Full Metal Panic!

Full Metal Panic! – Rating: 10

1. Story – 10

Full Metal Panic! is one of the best SF anime stories I have run across. It presents an extremely detailed alternate world with believable political structure and some very cool concepts and rationalizations for the advanced technology that exists. In addition, the story arcs are well written and compelling. Furthermore, the series combines action, drama, romance, and comedy unlike anything I have ever seen! It manages to be a high school romantic comedy, a compelling terrorist thriller, and an SF action show all at the same time. Truly an achievement!

The story revolves around the two main character. Sousuke Sagara: A 17 year-old professional soldier who has been fighting in wars around the world since he was 8 years old who is a sergeant in the anti-terrorist organization, “Mithril” and an expert pilot of the mechs that are called Arm Slaves (AS); and Kaname Chidori: A seemingly normal, popular, and strikingly beautiful 2nd year high school student. As the story starts out, Sagara and two of his fellow soldiers are assigned to an undercover mission protect Kaname. It turns out that she is not such a normal girl as she appears, but is in fact a “Whispered” candidate. “Whispered” is the term for people born with an innate understanding of what is called “Black Technology”, advanced technology that allows them to create amazing devices such as the AS units, effective invisibility systems, and many other advances that separate the FMP! world from our own. It seems that the KGB (in this world the Soviet Union is still going strong in the late 1990s, when the story takes place) is trying to kidnap “Whispered” candidates to study them and extract the “Black Technology” from them.

As a result of this assignment, Sousuke is enrolled in Kaname’s high school, as they are the same age (though technically Chidori is still 16 at the time, with a birthday of December 24th). Much of the comedy of the show revolves around the complete and total inability of Sousuke to adapt to life as a civilian. He doesn’t understand the subtle, or even the not-so-subtle, social cues of a Japanese high school or city. In addition, they are not allowed to tell Chidori that they are protecting her, as she is unaware of her status as a potential “Whispered”. None the less, she takes a liking to him early on, though she is constantly frustrated and infuriated by his “Military Nut” ways and frequently punishes him (often by hitting him with a fan or shoe) for causing so much trouble in her life. Eventually, the fact that she is under protection is revealed and, while she understands why Sousuke acts like he does, she still is driven to distraction by his antics.

The story alternates between one-shot “slice of life” stories about high school life or military life on the Tuatha De Dannan (the submarine where Sousuke is stationed normally) which are mostly humor oriented, and multiple episodes story arcs that are more drama and action oriented that tell the tale of the “Whisperd”, the terrorists that are after them, the Mithril members that are fighting them, and develop the characters of the main duo through shared danger and a growing reliance on, deepening friendship, and eventually love for, each other (though neither one will admit that love is a consideration in this season of the show).

Based on a series of light novels, the story presented in this first season takes place in the first two novels. Much information about the world and the course of the future novels is available online, though only the first 3 novels are published in the US (with the next two due out in February).

2. Characters – 8

The characters in FMP! are mostly well wrought. Some of the minor characters are a little paper thin, and the motivations of some of the villains are hard to fathom. Here is a summary of the main characters:

Sergeant Sousuke Sagara – A teenager that was raised on the battle field. Originally from Japan, he was orphaned at a young age and put into a Soviet orphanage. From there he was trained to be an child assassin, sent on a mission to kill a leader of Helmjikastan (Afghanistan in the books). Failing to kill the leader, he was adopted by him and became a rebel soldier. Eventually he left Helmjikastan and fought in wars across the world for the next several years, eventually being hired as a mercenary by the Mithril organization and being selected as an AS pilot on the Special Response Team (SRT) for the Tuatha de Dannan combat submarine.

Kaname Chidori – A popular teenager, class rep, and vice president of the student council of her high school, Kaname is also a gifted athlete and always gets top marks in science and math without any effort what-so-ever. Her mother died four years before the story begins and she is estranged from her father, who works for the UN in New York. She lives by herself in Tokyo and attends school there. Unbeknown to her, she is also a “Whispered” candidate, a group of people who have innate knowledge of extremely advanced technology that has allowed them to create the wondrous, and deadly, differences between our world and theirs.

