Full Metal Panic is a pulpy Cold-War era story that has been run through the Anime-machine. From the cold-war story side we get conspiracies to start World War 3 involving Soviet scum with gloriously evil villains and high-tech weaponry fighting guerilla warfare. From the anime side we get the heroes not being pumped full of testosterone faultlessly nationalistic Americans, but instead a teenage boy and a paramilitary force with terrible CG submarines captained by a cute teenage girl. Also giant robots.
Full Metal Panic has to win some kind of award for having its main character, Sagara Sousuke, come from Afghanistan. I know they say Sagara is from the non-existent Helmajistan, but let’s not kid ourselves. That’s just so the author could avoid having to deal with real politics in his nonsense cold war story. He’s got darker skin than the Japanese and had a really shitty childhood torn apart by war which he’s only been able to get over by immersing himself so much in military knowledge and protocol. When you take a step back and think about it for a second, that’s kind of crazy that this dumb anime had the balls to cast such an unconventional protagonist.
Sagara’s military-obsession is usually played for jokes, and it does get a bit tiring. Well, the tiring parts are mostly Chidori’s reactions. Sagara is so straight faced and meticulous about the way he pulls off these actions that it still cracked me up, much more so when the show made nothing of it. It’s such simple things too, like snapping his feet together when addressing someone new. It’s like they had a laundry list of things Sagara must do at all times to ensure they keep this image. Whenever Sagara enters a room, his eyes must dart to the four corners. Whenever he’s got over his initial introduction, he must stick his hands behind his back in his ‘at ease’ pose.
It’s because they keep up this image of Sagara in the dumb school segments that it’s really damn cool when he’s called into actual proper military action. What makes it satisfying is that, through his actions earlier on in the show, we know he’s competent but just not in this environment despite him clearly trying his hardest. I’m half tempted to call it moe, but it’s not quite that. You want to root for him when he’s sucking, and you get that emotional release when he’s finally put into a situation where he can be awesome. It’s a different sort of play on the emotional satisfaction you get from watching someone kick ass after going through training. The bonus here is that the non-awesome parts are still charming and funny in their goofy anime way.
Tessa plays to this strength too. Her shtick is that she’s frail and clumsy physically, but she’s a tactical genius and military expert. The way they play into this is kinda neat too, because they tease us with the idea of how the hell could this moeblob command the highest technologically advanced submarine full of buff macho military dudes when she’s so outwardly useless? They particularly play into this when, in her first real scene with Sagara, she deliberately plays to dunce in front of Kaname because she knows this will get on Sagara’s nerves.
Tessa’s story, or more accurately the slow reveal of her competence, is the secret best thing FMP does. Through the course of the show you slowly start to understand why it is she is able to command that submarine. The moral guardian, strong will, hard work, tactical genius and a whole load of various other strengths she has come to the fore so that by the end you totally understand why everyone listens to her. It’s a strange sort of command, where you get the feeling people follow her orders because they don’t want to let her down. But it works. I know that if I was on that sub and I was called into her office for not following orders and she had that hurt look on her face, I would be devastated and vow never to let her down again.
I think the moment that sealed my dislike of Kaname was when Sagara was doing his first badass military action hero shtick. He dashed in and rescued Kaname from the research facility, only for Kaname to then yell “eeewww you pervert get away from me”. It’s not necessarily Kaname’s character that makes her bad, although she is a pretty boring person. It’s how the show treats her as well.
Like pantyshots. Full Metal Panic is in many ways a product of its time, and much of the shit it pulls that I don’t like are outdated anime tropes. Random upskirt pantyshots in otherwise serious scenes of generally serious anime appear to have gone from anime nowadays, and thank christ for that. The most egregious example is when Kaname is going through a mental breakdown, and they decide to have a little peep up her skirt. Great, because that’s really the time I feel like perving out over a girl. When she’s going through a mental breakdown. Tessa gets treated to this perv-cam sometimes too, albeit mostly just caressing her legs. With Kaname though, it seemed to be in perv mode the entire time.
Speaking of dumb shit that’s finally outdated, abusive girlfriends punching their men because it’s so funny when the violence is reversed! The it’s never funny because the joke is entirely Kaname hitting Sagara. It doesn’t evolve as a gag. We’re just expected to laugh because she hit him. It’s not going to evolve either because Kaname doesn’t have much of a personality to speak of. She is Ordinary High School Student Mark 591245. You can tell she’s a boring person because any scene with Sagara not around simply consists of her talking about TV and shopping and homework and tests and every other thing boring teenagers talk about.
Her saving grace is that her relationship with Sagara is genuinely charming. Their relationship is used to different effects through the show. Sometimes it’s about establishing trust, or how Sagara has grown to care for a person. The strangest, and I’d argue most surprisingly effective use was the surprisingly dark and gritty trio of episodes where Sagara goes back to his home country of Afgani-I mean Helmajistan. While they’re excellent episodes, they’re so tonally different from the rest of the series that it barely feels like the same anime. But how it draws attention to that is quite marvellous too, using the almost alien calmness of Sagara’s return to Kaname as a really effective bookend to the harshness of that arc.
I was not expecting Full Metal Panic to hold up, but it turns out I still love Full Metal Panic. It’s got its problems, almost all of them centring on Kaname, and I’ll whole-heartedly admit that it is totally My Kind of Anime, but it does what it sets out to do really well. It’s a huge amount of fun with great characters and giant robots.
Also, to re-iterate, Tessa >>>>>>>> Kaname.
PS: Since I got the FMP bug, I watched Fumoffu and TSR recently too. Expect reviews of them soon. For this reason, I’m not going to get into any FMP vs Fumoffu vs TSR discussions. Save that shit for later.