Sometimes I make a mistake when I form an early impression of an animé series. Usually, it’s that I’m too generous about the plot, assuming that there is a method to the writer’s madness, when actually, there’s a madness to their method. In such cases, I’m disappointed by the failure of the writer to clean up (or even acknowledge) the loose ends. Right now, Simoun is trending that way; with only two episodes left, they’re still piling on mysteries and weirdness, with only one answer to the prior questions.
In the case of Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, I may have made the opposite mistake. Several months ago, I saw the first episode’s fansub, but I didn’t like it. It wasn’t that the series looked bad; it was that they seemed to abandon the trademark balance of comedy and drama that makes this series what it is. I had passed on Fumoffu, partly because it was all comedy, and it looked like TSR was going to be all drama. The sole nod to humor in the first episode didn’t work for me; Kanamé’s bitchiness was overplayed.
For people unfamliar with the series, or needing a quick refresher, according to Anime News Network, “Full Metal Panic! is based on a series of novels by Gatoh Shoji. The first season of the Full Metal Panic! anime covers the first 3 novels, while the second season, Fumoffu, covers various of the short stories. The third season (aka The Second Raid) adapts the two Owaru Day by Day novels.” There is also a 30-minute OAV that takes place after the end of TSR, though I don’t know if it will be bundled with the series for North American release. The first series was done by Gonzo, but the rest have been done by Kyoto Animation.
FMP takes place on a slightly altered version of our own world: the Soviet Union still exists, and mainland China has broken into two parts in a civil war. Mercenary military organizations exist, and are hired by various parties. Of these, Mithril is both the most capable and secretive. Their reach is worldwide, their technology is ten years ahead of everyone else’s, and they often undertake missions on their own initiative. Who pays for all this is never stated–in fact, one of the major flaws of the series is that so much of the background hasn’t been adequately explored. For what it’s worth, this is the fault of the original author, not the animators. Another unexplained phenomenon is “The Whispered,” people who can sometimes hear a voice describing technology in advance of our own, and how to build it or make it work. Mithril’s advantage comes from the fact that it’s been very successful in finding and recruiting such people at a young age, including the 17-year old Theresa Testerossa, who built and is captain of the Tuatha de Dannan, a super-submarine operating from Mithril’s Pacific island base. It is heavily armed, highly automated, and capable of launching six Arm Slaves (mechas) either on the surface or underwater. Despite her youth, it’s obvious that Mithri trusts her to run it, although they’ve evidently given her a very experienced and capable staff to make sure everything goes well.
FMP isn’t her story, although she’s a major character and possible romantic interest; it’s the story of one of the AS pilots, Souske Sagara, and KanamÃ© Chidori, a young Whispered attending a high-school in Japan. For yet another unexplained reason, Sagara ended up being abandoned as a child in a west asian conflict, and grew up as a mercenary. From age 8, he’s never known a civilian life. Recruited into Mithril, he is the youngest AS pilot in their forces, and highly capable. KanamÃ© Chidori on the other hand, is a perfectly normal if, ah, highly assertive Japanese high-school student…well, normal except for being a Whispered. In addition to somehow knowing details of how AS’s work, she occasionally gets premonitions, and can even manifest telepathy under pressure. The first FMP series tells the story of how Sagara, because of his age and ethnicity, is assigned to Chidori’s school to guard her when Mithril somehow (not explained!) learns that she may be a Whispered and targeted by forces unknown. Steven notes it’s a fish-out-of-water story, and KanamÃ© is much better at adapting to Sagara’s world than he is to hers; Souske’s antics are the source of most of the slapstick humor. On that score, prepare to suspend disbelief, big-time. One-tenth of his stunts would be enough to get him banned from school for life, if not thrown in jail. For instance, when he discovers someone in the next room is spying on Chidori, his solution is to blow a hole in the wall and take him down at gunpoint. Chidiori’s solution to Sagara’s excesses probably left bruises; she has no fear or hesitation to tear into him when he screws up. They’re a regular Punch-n-Judy act, only when they’re together, he’s Judy.
I had liked the first series a lot, but had three major problems with it that came to dominate my thinking over time. The Helmijistan arc was far too dark; it didn’t fit the rest of the series and had too little of Chidori in it. Worse, the major series villian, Gauron, was a very one-dimensional homicaldal brute. He had no distinctive trait other than being as unkillable as Freddie Kruger and as mad as Jason–if only he’d possessed a doll like Chuckie, he could’ve pulled off the trifecta. Finally, I felt like there simply wasn’t enough of a relationship between the two principals at the end. They combined to stop Gauron from killing everyone on board the Tuatha de Dannan and take back control from him, after he successfuly hijacked it to attack an American destroyer. I didn’t expect them to necessarily be lovers (especially at sixteen and given their fierce independance) but they didn’t seem to have bonded sufficiently, considering what they’d been through.