Kyoko Tokiwa – “Kana-chan”‘s best friend. She is a pretty thin character that is constantly taking pictures and convinced that Kaname and Sousuke are falling in love, despite the denials of Kaname.

Shinji Kazama – The closest thing Sousuke has to a best friend at school. He is a military fanatic that knows as much about modern weapons as Sousuke and is fascinated by Sousuke’s actions and apparent military background, though that is supposed to be a secret, it isn’t very well kept. This character is also fairly paper thin and undeveloped.

Kurz Webber – Raised in Japan, but of German descent, Kurz is another member of the SRT. He is an expert sharp-shooter, as well as an unrelenting pervert and wanna-be womanizer. He is initially assigned to assist Sousuke in protecting Kaname, presumably because he is fluent in Japanese and knows the culture. His back story (as detailed online)[spoiler] is that he was a normal kid going to Japanese schools until, at the age of 14, his entire family was assassinated. He then discovered his rare ability as a sniper, he can visualize the path of a projectile and hit a target at any distance his weapon can fire, and trained in order to kill the assassin responsible for his family’s murder. He now spends almost all of his paycheck to pay for the medical bills and organ transplant costs for a young girl that was injured when he took his revenge.[highlight to read spoiler] He is a “happy-go-lucky” type that is frequently used for comic relief and a close friend of Sousuke.

Mellisa Mao – Sousuke and Kurz senior officer, she is also assigned to protect Chidori. She is a no-nonsense type that frequently punishes Kurz for his sexist and sexually harassing ways. She also drinks heavily and has some serious baggage of her own lurking deep in her closets. (Doesn’t everyone that is a soldier for hire in stories like this?) She is also one of the closest friends of the next character:

Teletha “Tessa” Testarossa – The 16 year-old captain of the Tuatha de Dannan submarine, Tessa is a waif-like, elfin beauty with a sweet voice, long platinum hair, startling gray eyes, a figure to die for, and command of the most advanced combat submarine in the history of humankind! As the story continues, [spoiler]we come to find that Tessa is also one of the “Whispered”, and is in fact the designer of the Tuatha de Dannan and the AI unit that runs it, called “Dana”. She is also a tactical, scientific, and mathematical genius who is a fantastic commander and cares deeply for the lives of everyone under her command. Through the events that occur in the season, she also falls in love with Sousuke despite the fact that she is his military commander, and she informs Kaname Chidori of this, which has a profound effect on Kaname, despite the fact that she still denies that she has any feelings for him. This love triangle is the basis for much of the romantic comedy in the remainder of the storyline in both the books and the anime.[highlight to read spoiler] A fan favorite, Tessa is one of the prime sources of Fan Service in the show.

Lt. Cmdr. Andrey Kalinin – One of the main combat operations officers on the Tuatha de Dannan, this former Soviet special forces officer has a long history with Sousuke and is one of the main advisers to Tessa. (From the web) [spoiler]He saved Sagara from a plane crash while serving on a Soviet submarine, a rescue denied by the Soviet Union, resulting in Sousuke being sent into the orphanage. Then, in Afghanistan, he deserted the soviet military in order to escape the country with Sousuke. They were separated, resulting in Sousuke working as a soldier for hire for years before they were reunited with Mithril.[highlight to read spoiler] He is a father figure to Sagara and serves as his foster father according to the Japanese school.

Gauron – The main villain of the show, with the exception of a couple stories in the middle, he is a terrorist for hire that is working for the Soviets to kidnap Chidori. [spoiler]We come to learn that he, Sousuke, and Kalinin have a long history, going back to the time that Kalinin and Sousuke escaped from Afghanistan and thought they had killed him.[highlight to read spoiler] He is extremely skilled, entirely evil, and very, very hard to kill!
There are many others, but those are the main ones.

