Full Metal Panic Complete Collection (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:J.J. Matthews
Review Date: Sunday, September 04, 2005
Release Date: Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What They Say
On the surface, Kaname Chidori appears to be a normal, popular high school student. The problem is, she doesn’t realize just how popular she is. Unbeknownst to her, a group of terrorists believe she possesses the special powers of “the Whispered,” and they’re out to kidnap her. Enter Sousuke Sagara, a young, hotshot agent from the stealthy anti-terrorist organization Mithril. Will he be able to protect Kaname without her finding out what’s really going on? Or will he just drive her crazy as he tries to fit in as her awkward, gung-ho, war-crazed classmate?

The Review!
For our primary viewing sessions, we listened to this show in its original language of Japanese. We also listened to a few episodes in English in order to judge the English voice work and to hear the 5.1 sound track. The audio is very well done in Full Metal Panic! There’s really no distortion or artifacts throughout the entire collection. Volume levels are good, ambient and cue sounds never overtake the speech track…so you never find yourself wondering what someone just said. The English voice acting is spot on in this series, some of the best I’ve heard. Not only is it clear and consistent, but the timing needed for the comedy to work in this series is done very well (and is usually the hardest thing for any English dub to pull off, in my opinion). The Japanese 2.0 stereo track is adequate to convey the onscreen action, but this series really shines in Dolby 5.1 mode. The action scenes practically come to life as events take place all around the sound stage. Available audio tracks are Japanese 2.0, English 2.0 and English 5.1, both available with or without song subtitling.

The transfer for this collection is done in its original 4:3 format. The video is clear and there is very little or no artifacting/color anomalies. A few times, especially in close-ups, there is a bit of aliasing, but it’s not really worth mentioning except to nitpick. The animation is smooth, and only on the de Danaan are you able to discern where CGI is integrated into the more traditional looking animation.

The ThinPak release is, of course, a great way to collect the series. The box itself is nice and sturdy, and I really like the classy approach they went with here for the cover art. The box is a matte black with a shimmery, slightly embossed pattern that mirrors the mechanical plating theme used for the DVD menus. The box face displays only the series title (in English and Japanese), with a shot of the main cast and the Arbalest on the spine. The ThinPak cases inside contain the same cover-art as the original single releases, with portraits of the various mecha from the series.

The menu layout is easy to use and looks pretty cool. The menu background is a series of overlapping/abutting metallic panels that animate when a menu selection is made. The animation effect and the sound that goes along with it are nice. The main menu has a smallish box in the upper-right-hand corner that plays clips from the series in night-scene mode (black/green coloration only). A suitable music score plays in the background. The menu options are each of the episodes, Scene Selection, Languages, and Extras. Each episode is broken into five parts, the opening, part 1 & 2, the closing and a preview of the next episode. On each episode’s scene selection menu there are five small boxes playing a clip from each portion of the episode, a nice touch!

The good news is that this set was released back in April, avoiding the “extra-less thinpaks” initiative at ADV. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get you much, since the extras are a bit Spartan in this collection. Each disc provides a Clean Opening, Clean Ending, Production Sketches, Japanese Copyright Warnings, and some (now out-of-date) ADV Previews. The opening and closing are always welcome, and the copyright warnings are very entertaining, with various characters from the series providing warnings about the evils of video piracy (Tessa threatening to fire missiles at anyone using the disk illegally, Kurz proposing that cute girls should get an exemption from the rules, etc.) It’s a unique and fun idea, and gives some entertainment value to what is usually just something you have to sit through before getting to the good stuff. The production sketches included are nice, but there really should be several more per disk in my opinion.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Full Metal Panic is a series that combines the laughs of a high school romantic comedy, the excitement of a mecha-based action series, and the emotional impact of a heavy-hitting character drama. It's a challenging proposition, but the creators of the series don't just pull it off - they pull it off spectacularly. The series is one of the more satisfying titles out there for action, drama, and laughs, with a plot that allows all three aspects to shine without sacrificing believability or diluting one element in favor of another.

For those unfamiliar with the plot:
Sousuke Sagara is a soldier in a mercenary organization known as Mithril. Mithril has set itself as a sort of global police force, going after terrorists and other international threats with advanced weaponry such as their powerful mecha, called "Arm Slaves" (or AS), and their ultra-cool submarine, the Tuatha de Danaan. Sousuke is stationed aboard the de Danaan along with Melissa Mao, his tough-talking, hard-drinking unit commander, and Kurz Weber, a brash playboy and skilled sniper. Sousuke, himself, is rather mismatched with these two. At seventeen years old, he's already a career soldier who grew up as a member of a Middle Eastern resistance group, learning to fight for his squad at the early age of eight. As a result of this background, Sousuke is extremely skilled at military maneuvers, but quite out of touch with the real world. His life is defined by equipment specifications, rigid regulations, and iron-clad codes of conduct.

