot remember much of what I've just seen, and the one thing I find interesting - the idea of a girl with mysterious powers - has been left unexplained and underused. Even watching the final battle is a bit like having an out of body experience; although vaguely aware that I should care, I have become so disengaged, that I really couldn't give a damn even if the worst were to happen.
FMP has the kind of animation that, although highly suitable and decent for its time, has aged quickly over the years. Just like shows such as Kaze no Stigma, FMP has enough of a budget to look presentable without being technically clever. All of the action sequences are enjoyable, and the quality of animation throughout is good, but, in comparison, there are also a million anime, both old and new, with better-looking stunts, more visually delightful world concepts, and less bland, less cliché character designs.
If there are two things FMP does well, it is the opening and ending themes, both of which are catchy and melodic and capture a mood that the episodes themselves fail to match up to. Apart from that, don't expect much from the synthesised jazz, rock, and pop score as it is both repetitive and forgettable.
The voice acting is good throughout, albeit typical; the men deliver unremarkable masculine vocals while the girls have high-pitched voices ranging from ear-splitting to barely audible. When the sound is at its most interesting, it actually drops out completely during action scenes, which is both unexpected and highly effective as a means of adding intensity.
Character-wise, FMP really takes a nosedive. Many of the characters are parodies on some level, but good parodies involve pushing the cliché of choice in a new inventive direction, which the show never really bothers to do. Confounding the problem is the fact that none of the characters have any detailed backgrounds on which to build their personalities, which means they never quite stop being caricatures.
Firstly, there is Sousuke Sagara's monosyllabic personality, which must be a joke if ever I saw one; he takes stoicism to a mindless new extreme. If Heero Yui from Gundam Wing were a cyborg, he would be positively verbose in comparison to Sousuke Sagara. At times, such as with Sousuke's amusing introduction to his classmates in the beginning, there are glimpses into what might be a soul; but all in all, he just tries too hard to be one-dimensional, if that even makes sense.
At least Sousuke is not as irritating as the female protagonists. Kaname Chidori is of the blue hair persuasion, which usually means one of two things: either ‘I am a meek, personality-less drone', or, ‘I am an overbearing woman with more tits and mouth than brains'. Chidori is of the latter kind, screaming and pouting and beating up her companions as a means of communication. Contrived as this is, she is hardly the worst screamer in the world and actually remains mildly interesting because of her mysterious powers. Sadly, as she does not really control her powers, she's passive as a protagonist and thus only of value when the plot says so.
Lest viewers be offended by the witless Chidori, the show presents Teresa Testarossa, the child genius and Captain of the Mithril team. In true FMP style, the idea of a teenage girl as a highly respected military leader sounds more exciting than it actually is; Tessa is soft-spoken, feeble-bodied and, outside of the Captain's chair, about as invigorating as beige emulsion. When I think of her, the phrase ‘doujinshi fodder' springs to mind.
Once you add to all the above Kurz Weber, the pointless womaniser of the team, and Gauln, an antagonist with indiscernible motivations, engaging emotionally just seems like too much effort.
What begins as a captivating military mecha anime, despite some interesting moments, falls far short of greatness because of the inane characters and ambitionless plot. Chances are, if you're in the mood for something a lot like every other mecha anime, or if you happen to be a young teenager, then FMP will do the job just fine. Otherwise FMP is just another addition to the mass-produced, middle-of-the-range anime on the market.
Gonzo does it again with this action-packed mecha comedy. She's an ordinary high school girl. He's a counterterror agent assigned to protect her from those who would steal the information locked in her mind. OK, so she's not so normal after all. Armored Slave battles and lovers' spats abound as Sousuke and his comrades try to track down the mysterious Gauln before it's too late.
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