3. Art – 8

Gonzo did a fantastic job animating this show! It is detailed and smooth, integrating CG and hand drawn art seamlessly. The show is an absolute gem! Where it falls short is the character design. There is a persistent strangeness to the faces and body motions of several of the characters, making them much more cartoon-like than they need to be. This exists in the original character design from the light novels, but it detracts from the overall quality of the art and animation. [I edited this from my original 10 after viewing a few episodes again now that I have the BluRays.]

4. Music/sound – 10

The opening and closing songs are quite good. The opener is an upbeat pop-rock love song, setting the tone for both the action and romance aspects of the plot. The closer is a sentimental ballad that brings home the core romantic nature of the main characters relationship, as well as hinting at a shared heritage as children who have lost family members (all of Sousuke’s and Kaname’s mother) and have had to become self-sufficient at a young age, leading them to be resistant to becoming dependant on someone else, yet longing for closeness in a cruel world. (OK, I might be reading a bit too much into it, but with the family pictures running in the background and the general tone of the song, I find myself thinking these thoughts during the music. That says a lot!) The background music and special effects are consistently effective, with the main theme for scene changes having a very martial tone that helps to drive home the action aspects of the show. The hard rocking music in the action scenes is spot on and the sound effects of the AS units and submarine are fantastic at setting the mood.

5. VA/Dub – 9/9

The main characters in both the original cast and the dub cast do excellent jobs. Interestingly, the English VA’s for Chidori and Sagara both bring a very different feel to the characters, but are equally effective in conveying the character as their Japanese counterparts. I feel that they both have a more casual feel to their approach to the characters that highlights the growing friendship. In the Japanese version, they seem a bit stiffer and more formal, but that works better in the early part of the show and when Sousuke is doing his “crazy military nut” routine.

6. Overall Enjoyment – 10

This anime ranks up there with my favorites! It is a well written SF story, with a decent amount of romantic content, a lot of comedy, and some of the better action scenes I have seen in anime. It is a rare show that is able to alternate between tense action scenes, suspenseful drama, touching romance, and hilarious slap-stick comedy and do them all with flair and style. Full Metal Panic! is a rare show indeed!

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Gunslinger Girl Season 1

Gunslinger Girl – Rating: 8/10

1. Story – 5

The biggest issue I have with Gunslinger Girl is the lack of a driving plot line. The idea for the show: Adolescent girls that are near death are “saved” by the “Social Welfare Agency”, only to be given cybernetic implants and turned into ruthless assassins, is an interesting, if morally repugnant, idea. (Not that moral repugnance is a bad thing when talking about stories. Sometimes a story about things that should never be thought of can make you think of things you never could have considered otherwise…) The problem with the show is that each episode, or occasionally a small group of episodes, seems unconnected to the others. It is like they took a concept that cries out for a large over arching plot and put it into a slice of life format. I generally appreciate slice of life stories. They have their place. A show about intelligence operatives for a secret government agency is not one of those places! (You’re Under Arrest is another show that is mostly slice of life, but the local cop genre is fine for that.Barney Miller was one of the best shows ever, and it was almost entirely slice of life. Actually, YUA reminds me a lot of Barney Miller!)

 

2. Characters – 8

The characters in GG are strong. There are a lot of them there, and the fact that you really get a good feel for most of them over the course of the season is a testament to the director’s skill. The way that the story is laid out, the main characters consist of the girl cyborgs and their “handlers”, with a few supporting characters thrown in. The main characters of note are, of course, the girls:

Rico – the ray of sunshine in the agency who seems simply happy to be alive. She appears to be the only character that is aware of her previous existence, as she was sickly from birth and the chance to become a cyborg provided her with her first taste of a real life.

Henrietta – the affection starved waif who is desperate to be of use to her handler. Her back story is that her entire family was murdered, and she was brutalized in the process. It is hard to say if that prior experience influences her need for affection or her desire to please her handler Jose (or Guisse)

Angelica – the first cyborg, whose enhanced body and mind are starting to fail due to excessive conditioning. She was almost killed by a hit-and-run arranged by her father in order to collect on life insurance.