Sousuke's clean-cut military existence is ruffled, however, when he is given a new assignment: protecting Kaname Chidori, a high school girl suspected of being a "Whispered" (a mysterious term for girls who are inexplicably born with scientific knowledge far beyond what mankind's normal studies have achieved.) Sousuke's age makes him perfect to go undercover in Kaname's classroom as a fellow student.

Unfortunately, the Mithril higher-ups do not factor in Sousuke's utter lack of any experience in civilian life. From his very first day at school, Sousuke proves woefully inept at playing a high school student. When he gets caught bringing a "toy gun" to school, he forthrightly informs the teacher that it is actually a real gun. He introduces himself to the class as "Sergeant Sousuke Sagara" and when asked where he comes from, he responds truthfully with "Afghanistan, Lebanon, Cambodia, Iraq, and Colombia". He follows Kaname with a stalker-like intensity, reacting with over-the-top guns and violence to every perceived threat to her welfare. Even in an "undercover" situation, Sousuke is simply unable to focus on anything but his duty and mission.

With this setup, we're given a few early episodes that are mostly comedic in nature to introduce the characters. Kaname is not an idiot. She's a strong-willed girl who speaks her mind and can be a bit violent when crossed. This makes for some great moments when Kaname confronts Sousuke, demanding to know why he keeps following her while Sousuke adamantly repeats his claims that all of his stalker-ish behavior is merely a coincidence...up to and including the moment when she finds him sitting on the balcony of her apartment in the middle of the night!

As funny as these episodes are, by the end of the second episode, the series is already well on its way to setting up the first major dramatic arc. This, I think, is one of the major pluses of Full Metal Panic over some other shows...it really hits the ground running. The series is primarily made up of four distinct story arcs, separated by a few straightforward comic-relief episodes. Each arc can stand alone, but they also build on each other, increasing the stakes as you go along. The biggest plus here is that the first arc gets rolling almost immediately and wraps up by episode seven - about the time that MOST series would just be starting to build toward their main storyline.

The first arc is probably my favorite of the series. There's some really skillful storytelling going on, serving a whole bunch of purposes. First, it's a good seat-of-your-pants sort of thriller: Kaname's entire class is put in danger when the plane they are on is highjacked in a plot to kidnap Kaname for experimentation by Russian scientists. Sousuke must rescue Kaname AND keep the rest of the class from getting blown up in a bomb intended to hide the fact that Kaname's been taken. Along the way, the arc builds most of the necessary mythology for the series. We're given some insight into the "Whispered" and their abilities, we're introduced to Mithril's secret weapon, an AS called the "Arbalest" equipped with a "Lambda Driver" that allows the machine's pilot to basically bend the laws of physics with enough focus and belief in himself, and we're introduced to the series' arch-villain, an evil mercenary named Gauron who was responsible for the deaths of Sousuke's resistance group before he joined Mithril, and now is an even bigger threat, since he has his own Lambda-Driver-equipped AS. But what I like most is that the arc manages to provide all this exposition and action while also building the characters and relationships in a way that doesn't invalidate the comedy potential. By the end of the arc, Sousuke and Kaname have reached a new appreciation for each other's strengths. Kaname proves herself to be resourceful and quick-witted in a crisis, and Sousuke starts to realize that he cares about her safety a bit more than mere duty would dictate. In fact, when his duty requires that he abandon Kaname to protect the rest of her class, he agonizes over what to do, finally violating his orders in favor of saving Kaname. Likewise, Kaname's eyes are opened to Sousuke's true purpose and skill.

And yet...even after what they go through, there's nothing anachronistic about the return to comedy in the post-arc episodes, as Kaname returns to school with Sousuke shadowing her. As skilled as he's proven himself, he's still inept at daily life, which exasperates Kaname to no end, and so the story goes on - only this time with a bit more sexual tension as the two start dealing with some feelings for each other that neither is ready to act upon...

In the second arc, the series expands a bit more, giving Kaname a chance to meet Tessa, the uber-cute 17-year-old captain of the de Danaan who also happens to be a "Whispered". While still serving several purposes, the story here was most interesting as a nice character study of Tessa's strengths and weaknesses. (She's super-intelligent and a skilled tactician, but she's pathetic when it comes to physical activities, and she's not above petty teenage pranks.) This arc actually saved Tessa for me. The soft-spoken cutey-pie commander thing rubbed me the wrong way at first, but moments like Tessa teasing Sousuke by pretending to be his airheaded girlfriend in front of Kaname, or her disgruntlement when Sousuke has hostage-takers release Tessa first, leaving the more athletic but CIVILIAN Kaname in their clutches, really gave the character more dimension than I expected her to have.

