Story Pile: Fullmetal Panic

I promise I’m not just an immense mark for millenial-focused high school alt history, it’s just come up twice.

Fullmetal Panic is kind of a greatest hits of 1998 to 2004 ‘anime’s subject material. It’s a highschool drama, it’s a gifted child narrative, it’s a mascot-based comedy, it’s a Highly Marketable And Merchandisable mecha and military kind of story that includes most of your greatest hits, including in a fairly economic way, the three flavours of Waifu; Big Sister, Little Sister, And Miscellaneous.

It tells the story of Kaname Chidori, an ordinary high school girl who has the Techno Renaissance in her head (but she doesn’t know that), and her new classmate, Sousuke Sagara, an ordinary highschool boy who’s a former child soldier transferred to the school to serve as Kaname’s long-term bodyguard because there’s multiple non-state actors (and state actors) that would use her head full of super-science ding-dongery to take over the world, deployed by the NGO Mithril, who are technically mercenaries, but the kind of mercenaries who seem to largely be paid in justice and are often scrabbling for money.

The mecha are detailed, the helicopters are realistic, the gun nerdery is (I’m told) extremely in depth and all of these components are brought together to tell a story that kind of runs in three basic lanes:

  • Super-science conspiracy stuff
  • Mecha battles with ‘small scale’ tank-comparable mech
  • High school comedy nonsense

Spoilers for the anime and light novels to follow.

One of the major conceits of the world is the idea of the Whispered, a number of individual humans born on the same day with utterly unreasonable scientific or cultural ability just brewin’ away in their heads, which is then immediately sought out in an attempt to weaponise, and that’s why this setting has mecha and a super-submarine alongside Hinds and XM8s, which I understand are… a gun.

You might go ‘hang on a second, the Whispered, if they were all born at the same time, and one of them is a high schooler, how’d that change history far enough back that we get Heavy Gear style Gundams running around,’ and the answer is I never told you Chidori was a Whispered, who sent you.

The actual answer is wonderful bullshit: One of the Whispered is so smart and has so immense a grasp on deep science concepts, when they come of age, they wind up theorising science so well it ripples backwards through time and changes the course of scientific development, which, in turn, also leads to the creation of the Whispered.

Ahem.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to know about that for the anime. It doesn’t come up. In fact, it won’t come up, and the closest you’re going to get, watching the first two seasons of Fullmetal Panic, a Studio Gonzo anime, is that The Whispered are important, and people are doing some shady shit to try and get their hands on them. They’re equal parts weapons of mass destruction and key political players, and coincidentally, they’re all stupid teenagers and hidden in the populace so people need to do weird-hinkey stuff to try and prove the person they’re tracking is a Whispered. It’s like being a Chosen One but you didn’t even get any cool superpowers out of it yet.

The world of Fullmetal Panic, a Kyoto Animation series, is one which is targeted very keenly on the feelings of someone who was probably a teenager in 1998. It’s a world where the default texture of your day to day is high school, where you can worry about crushes or hobbies or sports performance and you know you need to do the test, and where ‘blending in’ becomes an actual important part of the story. It’s kind of endearingly neurodivergent as a narrative: It’s not that I’m a gawky weirdo, it’s that I have a secret mission, which would be pretty chuuni if not for the fact that Sousuke is actually on a secret mission and his ‘special powers’ is has gun.

What that means is that Fullmetal Panic, a Xebec anime, is a series that speaks very closely to a window of time. It’s a period of the very-connected early 00s Japanese teenager, where flip-phones and emoji were important, y’know, before Apple came in and made them mainstream. It’s about a period where you bought CDs and magazines for your hobbies, you didn’t just read everything on the web. It’s about being really connected to your friends outside of school thanks to text chains, but also about being not that connected to the world beyond it.

And also, there is a sequence in the first episode where a mecha beats up a Hind helicopter to rescue someone who’s heavily traumatised, and one of our two main characters is a former child soldier. Chunks of the world have been blown up by actual nukes, and they’re parts of the world that aren’t Japan. What you get out of it then is something that says yes, your concerns as a high schooler are the most important thing, and if you go on a sick mecha mission you need to be back in time for class.

Now you might be considering how I gave Violet Evergarden an immense bollocking over its treatment of a child soldier, and how now I’m about to say that, in fact, Fullmetal Panic is dreadful because it has this teenaged boy (two, in fact) who is an accomplished soldier. I know I spent some time unpicking the cross-stich of Violet Evergarden, where it was, I felt, a major theme of the story.