Claes – bookish and mostly non-violent, Claes’ handler was killed and she is now used as a test subject by the doctors in order to improve the cyborg transformation process. [spoiler]It is unclear how she came to the agency, but her father was a professor that instilled a love of books in her. Her handler encouraged that and also taught her how to enjoy “idling the time away”. She had her memory of her handler conditioned out after he died, but his influence is still obvious.[highlight to read spoiler]

Triela – The second oldest cyborg, she has a pragmatic view on life in the agency and has seemed to come to terms with her life as a cyborg assassin. [spoiler]She was saved by her handler from a “snuff-film” in which she was to be the main attraction and brought to the SWA without him knowing the true nature of the organization. Somehow they convinced him to join on as her handler after she was converted to a cyborg .[highlight to read spoiler] She is probably my favorite character.

The handlers are less well defined, but the highlights are:

Jose Croce – Henrietta’s handler appears to be almost too soft-hearted for the job. He buys her presents frequently and has trouble keeping emotional distance. Henrietta’s obvious devotion to him complicates matters. His brother, Jean, is also a handler. [spoiler]Their parents and younger sister were killed by terrorists, leading both of them to work for the SWA to fight them.[highlight to read spoiler]

Jean Croce – Jose’s brother and Rico’s handler, he has a much more “business-like” view of the job. To him, Rico is a tool he can use to get vengeance on the terrorists [spoiler]who killed his family[highlight to read spoiler], nothing more.

Victor Hilshire [spoiler]– Formerly of Interpol, Victor changed his name when he stole Triela, who they wanted as a witness in the snuff film case, away from them in order to save her life and brought her to the SWA. He worked with an Italian gangster to save her, and that mobster has been involved in some of the stories too. [highlight to read spoiler]

Raballo – This former MP was Claes’ handler, [spoiler]but had grown disenchanted with the Agency, going as far as contacting the press to turn over info on the SWA. He was killed in a fortuitous, for the SWA, hit-and-run “accident”, resulting in Claes’ current status with the Agency. When watching, I made the assumption that the Agency had him killed because he was going to go to the press.[highlight to read spoiler]

3. Art – 9

The art work in GG is excellent! The drawing style is realistic and gritty. The backgrounds are vibrant and alive. The main characters are consistently excellent. But the “mood” of the art work is what really makes it special. There is a somber, tragic feel to the show that is contributed to by the way the characters and scenes are drawn.

4. Music – 7

The opening theme is wonderful and the background music is good enough. It doesn’t stand out as phenomenal though.

5. VA/DUB – 8/8

The voice acting in both the Japanese original and the dub are very well done. You don’t get the feeling that the characters are vastly different switching between them. The character of Henrietta is particularly well done in both, but none of the others stand out above the crowd.

6. Overall Enjoyment – 9

While it is strange to give a higher overall enjoyment score to a show than my overall rating, I have to say that I really liked this show! It is thought provoking and disturbing, which are things that make it stand out above other anime. The main drawback, the lack of an overarching storyline, detracts from my post watching appreciation of the show, but inside each episode, it is a good ride. I do wish that some of the “plot twists” were handled better, as I generally saw them coming, but that is a problem that most shows have, so I can’t fault it too much for that. It was a fun show to watch and I would watch it again, especially if I can find the rest of the series dubbed, as I only saw a couple of the episodes in the dubbed form. [EDIT: Since writing this review, I have watched about half of this series dubbed, as it is currently available on Netflix. I have enjoyed the voice acting in the dubbed release. It is quite well done.]

Spice and Wolf Season 1

Spice and Wolf Season 1 – Rating: 10

1. Story – 9

Spice and Wolf is a different type of story than most anime. Set in a late medieval/early renaissance fantasy world, the story is not a sword & sorcery epic with battles and powerful magic, but rather a calmly paced story of a merchant named Lawrence and the economic realities he must deal with in order to make a profit in a changing world. The fantasy element is the other protagonist, Holo, a wolf spirit/harvest goddess that stows away in Lawrence’s wagon and asks him to help her return to her home in the far north. It seems that she has been tied to the land around a farming village for hundreds of years and worshiped as a god. As times have changed and people have learned to ensure a bountiful harvest using better agricultural practices, they have ceased to need Holo and she wishes to escape their annual rituals and return home.

