Background: There have been so many quality anime series ending of late that I can only hope we're not in for a summer slump where the companies provide some of the lower priority projects they've sat on for lengthy periods of time. Making the best of it though, I found myself appreciating how well two of the industry giants, ADV Films and FUNimation (who could be collectively referred to as "Team Texas" given their location in the Lone Star State), got together to display a superior show. Given that I have long enjoyed watching quality anime, especially anime relating to giant robots bashing each other to pieces, it made sense to I promoted Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid V1 as a great show and a clear choice for the Best of Anime 2006 list that was drawn up late last year. The various related series were all well made with an eye towards quality in every area of production and creative writing, and I said so to all within shouting distance of me here in Texas (home of both companies working on the project). Well, the second volume of the show never came in and as busy as I am, I never had the chance to pick it up but I still looked forward to seeing Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid V4 come in, albeit with the same crossed eyes I have long given towards releases that skipped volumes on me. I had to fill in the blanks when watching the last volume but there was so much going on this time that I found myself watching it a couple of times (outside of the usual commentary tracks) so here's some background and observations on the last three episodes:
Series: Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid is the true second season of the franchise that we last saw released from ADV Films with Full Metal Panic: Season 1. There was a shorter side series by the name of Full Metal Panic: FUMOFFU but it was largely a gimmick show that left the mechs behind in favor of concentrating on the schoolroom drama as the Sousuke continued to protect his charge, Kaname. As I've said previously about the initial season of this fine show: "The show centers on young Sergeant Sousuke Sagara, a man assigned to an anti-terrorist organization, Mithral. Mithral was designed to combat well-funded terrorists that pilot various mech-robots against targets protected by friendly governments; using technology about ten years ahead of the rest of the world. Recently, there has been an advance in the design of such robots and both sides lay claim to the technology behind the advance and use it for their missions. The series has Sousuke on a long term protection mission of a high school girl, Kaname, and this being anime, the two fall for one another (yet won't openly admit to this fact). Apparently, she has a gift (somewhat of a mystery at this point in the series) that relates to the new technology and is considered too precious to go unprotected. As the cast goes on a number of missions, we learn a bit more about them and the near-future technology behind the show."
The press release for the show said this: "FUNimation Entertainment Awarded Rights to Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid by Kadokawa Pictures USA Volume 1 DVD set to street on October 3.
FORT WORTH, TX -- May 26, 2006 -- FUNimation Entertainment, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Navarre Corporation, announced that it has been awarded Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid by Kadokawa Pictures USA. Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid is the third season in this popular anime series and FUNimation has scheduled October 3, 2006 as the street date for the first DVD. "We are excited to work with Kadokawa Pictures USA on this series," said Gen Fukunaga, president and CEO of FUNimation Entertainment. "These are the first steps in a mutually beneficial relationship and releasing Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, with its high quality production values and established fanbase, is a great way to start." "We are very excited to collaborate with FUNimation in releasing Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, which marks Kadokawa Pictures USA's first North American DVD release. We have found FUNimation to have a well thought-out sales strategy and an incredible management and support team. Their passion to distribute and promote this title was remarkable, and we look forward to working with them again in the future," said Takashi Sakuda, General Manager of Kadokawa Pictures USA, Inc. The first Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid DVD and starter sets have been scheduled for release on October 3, 2006."
As a fan of Full Metal Panic: Season 1, my fears that the show might not be up to par were quickly allayed upon watching the first few minutes of the show, proving that advances in technology, bigger budgets, and the kind of care that FUNimation is known for were clearly in evidence. The back cover of the show put it like this: "To Sousuke Sagara, undercover high school student and member of the mercenary group Mithril, life in Tokyo seemed the same as always. But underneath the promising exterior spin the wheels of a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the peace. Unrelated at first glance, a series of tactical assignments draws Mithril's Special Response Team into a tangled web, with the spider wearing a haunting face from the past! With inside help and technology to rival their own, this adversary is after the Arbalest no matter the cost. And don't forget that math test." Skipping past the missing volume two, the third picks up with a depressed Sousuke being hammered by his leaders at Mithril for his inability to let Kaname and his life protecting her go. The unreliability of his advanced weaponry and the fact that the enemy has been so successful at combating Mithril of late, leads to a decision that he can not easily live with, impacting his performance all the more.
While I missed getting the second volume of the series, the general theme continued in the third where Sousuke was still pining about his separation from Kaname while an equally powerful enemy seemingly in perfect control of the advanced whisper technology wreaks havoc across the world. The reversal of roles in terms of Mithril having a technological disadvantage to an enemy causes the loss of personnel and equipment in conflicts that force their hand in other ways; Sousuke being taken from his assignment in order to focus his efforts on the battle. Kaname in danger doesn't sit well with the youthful pilot, forcing him to revisit his whole world view in a way that he had never done before, leading to him questioning Mithril's mission on principles more than anything else. This led to the ending of the series, where the outcome would mean the fate of the world.
