By Sean Aitchison
Full Metal Panic! is about Sousuke Sagara, a teenage mech pilot of Mithril who is assigned to go undercover as a Japanese high school student in order to protect Kaname Chidori, a teenage girl who can’t stand him. But that’s not what Full Metal Panic! is about about.
This is to say that what feels like the true focus of the series is the relationship between Kaname and Sousuke—a blossoming, slow-burn romance that overarches the entire story. It’s absolutely integral to the main concepts of Full Metal Panic!, humanity and the power of love.
Just an ordinary high schooler
In attempting to fit in with ordinary high school life, we learn that Sousuke is anything but normal. His soldier and survival instincts cause him to misinterpret nearly every social interaction as a threat to Kaname and/or himself.
This serves as the main source of comedy and conflict in their relationship—every minor askew detail is taken as a terrorist attack or a bomb threat, which he responds to accordingly. Kaname combats and “corrects” this behavior by yelling at Sousuke, sometimes physically assaulting him (anything from hitting him with a giant paper fan to annihilating him with pro-wrestling moves).
This back-and-forth continues even when Kaname learns that Sousuke really is there to protect her, over time softening and taking a liking to him. This eventually develops into romantic feelings for him, and the love and kindness she shows (in between paper fan beatings) opens up a world of emotions for Sousuke.
Though the experiences he has as a normal high schooler are under false pretenses, the valuable sense of normalcy he had during his mission gave him room to explore the parts of himself he had shut down to deal with the horrors he’d seen. In this, the mission itself is a big part of Sousuke rediscovering his humanity. But what really put him in touch with his emotions and gave him the drive to want to reclaim them was Kaname.
Give and take
The first series in Full Metal Panic! shows the beginning of Sousuke’s discovery, as he experiences a civilian life he’d never had before. This initial season is fraught with trouble, and Sousuke is pulled back and forth between peace and conflict—every time he starts to settle a bit into civilian life, he is literally and figuratively ripped back into war.
One particular instance is during the three-part story arc in which Sousuke is assigned to a mission and comes back as its only survivor. Only just beginning to understand a peaceful life, he’s now confronted with the opposite. But at the end of it all, he finds Kaname waiting for him at his Tokyo apartment, asleep because she’d been waiting for so long. Even if he didn’t realize it, Sousuke saw what compassion and love truly were in this moment.
It takes a long time for Sousuke to understand what the feelings he develops for Kaname are, and in The Second Raid, it starts to click. In Episode Five, Mao asks Sousuke what his plans for the future are, and he is unsure, because having desires and a concept of life outside of missions is a wildly new concept to him. In the following episode, Sousuke has trouble letting someone cut his hair, unable to trust anyone with sharp objects around him, so Kaname offers to do it, and he realizes he trusts her enough.
In understanding this trust, Sousuke doesn’t exactly know what he wants in the future, but he does know he wants Kaname to be a part of it. And then it’s all torn away.
As soon as Sousuke gets home, he receives orders that he’s to report back to Mithril to be a full-time member of the Special Response Team, and is forbidden from further contact with Kaname. After reading the orders, Sousuke punches the screen, cracking it and smashing the whole computer into the table, the episode ending with him sweating and breathing heavily with an anger he doesn’t fully understand—the biggest emotional expression that Sousuke has had to this point.
When Sousuke returns to duty, he walks around in a fugue state: he’s inattentive, unfocused and unsure of what to make of everything, eventually abandoning his comrades in the middle of a mission.
Sousuke goes on to wander the streets and through a final, fatal meeting with his lifelong rival, Gauron, is led to believe that Kaname is dead. Sousuke sinks deeper, still not fully sure why he is affected so by all of these sudden changes and losses, still drowning in these emotions.
And then Kaname comes back into his life.
After having gone through her own trials to get back to Sousuke, the two reunite. It doesn’t end up being a moment of professed love for either of them, though. Instead, Kaname beats him up, yells at him and says it’s OK that he’s burnt out, a very Kaname way of reminding Sousuke that he’s human.
Add to this a quiet moment where Sousuke sees Kaname in a wash of sunrise twilight, and Sousuke finally realizes it: He is human, and Kaname helped get him there.
One day at a time
This beautiful moment culminates later on when Sousuke demands a change in his Mithril contract that would allow him to maintain his civilian life while still being available for missions where his piloting is necessary. The proposal is met with some opposition, to which Sousuke makes a bold statement that marks the re-emergence of his once-thought-lost humanity.
“I don’t remember agreeing to sell my soul to Mithril. I have to continue to do things my own way.”
With this, Sousuke states loud and clear he understands he has a soul and has discovered how to live his life. This isn’t the same Sousuke we met on Day One; this is a man who knows how to state what he wants—something his father figure Andrey Kalinin makes note of.
His civilian life and Kaname gave him the ability to express his desire to continue living life to the fullest. They gave him his humanity back.
And while this overall theme continues to play a small part in Invisible Victory, the latest entry in the series, it’s mainly a focus in the first anime and The Second Raid—and in the cute, intimate character moments of the comedy-oriented Fumoffu anime.
Through intimate moments, compassion, trust and kindness, Full Metal Panic! paints a beautiful picture of its thesis statement: that humanity—and all the beauty, comfort and happiness that come with it—is formed from love.