However, the real story of Spice and Wolf is not the economic scheming, but the relationship between the two protagonists. It is one of the finest written, realistically paced, believable love stories I have ever seen in anime. The story is not a “sudden, magical girlfriend” story. When they start traveling together it is merely out of mutual self-interest and convenience. As they travel, they learn more about each other and begin to rely on one another for companionship, advice, and maybe even more. The realistic pace that their relationship develops at should be relatively familiar to fans of Ah My Goddess, but even more so that with K1 and Belldandy. Much of the story is conveyed through the witty banter between the Holo and Lawrence as they discuss the nature of trading in the various towns they visit.

The only beef I have with the story is that it does drag occasionally mid-arc. In those cases, the plot developement is slow, usually in favor of witty banter between Holo and Lawrence. Those can be fine moments, but they don’t move the story along quite as well as they could. However, the arc-setup episodes and the arc-climax episodes are excellent without exception, without sacrificing the back-and-forth between the protagonists.

The story is based on a series of Japanese light novels, with the first season consisting of the first two volumes of the series.

2. Characters – 10

The two protagonists, Lawrence and Holo, are two of the finest in anime. They are well rounded, complex, and most importantly believable, despite the fact that one of them is a wolf goddess. The supporting characters are all done well enough to serve their purposes, with some having enough meat to be especially effective (Chloe and Nora in particular.)

3. Art – 10

The art and animation of Spice and Wolf is extremely well done. The backgrounds are detailed and complex. With so many different towns and landscapes to travel between, it could have been done with some stock flat backgrounds, but the artists took their time to make it better. The character animation is first rate, with realistic body movements and an infinite number of facial expressions and body positions, especially with Holo’s tail! The use of color to set the mood of the piece is and to set our lovely wolf-girl apart from the drab, everyday life of a medieval town is extremely fine.

4. Music/sound effects – 10

The soundtrack is full of period instruments and mood enhancing tunes is very well done. The opening and closing themes are hummable to the point of distraction. The effects are superb, providing a depth to the viewing experience, from the random sounds of a market place to the rustle of fabric when Holo grabs Lawrence by his shirt, they don’t miss a beat!

5. VA/Dub – 10/10

For the Japanese VA work, it is well established that Ami Koshimizu’s performance as Holo is one of the finest seiyuu performances in recent memory. The range of emotion that is expressed in her voice, even without understanding most of the words, is truly amazing. That said, the English Dub performance of Holo by Brina Palencia is extremely good as well, in the two episodes I have seen dubbed. She doesn’t use the archaic manner of speech that Ami uses in the Japanese version, but that would not translate to English well anyway. What she does do is present a haughty, formal, and fiery rendition of the vivacious wolf-girl that sets just the right tone for the character. She also keeps up nicely with the wide range of emotions and the quick trigger passion of the wolf. The rest of the cast is well done, but I was really impressed with the English dub performance by J. Michael Tatum as Lawrence! [spoiler]I wasn’t sold when he was talking with the townspeople, though he seemed good enough, but the first scene with Holo, when he finds her in the back of his cart, convinced me. His voice really had conviction and fire in it as he told her to wake up and explain herself. I always felt the Japanese VA was a little calm at that point.[highlight to read spoiler]

6. Overall Enjoyment – 10

This is a fantastic show! If you are looking for something fast paced and action filled, look elsewhere. But if you are interested in a thoughtful, carefully crafted, expertly rendered, and elegantly executed story with enough twists and tension to keep you wanting more and enough subtle romance to make your heart twitter with happiness, this is for you! Last I checked, Spice and Wolf was available on several streaming sites, including Netflix, Hulu, and Funimation, the US licensor of the series. It is also available on BluRay or DVD from many fine video sellers.