The third arc shifts to give us some much-needed background for Sousuke in another disastrous confrontation with Gauron. Sousuke is sent to his old homeland of "Helmajistan" to join a veteran Mithril unit in capturing Gauron, who has been spotted in the area. The episodes do a really good job of making you feel for Sousuke as we see that, despite the camaraderie with the de Danaan crew, Sousuke doesn't necessarily fit in with the military so well as we might have thought. His youth and "special" status immediately mark him as "not one of us" to the other soldiers on the mission, and it's sad to see him facing a return to his homeland with a team who can't be bothered to listen to his input, despite his familiarity with the region and the enemy, until it's too late.

The arc also provides the emotional impetus for the next story, as Sousuke is severely shaken by the tragedy of his last mission. For someone who takes his duty so seriously, failure is unbearable, and when he's thrust into another combat with Gauron...this time with his own friends' lives on the line, and with the memory of the Helmajistan events fresh in his mind, he is unable to operate the Lambda Driver. In the end, the mission succeeds and Gauron is captured only through Kurz's quick thinking and a little luck.

Having an enemy as tricky as Gauron on-board the de Danaan is just asking for trouble, though, and the conclusion of the series sees Gauron taking over control of the de Danaan, culminating in a chance for Kaname to once-again show that she's an action-oriented gal, putting her "Whispered" skills to good use, and closing with a final confrontation between Sousuke and Gauron.

Despite all of this drama, the series continues to be comedic throughout, to one extent or another, especially in the standalone comic-relief episodes between each arc. My favorite is an episode where Sousuke is maneuvered into going on a "date" with another girl, resulting in some troubled jealousy from Kaname and some of the series' funniest fish-out-of-water moments with Sousuke, especially when he attempts to practice boy-girl relationships with a Date-Sim who quickly dumps him, declaring him a nerd. ("I'm not a nerd, I'm a specialist!")

So, when all is said and done, I can't think of anything at all that the series could improve upon with regards to storytelling and characters. The characters are all fantastically multi-dimensional, and their relationships are engrossing and believable. In the camaraderie mixed with concern and amusement that Kurz and Melissa show for Sousuke, in Tessa's small moments of bonding with the secondary members of the de Danaan crew, in Kaname's seesawing feelings towards Sousuke...and most especially in Sousuke's own very complex psyche where it's clear there's a *lot* of trauma that he keeps bottled up that is just added to by his growing attraction to Kaname and not knowing how to handle it...the creators of the series do a great job making you care about these people and their situations. The series is filled with powerful storytelling and "OMG!" moments that keep you riveted to the TV.

If I have any complaints at all, I suppose it would be related to the use of the "Whispered", "Black Technology", and the "Lambda Driver" itself. This is perhaps just a personal preference, but I find plot devices that are as all-powerful as the Lambda Driver to be a bit frustrating. When technology gets so super-advanced that it makes an enemy like Gauron virtually unstoppable, it's just a little too magicky for me. There's a great scene in the final arc when Sousuke finally lets loose a little and rails that he's a mercenary and should be using mercenary machines with good, solid physics behind them, not the hocus-pocus sort of thing like the Lambda Driver. I totally agree with him.

In addition, there's a lot of emphasis given to the importance of the "Whispered" in the first storyline, but by the end of the series we don't really know much more about them than we knew after that first arc. Despite the little examples of their abilities sprinkled throughout the series, the whole "Whispered" element falls a little flat because that build-up led me to expect that the series would focus on it more. This is an extremely minor complaint, however, and only likely to affect viewers who prefer their stories to provide all the nitty-gritty background details rather than only the pieces that are needed to tell the story that is actually being told.

In Summary:
Full Metal Panic is a fabulous series that offers a little something for everyone. Its endearing, engaging characters fit well into both the dramatic and comedic elements, moving easily between life-and-death adventure and little high school traumas. The action sequences are invariably fantastic - whether dealing with giant mecha battles or tense one-on-one fights in close quarters - and the comedy has moments of true genius. All in all, definitely a series I recommend.

Japanese 2.0 Language,English 5.1 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,Production sketches,Clean opening and closing animation, Japanese piracy warning

Review Equipment
Marantz DV4300 Progressive scan DVD player via HD component connection, Marantz VP-12S3 DVI/Component HD DLP Projector, 110” 16:9 Stewart FireHawk Fixed Wall Mount Screen, Marantz SR9300 7.1 A/V Receiver 140 watts/discrete channel (7), DTS/DTS-ES/DTS Neo: 6, DD, D-PLII THX Certified 7.1 speaker system

Mania Grade: A
Audio Rating: A-
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: A-
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 14 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: ADV Films
MSRP: 89.98
Running time: 600
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Full Metal Panic