It took three series and countless Super Robot Wars games before I really came to like Full Metal Panic; it was always a series where the core conceit, a sort of high school anime Kindergarten Cop story about a super-genius schoolgirl being protected varyingly competently by a team of commandos never really gelled with me, where the mech combat didn’t quite work and the juxtaposition of humour and serious action was a little disorienting. Yet there was enough there – the all-comedic second series Fumoffu, with its excellent film parodies including The A-Team, Full Metal Jacket and more, fights like the city fight against the invincible yet unstable Behemoth and the climax of series 1, with charismatic and utterly monstrous villain Gauron apparently having won – to make me convinced it was not a bad series, just an uneven one.
Enter series 4 (or series 3 of the main story), Invisible Victory. I am two episodes into it and convinced it is very enjoyable, because it seems to be a concentration of the scattered bits of the prior series I liked into something quite tonally different. It begins with Chidori and Sousuke, the odd-couple who have driven the past three series, graduating high school. It’s hard to say this is anything but a very obvious the old story is over, this is new stuff signpost. From there, all hell breaks loose; the series has abandoned the school-comedy aspect almost entirely, although the humour is not gone for good and what remains is a tense, pacey action-thriller. The parts of Full Metal Panic I always liked were those where it was either fully committed to comedy or had the action-film feel; scenes like Gauron capturing the submarine really embodied this. Straight away, Invisible Victory offers this in spades with two action-packed plots running simultaneously; Sousuke and Chidori are attacked by evil organisation Amalgam in the streets, and a car chase, attempted helicopter escape and general carnage follow. On the other side, Tessa and the rest of Mithril are attacked at their island base under cover of a global communications outage, with mechs attacking from long range, cruise missile strikes and general chaos.
The series has become pure Call of Duty stuff and that works extremely well, balanced with the few bits of remaining dry odd-couple humour. The park shootout in episode 2, with PMC goons and mechs trying to catch the heroes as they try and call for a helicopter – down to the helicopter itself being shot down in flames driving a new range of complications until the super-mech Arbalest appears on the scene – had the pacing and general feel of a good over-the-top action-thriller or FPS mission. Especially when the cliffhanger – that during the efforts to escape Amalgam managed to capture Chidori’s friends – comes. This is a reveal that works as the first real payoff Invisible Victory offers to the past plot; it has been made personal, once again, as the ordinary schoolchildren are back in the line of fire. These are characters who have been imperilled time and again by the shadow-war between Amalgam and Mithril, and now, once again, Sousuke has been thrown into the same rut of fighting.
A lot of this works because the new story’s villain is a spectacularly theatrical jerk. Leonard Testarossa has the uncanny ability to make things extremely personal, to be one step ahead and to look stylish doing it; an excellent combination for the sort of over-the-top thriller that Invisible Victory opens as. It is the same combination that made Gauron such a good mecha anime villain, and by far the best part of FMP series 1. A strong personal link to one of the main cast (in this case Tessa), a callousness that is not caricaturish or linked to perversity (like Gates, who was not a good villain in Second Raid) but instead just over-the-top enough to be compelling and an initial appearance where he wins, and wins more. The stakes have gone from one girl being targeted by terrorists to a city erupting in gunfire, robots on the streets, global blackouts and missile attacks. And the series ably shows this sense of scale; when Sousuke fights one of the miniature Arm Slaves in the streets there are brief scenes after of the consequences this has had – property and infrastructure damage and injured civilians. There is, of course, no time for him to do anything about this (and there it could be argued Chidori’s role as humanising influence is hinted at, although if the series impresses too much about that it may prove a little reductive a dynamic) – and it is a scene which reminded me of how good FMP can be with small character details, when there are not quite broad stereotypes and big joke-y interactions going on. Selling the dynanics of the cast is vital to making them likeable, and building an audience engagement that makes the throwbacks – and the fact that the plot is so personal to the characters – work. Kids in peril wouldn’t work so well if they were not the same kids that the audience has seen the building relationships around.
There was one other scene in the first two episodes that really sold the series to me as nailing the tone – sometimes lighthearted, sometimes serious but mixed in the way an action-film can do so well. Mithril’s base is under siege from Behemoth mecha, known to be all but invincible even though they have a major mechanical flaw, as very little is able to survive to exploit that flaw. The soldiers – including the supporting characters of the previous series, Mao and Kurz, try to form a plan to fight back. There is the usual banter between them, and then one of the other officers suggests the “tactically logical” hard truth difficult decision plan; sell out Mithril to ensure their survival by giving Tessa to Amalgam, and attempt a counterattack later. His mutiny looks like it might succeed, until Tessa arrives. Now, the moments in FMP when Tessa gets serious have always been great; her voice actor, Yukana, can sell cuteness and icy rage equally well. And this is a great scene because of that. She personally breaks up the mutiny by threatening to shoot anyone who tries it, and it is a really good dramatic climax in a base-under-siege episode. It’s, to be blunt, a very normal action-film under siege moment, but FMP’s stock in trade is aesthetically subverting those normal action-film moments by adding giant robots, schoolgirls and so on, and selling that subversion with fun dialogue that can become serious if needed.
I think that’s why I like Invisible Victory so much; it rewards familiarity with the past story but has distilled the storytelling into, I think, the best parts. Watching it felt like being reminded of all the parts of FMP I liked despite all the parts I didn’t. It has robots, explosions, Sousuke being a badass, a villain who makes the mistake of making it personal, some banter (involving Kurz) and Tessa taking no nonsense from anyone. And the fact that I did find myself caring about all the little domestic bits with Chidori’s friends suggests that while I always thought I didn’t like the high school shenanigans, either Invisible Victory sold the character drama well enough in formulaic fashion to make me care, or the other series had been more memorable than I assumed. 2018 has been an interesting year in anime for sequels, reboots and reimaginings; Gegege no Kitaro modernised interestingly, Cutey Honey is back, Legend of the Galactic Heroes got remade, and joining them all is Full Metal Panic doing more of the same but, I feel, a bit better.