Review: Full Metal Panic! – Fighting Boy Meets Girl (Vol 1)

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Chidori Kaname is a normal 2nd-year Japanese high school girl. With both good looks and a fiery personality, she’s the school’s “most popular girl you wouldn’t want to be your girlfriend”. Her normal life is shaken with the unexpected arrival of the odd transfer student Sagara Sousuke who seems to be incessantly following her around, despite her warning him to leave her alone. He seems aloof and awkward about things most normal teens have no problems with, and he’s become infamous in class as an unabashed military otaku. Little does Kaname realize, the teenage boy is actually an elite soldier, an arm slave operator, from the secret military organization Mithril—placed undercover at the school to protect her!

Full Metal Panic! almost needs no introduction. This school comedy-cum-military action-cum-love story was written by Shouji Gatou in 1998 with illustrations by Shikidouji. It’s a series that has been much-loved by fans for a long time—thanks to the still-popular anime series. So much so, it was actually one of the earliest light novel releases in the West: Tokyopop released the first five volumes of the series back in 2007 until 2011 when they left the English market. Even now the series has had a recent revival thanks to the new Invisible Victory season of the anime (13 years since the last!) and J-Novel Club’s rescue of the light novels. These J-Novel books include a new translation by Elizabeth Ellis and digital releases, with hardcover 3-in-1 books scheduled for print in the future. This review is of J-Novel Club’s digital release of volume 1.

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The world is not quite our own, where the development of humanoid mechanized suits developed for military use in the 1980s under Reagan. Since then, these Armored Soldiers—Arm Slaves—have become commonplace for those locked in conflict, including 17-year-old Sagara Sousuke. After rescuing a teenaged girl from a secret KGB lab after being kidnapped from her life, the hardened soldier awaits his next assignment. It is, it turns out, an undercover one: preventing another girl from being kidnapped. Chidori Kaname is his charge, and he enters her class despite not having any experience dealing with normal teen life. He’s not privy as to why she’s the target of kidnapping, but he accepts the mission without question; supported by his teammates Seargents Kurz Weber and Melissa Mao, the three start their secret surveillance in Japan.

Sousuke’s mission stumbles pretty immediately. First, he causes a commotion during bag check, and his concealed weapons are confiscated under the incorrect assumptions that they are replicas. Next is his awkward and terrible class introduction, which labels him as an utter weirdo gun-nut. Needless to say, his first impression is a negative one. Kaname, as the class representative, takes particular notice, and she can’t seem to shake the feeling that he’s watching her. Of course, he is, but his stumbling over how unnatural he’s acting means he’s far from hiding his intentions. For all his years of military training, Sousuke is totally unprepared for a normal life. Thanks to that he’s labeled a peeping tom, a panty thief, and a stalker. Despite all this though, Kaname can’t seem to fully dismiss him, and she feels a mixed emotion of annoyance and intrigue.

The mission is ended early thanks to the destruction of the KGB lab by Mithril, but Sousuke takes a break with the class trip under the encouragement of his commanding officer Major Kalinin. All is not peaceful though, as a hired killer is on Kaname’s trail, and he hijacks the plane under violent coercion. Rerouting to North Korea, the 400-odd passengers of the plane are all hostages, and Chidori Kaname is dragged away to be tested on. She’s a ‘Whispered’, someone with hidden knowledge of the incredible technology responsible for lambda drivers and the arm slaves—which is why she (and others) are in so much danger.

The resulting fighting, rescue, and escape is both action-packed and highlights the difference between Sousuke’s awkward high school version of himself, and the elite soldier he’s grown up as.

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As a first book, Fighting Boy Meets Girl introduces the setting and character dynamics of this series well. Chidori Kaname is a headstrong, smart, quick-thinking female lead that’s hard to dislike, even if her situational reasoning seems a little convenient at times. It’s easy to label her a tsundere just from certain events, but I’d argue that her anger is never misplaced or unreasonable—perhaps that’s why she’s stayed such a beloved character for so long. Her counterpart, the idiot-savant Sagara Sousuke, is also hard to dislike. His straightforward nature forgives a lot of his misdoings, and as an audience, we know he doesn’t have any perverted ulterior motives to barging into the girls change room or climbing onto Kaname’s balcony. It’s immensely refreshing amongst the sea of male light novel protagonists who seem to have little else than sex on the brain, whose only purpose is for audience self-insert.

The supporting cast is fairly entertaining too. Kurz is an unabashed perv and Mao is the brains of the operation; the two trading barbs on the regular. We have Kaname’s friend Kyoko, who calls her out on her hypocrisy whenever she can, and Shinji, Sousuke’s only friend in class and an actual military otaku. There’s also Tessa, the young captain of the Tuatha de Denaan submarine, and Major Kalinin, who has a history with Sousuke that spans to before their time in Mithril—when Sousuke was known Kassim and the two encountered the terrorist Gauron.

As far as plot goes, I’m not sure if the plane-hijacking terrorists would be so easily written about in current-day—the book was published in Japanese pre-9/11, after all—but it does mean the stakes feel believably tense. (There would also probably not be such a blase initial reaction to being hostages from the school kids if written nowadays either though—but perhaps that’s just my Western perspective.) It also manages to fit enough of its worldbuilding without feeling clunky. Considering how much of the book is dedicated to mecha fights and military talk, it’s surprisingly easy to read, and the pacing is helped thanks to the constant scene changes. It feels like you’re consuming small chunks of information, rather than long chapters. Despite being over 20 years old now, it doesn’t feel dated to read—maybe helped by the close-but-not-quite iteration of our world.

Considering the celebration for the license rescue of this series by J-Novel Club, there is obviously still passionate fans wanting to read the original work. The digital-first release (both their membership simulpub and Kindle release), followed by the omnibus print releases, gives options to those who want to read for the first time and for owners of the previous Tokyo Pop books. I have no experience with the previous release of this book so I cannot compare translations, but J-Novel’s is comparable to modern expectations and standards. Aside from a missed word in one instance, and the odd use of attaching the -san honorific to Kurz and Mao by Tessa, I didn’t notice anything majorly out of place or wrong. Full Metal Panic! returns triumphantly, and this time it’s here to stay!

Gee’s Rating: Highly recommended, especially for pre-existing fans.

You can purchase the ebook online via sites like Amazon. This is an affiliate link, so a small percentage of sales goes toward this site.

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