When I first started downloading fansubs, I checked out the first episode of TSR, and as I said, I didn’t like it. The animation was up to what I now know are KyoAni’s superb standards, but I felt they’d misplayed Kanamé. I ended up not going any further, and deleting it after the license was announced. (So actually, Girls High isn’t the only series I’ve erased, just the only one I’ve erased for stinking up my hard drive.) When the DVD came out, I bought it as much from a sense of obligation as anything else. I found I was wrong about the humor, as episode 2 was as funny as any I’d seen in the first series; maybe more so. Sagara had seriously regressed; even Kanamé’s friends commented on it. The battles in episodes 1, 3, and 4 were well done; tense, and reasonably authentic, especially the hardware. The tanks look like a variant of the M1, while the armored personnel transports look like Soviet BMP’s and.Dr.Heinous notes that Mithril’s observation helicopters look highly similar to the US next-gen replacement for the Kiowa. Yet it didn’t really grab me; the new villian was pretty much Gauron redeux, only with more insanity. He’s a mad, mad, mad, mad scientist. Did I mentione he was mad? He’s bughouse nuts. Orders his men to off a bunch of opponents, sings Ave Maria (oh my ears!) and then gets annoyed that they’re all dead. So he shoots the mercenary that points out “you told us to!” He even threatens–and abuses–two very lethal sisters he’s hired. (They’re the fanservice: yuri twincest.) Meh. Still, when I headed up to Dr.Heinous’ place recently, I took the DVD along, because I remembered he liked the first series. We dropped by Fry’s and picked up the 2nd DVD to go with it after I got to Dallas. (His reason for the trip was to replace the DVD drive that resulted in so much trouble last time).
Well, this is where I have to say “I think I was wrong” because while the first DVD was “ok” the second one kicked some serious ass. Kyoto Animation really hit their stride with the series during this stretch. There was only one battle to be found, and that in episode 5, but the rest of it was chock full of comedy, drama, some romantic development, some character development, and, in the 7th episode, some serious “oh shit, ohshitohshitohshitohshit RUN, DAMMIT!” tension, ending on an emotional and dramaticaly understated cliff-hanger. (I considered putting a screenshot of it below, but decided against it–I think it would spoil the impact too much.)
Although I doubt it will go anywhere, given the nature of the series, one of the developments I liked in this DVD was that Souské and Kanmé are beginning to realize that they’re alike, and mean a lot to each other. They haven’t reached the point of openly acknowledging it as such; they’re still couching it in “bodyguard and guarded” terms, but it shows.
I can’t really discuss a lot of the DVD without giving away spoilers, but in episode 5, Melissa Mao in a long-haired wig and evening dress is not to be missed. Dayum, if all U.S. Marines looked that good, there’d be no shortage of guys to sign up. (Never leave your buddies behind, indeed…) That episode also takes a holiday from heavy military action, with a shoot-em up sequence that’s more farce and fun than grim and gritty. But that Episode 7… I think it may be the best single episode in either series, thus far. It still gives me chills, and is probably the major reason Dr. Heinous is not happy with me bringing an incomplete series along.
The third DVD is out on March 6th. I’ll leave you with one final caution. If you pick up this series, do not read the liner notes or watch “episode 00″ as both have major spoilers. I’m more than a bit torqued at Funimation for that.
Edit 3/1/07: This series’ problem is that it’s too schizoid. It’s not that comedy and drama don’t mix; the author does as good a job of mixing it as any I’ve seen. It’s just that he operates under two different and often opposing rulesets, and he mixes them at the wrong time.
Ruleset 1 — Military realism: Actions have consequences, people get hurt and killed. Humor is of the gallows variety, if present. Everyone’s serious to a fault. Everything that happens follows from what came previously.
Ruleset 2 — Slapstick goofiness: Actions have no consequences. No one gets hurt. Humor is abundant and varied, usually physical/situational. Events happen without logical antecedents.
What harms the series in some ways is that the villians should operate under Ruleset 1 based on when they appear, but they are operating under Ruleset 2. Take Gauron from the first series: it doesn’t matter what he does or has done to him; he can’t be killed. Then take Gates from the third series: he’s nonstop insanity, and it’s played for humor. (I so never want to see that monkey scene again…) Completely, ridiculously over-the-top; not even Bond’s quirky villians can touch him. Even Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers flicks is the very model of a well-adjusted metrosexual compared to Gates.
For the record, he’s one of three major villians in this series. I caution against the spoliers because they give away the other two, one of whom was mentioned, but never seen, in the first series.
The major flaw is that the entire foundation of the series rests on something the viewer expects to be in Ruleset 1, but is drawn from Ruleset 2: The Whispered. They’re just never explained, nor is how Mithril is funded — though we do get to see some of the ruling council, which appears to be headed by a British peer cloned from Col. Sanders. Sometimes, a series can do that. Take Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya for instance. A high school girl who might be God? Not a god, but The God, at least of the universe inhabited by the cast. It’s such an outrageous concept, there’s no need for a “logical” background, it just is. It’s like magic; it follows no rules but its own.
But mixing magic and technology — not the concepts, but the rules — is tricky business, and I think I made the point several months back (maybe in an email?) that it’s what FMP does. Magical barriers that stop tank shells? Sure, it’s really a technology called a Lambda Driver. But how do you get a Lambda Driver? Research by a multi-billion dollar megacorp? Secret military research projects? No, a voice whispers technological secrets in the minds of various people. It’s magic!
And that’s FMP’s biggest failing. If you can just hang your disbelief and accept that it has two inconsistantly-applied rulesets, it will be an enjoyable series. If you’re obsessed with understanding how everything works, the flaws will bug you no end.