Black Technology has allowed for the existence in modern day of what once seemed like sci fi elements, most notably mecha, super-submarines, and devices like the Lambda Driver, which can convert a mecha pilot’s thoughts and impulses into reality. The Whispered are special individuals who have an innate comprehension of Black Technology, which makes them highly sought-after by certain interests intent on exploiting their abilities. Sixteen year-old Jindai High School class rep Kaname Chidori, unbeknownst to herself, is one such individual, so the secretive, champions of justice-leaning mercenary organization Mithril sends a team to covertly guard her, including one undercover agent: Arm Slave (read: mecha) specialist Sousuke Sagara, a teenage soldier who knows everything military-related but almost nothing else. Ill-suited to civilian life, Sousuke bumbles his way through school in obsessive military nut fashion, irritating Kaname in the process, but during an attempt by villains to use a hijacked school trip as a cover for kidnapping Kaname, his true merits shine through, as do hints of Kaname’s ability and a possible mutual attraction. Over the course of several later adventures their stormy relationship develops. While Kaname eventually finds out that she has a potential romantic rival in Teletha “Tessa” Testarossa, the wunderkind teenage captain of the super-sub on which Sousuke’s team is based, Sousuke continues to be plagued by the seemingly immortal Gauron, an especially skilled and amoral mercenary who has been a hated enemy of Sousuke’s since childhood.
While it would be a stretch to regard the original FMP as a classic, iconic, and/or landmark mecha series, it is without question one of the most prominent and popular mecha series of the early 2000s. As one of the rare mecha titles which successfully crosses genre lines, it succeeds almost as well as a school-based romantic comedy as it does as a more serious, mecha-based action-adventure tale, though the dichotomy between its two principle genres typically forces it to alternate between modes rather than smoothly blend them; that is, in fact, arguably the series’ biggest flaw, although it is likely more directly the product of the series being based on multiple entries in a popular lite novel series. Even so, the series has enough other merits to warrant a strong recommendation.
At the core of the series are its central couple and the situation which brings them together. Sousuke is a classic fish-out-of-water character, a young man so narrowly-focused on his duties that he is utterly unable to integrate smoothly into a non-military setting like a typical high school. This opens up a wealth of humor possibilities, such as Sousuke’s notion on what a condom is best used for (and it’s not what you’d think), his regular overreactions to perceived threats, his image of an ideal security gate for an upcoming school festival, or his inappropriate use of military equipment in a school setting. Kaname, meanwhile, is a mold-defining tsundere overachiever, a bold, brassy, physical character who displays a natural range of emotion and can comfortably show her vulnerable side without ever actually seeming helpless or sacrificing her independent spirit; this is a girl who could probably muddle through most of her trouble spots even without Sousuke to rescue her. Her attitude can get a little abrasive at times, but it also allows her to deal with Sousuke in entertaining fashion while also developing signs of a potential romantic interest. The notion that Sousuke is trying (almost literally) to be her Knight in Shining Armor despite how much he frustrates her is a constant source of amusement. Surrounding them is a complementary cast which includes the cheery playboy Kurz Weber, the earthy Melissa Mao, and brilliant but clumsy Tessa. Opposing them is Gauron, who makes a great villain but comes back from seeming death (at least) one too many times.
The mecha side of things also carries its own hefty entertainment value. The existence of the Lambda Driver gives the battles some super-powered juice, but thankfully the series never fully relies on that, instead opting to include many opportunities for more mundane action. That also keeps the series from straying too much into the “undefeatable super-mecha” zone, although it does flirt with this problem from time to time. The mecha side also tends to be much weightier, especially the rather dark, mid-run Helmajistan arc.
The series never forgets its obligation to insert occasional doses of fan service, either. Though the fan service is hardly pervasive or even frequent, it does give all of the most prominent female characters at least some opportunity to flash some skin and includes a few very random-seeming panty shots scattered over the course of 24 episodes. Astute fans may also catch a few pop culture references, including ones to Slayers, assorted Gundam titles, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkein and Douglas Adams.