The episodes this time were 11) His Problem, 12) Burning Hong Kong, and 13) The Continuing Day By Day. In them, Sousuke abandoned his post as he tries to reconcile his duty to Mithril and his duty to protect the one he loves; the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the many in this case. The enemy wisely plays up the angle that they were just as dedicated as he was and his own past was far from innocent as a youthful killer who was no stranger to the horrors of combat. Given the choice between one path and another, he finds himself at odds with everything he has come to hold dear, resulting in some surprises as he finally takes charge at the same time the enemy seems to hold all the cards in some really epic mech-robot fighting scenes that were only slightly better than some of the character exposition. That was the key to the quality of the show as the series was about more than just advanced machinery pounding out the rounds; it was about the people that pilot them but handled in an intense manner that worked for repeated viewings. If you've enjoyed the series to date, this last volume was clearly worthy of recognition as Highly Recommended as a result and hopefully the beginning of another chapter sometime in the near future.
Picture: Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid was presented in the original 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen color it was shot in by director Yasuhiro Takemoto. The colors were fine, the blending of CGI with more traditional styles of animation was better than ever, and the minimal problems of lines, compression artifacts and aliasing practically nonexistent. Kadokawa Video of Japan seems to have gone all out in trying to prove their worth compared to the bigger and more established anime houses of Japan and the consumers on both sides of the ocean are the main benefactors as a result. The use of lighting, textures, and other elements to enhance the look of the show might not have been a quantum leap forward from earlier releases but it was a major step forward and I think fans of the show that take the time to compare Full Metal Panic: Season 1 with this one will be pleasantly surprised (the Full Metal Panic: FUMOFFU series really didn't have that broad a range in most episodes to really push the technology like this one did but it was colorful and clean too).
Sound: The audio was presented with four different tracks, a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround version in the original Japanese and English language dub as well as a 2.0 Dolby Digital version in both languages, all with optional English language subtitles. First off, if you have a 5.1 home theatre you're going to find this to be one of the best releases of the year regardless of which language you prefer to listen to. I lean towards the original tracks but the talents of Chris Patton, Luci Christian, Hilary Haag, Monica Rial and others (notably, John Swasey as the villain called Gates; a subtle reference to Bill?) were not lost on me. I liked the use of the stock voices that ADV Films started the show with being continued and I praise FUNimation for using their rival to provide a continuity that would've otherwise been lost. If anything, they were better than ever as the dub voices and while the Japanese track was still excellently acted, the dub was very well handled too and they should be congratulated on their efforts). As far as the separation of the elements is concerned, the 5.1 tracks were superior in every way that I could determine with the rear channels used nearly as effectively as the front set up, however sparingly. The dynamic range was also solid with the special effects and music providing superior balance to an already great show.
Extras: Fans have demanded that anime companies start getting on the ball regarding offering decent extras and while I have long held that a few review websites have kissed butt too long (glossing over the relative lack of extras to stay on the good side of the companies), a few companies have tried to provide what we've been asking for. FUNimation is once again on the cutting edge in this sense by providing three full audio commentaries by the Japanese voice actors, an ongoing extra that really kicked ass. They all seemed to be having fun with the idea and came across as enthusiastically getting into their roles as they offered up anecdotes and kidded each other. There were two of the location scouting features this time, both in Hong Kong (parts 6 & 7 of the series) and while that wasn't as worthwhile as the commentaries, it still showed some care for what the consumers have demanded. The textless songs are always nice and the trailers to other shows help give you a look at what else is out there too, with the double sided DVD cover and slipcase making a nice means to show off the DVD. The OVA wasn't the best such offering in the recent past but I'd be misleading you to say it didn't add value for me. Further, the paper booklet was once again a superior extra that gave artwork, interviews, and some idea of the setting of the show to make for a nice package again.
Final Thoughts: Full Metal Panic!: The Second Raid V4 only had three episodes but the wealth of extras, the quality of the writing and animation, and the overall appeal of how things were handled all gave me the kind of dreamy eyed state that envisioned other companies to pick up the ball and try to provide this level of quality far more often. Anime often seems like the bastard step child when it comes to extras and how the genre is treated by folks not "in the know" so it is nice to have shining examples like this one to point to when discussing what is "right" with the state of the art in anime. It might not have the same budget as a bigger name anime movie but it doesn't rely on celebrity voice actors eating away at said budget either. I only hope Kadokawa Video in Japan decides to go forth with more shows like this, even picking up the series itself for a lengthier season, given what I've seen here (with a nod to FUNimation and ADV Films for bringing it over so complete as well).
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.