I went into watching this show trying to temper many years of built-up expectations. I was hopeful, but careful. If it failed and disappointed me in one or two areas, I wasn’t going to make much a fuss about it, so long as it delivered consistently on something.
Alas, my optimism seems to have been misplaced, because despite its occasional successes of evoking joy of the laughing and/or mecha or military action fanboy variety in the early parts of the show, I am ultimately let down.
There are, in my eyes, many things going against it. For one, aside from maybe a few of the main cast, the character designs are for the most part, ugly as hell. Is it something to do with how their faces are drawn? Maybe a particular kind of lining or coloring? Or perhaps the odd body proportions–particularly when they’re blown-up like balloons to create that exaggerated anime head effect? I’m no expert on such things, so all I can say is that the look and feel of the way this show and its characters look and move feels horribly off to me.
Then you have the mecha designs, which, though not hideous, are certainly not memorable and definitely not what I would call good-looking. Which is a shame, since I can be quite forgiving of a show if it manages to do this much well. Apart from save a few moments early on when the action is somewhat good, I don’t feel excited when I see them on-screen. But visuals aren’t everything and quite a few of my favourite shows aren’t exactly all that great to look at either. Unfortunately, it’s not the only issue I had with this show.
The story isn’t really important, so I don’t want to delve that much into it. The details are kept very vague, and the supernatural elements are a clumsy fit. The Lambda Driver is a gimmick that gets played up as something special, but never feels special. I don’t think it works here, not unless they dropped the highschool comedy side of things, that is–then I could see it leading to some potentially interesting/awesome developments.
Character-wise, I found most of the cast to be painfully one-dimensional: Melissa Mao is a tomboy action gal who drinks a lot, hangs with the guys, and in her off-hours tends to wear a loose black tanktop. Kurz Weber is the pretty-boy pervert that will almost always act inappropriately during serious contexts (i.e. he wishes he had a camera to take a picture of Mao when she is passed out after saving him from a life-or-death situation) and make sad womanizing attempts at any given opportunity. Tessa Testerosa is the cute and clumsy Captain Moe-girl. And the MC, Sgt. Sagara Sosuke is the “perfect soldier” with about as much personality as a brick wall–which makes it really hard to follow this guy.
And then you have, the tsundere, Kaname Chidori. I generally don’t like tsunderes, but Chidori is a fairly tame one to begin with. She doesn’t exhibit as violently dangerous of reactions as is tradition for her archetype; mostly resorting to a newspaper smack or a bag toss to the bag of the head (ouch). And she’s also more dere a lot sooner than is typical of her archetype as well–in the sense that she has less over-the-top violent bursts of anger towards her “love interest” and isn’t all that ridiculously super defensive about it. Yet she still manages to come off as incredibly bland and awkward–and not in the cute awkward lovey-dovey moe way. I mean whatever is supposed to be perceived as romantic feelings from her does not look, sound, or feel genuine; if I am to take this as love, then it is a ‘fake’ kind of love. The closest thing Chidori has to a distinctive trait is that irritating laugh of hers. And in case you’re wondering yes, I watched the Japanese dub. It’s not that much of an improvement over the English dub, if I’m being honest. The voice acting seesaws from middling to grating.
Gauron, the antagonist, is the most entertaining of the bunch, but his actions are never really explained. You don’t learn why he’s doing all these things (other than he’s a bit of a douche). He seems to only be doing them for shits and giggles, but that reason isn’t played up enough for it to feel convincing either.
The dialogue is shockingly generic. For a long time, I took this as a show with a fairly strong identity, yet so much of what gets said is so nondescript that I feel like I’ve seen this show a thousand times before. And the comedy goes from being really hit-or-miss at the start, to dropping all the ammo and struggling to clip it back together, never mind actually hitting any of its targets; predominantly basing the humour on dull comedic misunderstandings that aren’t funny at all, with about as much timing as a tortoise in a NASCAR race.
Many people who have recommended this show have done so under the pretense that Sosuke’s attempts at adjusting to normal life while being unbelievably socially inept is entertaining, but personally the reaction I get from it nine times out of ten is cringe.
Something I couldn’t help but notice was how jank the animations were. There’s hardly any movement, and because the art is so bleh I have a hard time even looking at the still images. It makes it really hard to buy into any of the tension it tries to create in the more dramatic parts, but it also isn’t goofy-looking enough to help with the comedy either. The action choreography isn’t anything special, and to my dismay, I felt like it peaked early on when they were in Okinawa. But the geography is so frustratingly minimal (not much in the way of different and/or interesting landscapes), dull, and unnecessarily confusing; the positions of troops during battles is often kept annoyingly vague, that I managed to feel excited only once. Neither the robot fighting or military engagements were any good.
I wasn’t expecting a deeply philosophical show going in, so I don’t hold it against this show for being weak in its themes or arguably altogether lacking in any cohesive over-arcing subject matter or message(s). And I won’t get too much into how unconvincing the portrayal of the organisations and military personnel act, but there’s at least some questionable to downright inane decision-making going on here.
Take for instance, when Sosuke is assigned to another AS squad and sent to Helmajistan to kill Gauron. Despite it being no secret that Sosuke is the only one on the team who has experiencing fighting said target, his advice goes ignored and his presence is met with disdain. How did these people last this long in the military when they’re so quick to irrationally refuse vital information that is paramount to the mission’s success? I don’t buy the whole skepticism towards the credibility of Sosuke’s accomplishments or experience angle.
What’s weird about this show is how it has this vibe that it’s supposed to be an episodic highschool comedy with militaristic/action and mecha elements, but spends more time on the latter without really playing into it. It feels odd to have an episode where Mao and Chidori are in a bathtub together and we get some stupid flashback exposition to when Mao met Sosuke and Kurz, and everything is so wishy-washy and heavy-handed that it fails to get me invested in any of the characters or whatever’s going on. All I took away from that episode (emotionally) was greater disdain for Kurz and his poor, disgraceful womanizing ways.
Even under the impression that it is supposed to be a “fun show”, it rarely ever felt fun to me because it always seemed to be at odds with what it was doing, or even when it had focus there was no pulse to be found. It wants to be a serious militaristic action series, but fails at creating powerful moments and portraying impact, which makes encounters feel flat and dead. Then when it reminds itself that it’s supposed to have a lighthearted tone because it’s also a highschool comedy, it undershoots its entire magazine of humour and runs out of clips in rapid succession before you even have time to move your hand to your face in exasperated embarrassment.
Full Metal Panic! tries to be both a serious militaristic action series and a high school comedy (with mechs) and succeeds at neither. I was willing to go along with whichever direction it wanted to go because I am fond of both, but it seems that it didn’t matter what I signed up for because the series wasn’t interested in delivering on any of it, not even to a competent degree. The story isn’t interesting. The characters aren’t particularly likable. The action isn’t dynamic or thrilling. The comedy isn’t funny. The music isn’t remarkable. The potential for romance is artificial. The setting/world goes criminally unexplored. And ultimately, it doesn’t know how to balance any of it.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just the idiot who bought the blu-ray set of a series I had never watched before, because I had high hopes for it, but was also prepared to make excuses for it as long as it succeeded where I needed it to and kept me entertained.
Apparently, this was too much to ask.
All of it sucks. I wish it didn’t suck, but it does.