Gonzo’s effort on FMP’s artistry was near top-of-the-line for its time and still stands up well even against glitzy recent titles, although the CG modeling used to animate the Tuatha de Danaan and an American submarine may look just a little dated by recent standards. Kaname is a particularly distinctive balance of beauty and brassiness, with a highly-expressive face and larger-than-normal mouth for a character like hers, while Tessa cuts a more sleek and sophisticated, but still youthful, look and Melissa Mao looks sexy without sacrificing her convincing aura as a soldier. Sousuke has been accused of strongly resembling Gundam Wing’s Heero Yuy but still stands out amongst his male cast mates, all of whom have more original appearances. The series lacks little for background designs and color schemes, either; the dusty desert tones of Helmajistan stand as a sharp contrast to other settings. Minor quality control issues in character and mecha rendering do pop up from time to time if one watches for them carefully, although these flaws are far less egregious than those that would be seen in, say, a typical BONES series. The animation is at its finest in the depiction of Lambda Driver-on-Lambda Driver battles, but compensates for that with shortcuts elsewhere – although admittedly some of those are done for comic effect.
The soundtrack is normally quite effective, with a good mix of comedy, action, and dramatic pieces that includes some vaguely military themes which sound like they may have been inspired by the ’80s American TV series The A-Team. Occasionally a stinker works its way in, though, especially in the early episodes. Singer Mikumi Shimokawa contributes both the opening and closing themes, which are used throughout even though their matching visuals update in the late teens (for the worse in the case of the opener, as a toss-up in the case of the closer). Opener “Tomorrow” suits the series very well and would probably fare well in any voting for the best openers of the early 2000s, while more gentle and mellow closer “Karenai Hana” is no slouch, either.
Funimation has retained ADV’s original English dub for this release. While the dub may be fairly accused by nitpickers of showing a little weakness in its minor supporting roles, it is also particularly strong in its major roles. Chris Patton once said in a ‘con panel discussion that Sousuke was a difficult role for him, but the very distinctive cadence he uses for Sousuke helps give his role an easily distinguishable character and reinforces how out of step with the teenage norm his character is. Lucy Christian also does a great job with Kaname’s many moods, while the since-departed Mike Kleinhenz turned in the best work of his career as Commander Kalinin. Mike McRae also turned in a (to date) career-best effort giving Gauron a wicked menace; that may, in fact, be the best performance in either dub. Major supporting performances include Spike Spencer in an especially good fit as the sometimes-whiny, sometimes-psychotic Behemoth pilot featured in the second story arc. The English script doesn’t change enough to generate many complaints.
The enduring popularity of the franchise made FMP a natural choice for acquisition and Blu-Ray release by Funimation, but this version is probably not worth an upgrade for any other than videophiles if you already have an earlier release. That the series was first broadcast in early 2002 means that it was not made with film or high def in mind, so the Blu-Ray picture still comes in a 4:3 aspect ratio and the ability to improve the picture quality is limited; the colors in this upscale are definitely brighter in the Blu-Ray version compared to the DVD version, but that’s about it. The sound does get a bit of an upgrade but Funimation has also done a better job on other Blu-Ray releases. The third of three disks includes clean opener and closer, TV promos, an interview with the director and original creator, and the full collection of a dozen original Japanese piracy warning clips voiced by various characters from the series, but these were all scattered across the original ADV DVD releases. Absent are the in-character English language piracy warnings and mini-posters with all manner of character and equipment sketches and profiles on their backs, both of which were available with the original singles.
Ultimately FMP is a series that should not be contemplated too deeply, as all sorts of plot holes and logistical improbabilities appear if one delves even slightly beyond the surface and it is woefully short on fleshing out the bigger picture. Fortunately, it is well-suited to being enjoyed on a purely visceral level. Its ability to alternate between high school hijinks, flashy mecha and sub action, more personal battles, and occasional spots of fan service, as well as its entertaining central couple, gives the series a broad appeal and high rewatch value, and its technical merits stand up better than most other TV series of its era. Whether or not the Blu-Ray version is the one to own is debatable, but its worthiness to be owned is not.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Highly entertaining, good rewatch value, nice blend of genres.
− Not always smooth in transitioning between comedy and serious aspects