But I guess there is one defensible element here… or rather there are two. First, one of the points of this series is that teenagers were born with special magic brains that made them capable of immensely powerful scientific progress, and two, Sosuke being sixteen years old is a byproduct of him being a child soldier and that experience has immensely messed him up.

It’s played for jokes, but Sosuke is just completely unable to form meaningful relationships with most people. There’s someone who actively predates on him who he doesn’t really realise how to respond to until it’s literally a matter of life or death; he thinks that he can treat Chidori as a mission in a way that completely neglects her humanity, and he’s wrong and he’s shown to be wrong.

The other thing is that Sousuke (and Kurz) who are both former child soldiers are there to tell a story about being teenagers thrust into these situations. Violet Evergarden is a thirty year old woman who someone put a label on that said ‘she’s fourteen,’ and it’s reinforced in the themes of the narrative that underaged girls are precocious and know what they want from older men, which is, as I said at the time, some bullshit. But in Fullmetal Panic it’s actually more of a thing that Sousuke would really rather everyone not approach or perceive him except at a very modest and safe pace he’s comfortable with.

What I hang on to though, what has absolutely never left me is this opening. I heard the opening for this anime in something like 2002, and it has never left my musical rotation since. I used to be able to sing this theme. I used to be able to, to my own satisfaction, understand the Japanese of this song.

The song is called Tomorrow, and it’s by Shimokawa Mikuni. It’s been so much a part of me, and so long that I honestly don’t remember if I just fell in love with the song and then learned its meaning, or if I learned the meaning and that redoubled my interest in it. I don’t know if the translation I have is ‘right’ or ‘good enough.’ What I have is poetry that lays atop the words she sings that means something to me and I hope it’s what she’s trying to say.

First, there’s that soaring chorus:

Japanese LyricsEnglish Translation
kono sekai ni umareta sono imi wo
kimi to mitsuke ni yukou
itami sae mo kakaenagara
atarashii keshiki
mukae ni yukou
I’ll go search with you
For the meaning of my birth in this world
Even while wounded,
Let’s go to meet
The new scenery

The song speaks of what it’s like to find someone and try to find meaning in a world, even knowing you’re damaged. It may just be about heartbreak or school sadness, but it’s here contrasted with a child soldier trying to find a way to communicate to someone that he likes them and he wants to have friends and love, which sure as hell made it mean more to me, as part of a life learning to grapple with outbursts and a traumatising, violent childhood.

Japanese LyricsEnglish Translation
jibun no subete wo yuruseru kurai ni
yasashiku naritai
kimi no tame ni
For your sake,
I want to become so kind
That almost everything else about me could be forgiven

This is extraordinarily specific. And I think at times this nuance in English is probably accidental, it’s probably just a useful general phrase that doesn’t work easily in English. The speaker wants forgiveness, and accepts that not all of it can be forgiven. That the solution to their problems, to the ways they are guilty, is to be kind. And they are trying to become a better person for the sake of someone who makes them want to walk and get lost in the rain.

This anime opening is probably just a lovely cheesy pop song about your second high school relationship.

It works amazingly well as the song that opens an anime about a damaged child soldier trying to play as the main character in a fun comedy.

It screams in my bones.

It is an anchor I hold to, when I teeter at despair.

If nothing else, I can try to be kind.

And yes, sure, I am the kind of person who imagines his own Anime Openings as he walked around in his late teens and early twenties, or the moments that would ‘make up’ an opening style clip song. Don’t worry, I never tried to actually do anything with it, or dare to express myself with things like ‘music’ or ‘video clips,’ haha, because that would be cringe. It’s much better to be the age I am now with all this represssed embarrassment and inability to sing or dance without fear.

Fullmetal Panic is four shows across five seasons and three formats and six producers. It is a glorious mess held together mostly by how unchallenging the pieces are; if you get the basic comedy of Sousuke or the fundamental archetype of Kaname, you’ll probably be able to write a reasonably comfortable version of any of them. It definitely has some Anime Bullshit, such as a pair of needlessly sexy sleep-together twin assassins, and their evil scientist overlord. It has an entire sub-series spinoff about an evil machiavellian student council member. Kaname gets put into Viewing Tubes a lot. Tessa gets friendzoned! I’m just shouting words at this point.

Fullmetal Panic is an anime that gave me words to describe something I didn’t know was in me, at a time when I didn’t realise I was wounded. I enjoy its sense of humour, I like its stylish combat, and I think everyone is best girl, even Kurz. It’s a series I like.

Shame it has like, thirty seconds before you see Kaname’s underwear though, that’s a bit unnecessary.

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