Full Metal Panic!
Visually this an extremely easy title to get hooked on. I was watching over someones shoulder and the nicely realized, detailed and represented mecha made me want to know more. Actually watching more made me realize this was only one element of the title.
The scene is a Japanese high school classroom where so many great anime have started before. And like all such anime the girls tend to be attractive and distinctively colored. One school girl, Kaname (with bright blue hair and a mature appearance) is the focus of our attention. She's also the focus of attention for a recent transfer student, one Sagara Sosuke, although given he's a weirdo she could do without that. It seems like he's some sort of military nut, always dreaming up exotic threats, which invariably seem to involve Kaname. It's a pretty lame attempt to get attention, although even through her annoyance Kaname is occasionally impressed by his intensity.
What the audience knows, and what she will shortly discovery, is that Sosuke (despite his age) actually is an experienced special forces soldier and an expert Arm Slave (mecha) pilot. He really does have all the skills, and more, that she thinks he's only imagining. Nor is it any accident that he's in her class and constantly on the lookout for threats. Indeed the only weakness Sosuke has is faking normality, he has lived by strict military discipline all his life thus for him civilian life, and being a normal youth, are mysteries frankly behind his comprehension. It just might be that while he can offer Kaname the protection of his skills he'll also learn something in the process.
This anime makes a lot more sense if you look at it from a high level view. It effectively combines two of the staples of anime, hot mecha action and school romance / comedy, despite the fact that neither of them seem to have anything in common in all. And indeed, despite this titles best efforts, the connections remain somewhat tenuous. Increasingly it means that episodes tend to focus on only one side, a light teenage comedy section followed by an episode full of bloody and violent combat. It was certainly an interesting experiment, but it isn't entirely successful and gives the show a bit of a dual personality.
The original story, and the one covered in the synopsis, had Sosuke acting undercover... despite his complete lack of ability to emulate being a normal student. This story came closest to combining the two facets, but strangely it comes to a conclusion relatively early in the series run. This removes some of the character elements, since Kaname now knows the truth and Sosuke has little reason to continue pretending to be a normal high school student, but the show has to continue on as best it can. I think part of the reason for this is because it was actually too hard to demonstrate the creator's talents for the mecha combat side of the show when it was restricted to a school environment. So in essence as the action grows in intensity it needs a much bigger stage in which to occur than a Japanese suburban high school can supply.
In the course of the original plot we also discover some important facts about the world in which the show takes place. It is not set in the future, but in a version of our current world where certain "black technology", with a pleasantly (or alternatively extremely convenient) mysterious origin, has dramatically changed the balance of power. The most obvious is the creation of mecha which are one of the premier weapons on the battlefields of the world. This hidden tech has also allowed certain relatively small groups to be able to exert a great deal of force through their technological superiority. This includes both terrorists and a well intentioned intervention force named mithril which is Sosuke's employer and the possessor of some very nice mecha for him to drive. This focus on high tech means the cast on the military side of the story can be relatively small, their premier mecha squad only has three members, which allows them to focus on a small number of well realized characters.
It must also be said that some of the mecha stuff is very well done. While the "cannon fodder" mecha look awful the main mecha tend to be cool and look to be pretty carefully designed. There's also all sorts of extra details, such as weapon types, battle tactics and technical gadgetry, to keep the mecha fetishist happy. And above that there is, at times, a believable sense of a military organization and a realistic sense of threat. A lot of the battlefield scenes generate an impressive dramatic tension and a lot of interest in how the situation is going to play out. And everything has time and resource limits (eg. fuel or ammo) to give it a sense of urgency. I was a bit disappointed when the "magical" energy fields came out, but they've been kept at a fairly restricted level so far. I also think it is this undeniable ability, and interest, in the military side of things that drags attention away from the other side of the show and lets it wither.
On the negative side the writers enthusiasm seems to flag when it comes to some of the supporting elements of the series. Characters tend to be fairly simplistic, create drama through over acting or aggressive confrontations and the dialog lacks much in the way of depth, subtlety or empathy. I can't tell if they're not very good at this sort of thing, or if they're just not interested. Certainly it seemed that "romantic comedy" was one of the shows goals but the writing is just far too weak to support that element. Indeed Kaname becomes overly loud, almost like a parody, while Sosuke is so disciplined and controlled he quickly vanishes into the background leaving a lot of the minor characters to actually dominate the show and carry the story. If nothing else it is a bit disappointing that it fails to live up to the promise of the opening story arc. Some of the "light" episodes are pretty weak, which is just another reason to look forward to when they get back to the mecha stuff.
As such this title probably comes close to being flawed, the careless character work and weak writing being a constant nagging irritation. However when it is good, especially if marginally believable mecha and militaristic detail appeal to you, then there's enough strength here to redeem it... It's just a shame it couldn't quite live up to what it promised early on.
I almost forgot to mention the shows attempts at comedy. Sosuke, despite being intelligent, disciplined and earnest, is depicted as chronically mis-reading normal human behavior. Thus he ends up doing some incredibly stupid things that not only blow his cover, thus screwing up his mission, but also make him look like a bit of a moron. It's not particularly funny either because he's such a straight man. This combines with the limp writing to produce some fairly dire scenes.
As mentioned in the opening text the animation can be fairly eye-catching at times, it really is effective and crisp production with some decent money behind it. Not quite enough money to animate all their fancy designs so motion reducing short cuts are evident, but it works well enough. It also does some nice work with atmospheric effects such as darkness, smoke and the depiction of stealth technology. The character art is also decent, but fairly unimaginative with a lot of familiar looking anime archetypes. Character expression tends to be loud, both vocally and visually. The voices are good but seem to lack direction, and sosuke is just so reserved he's almost boring. The music was pleasant but forgettable and I didn't notice a lot of ambient music, I'll pay more attention when the next disk comes in.
What do high school romance comedies and mecha battles have to do with each other? Not a lot, but clearly there's money to be had for anyone who can make it work. This show tries, with a young special forces soldier, and mecha pilot, assigned to guard a mostly normal (and of course quite attractive) young school girl. It's ultimately a lot more successful with the mecha material though, some average writing and character work drawing a lot of energy out of the drama. Nice production though, and worth a look.