A simple overview of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans would go something like:
Orga and Mikazuki are working for a company on Mars but they and their companions are essentially treated as though they are disposable. Kudelia wants to change life on Mars for the people but needs to get to Earth to make her plea. She hires Orga and co. to get her safely to earth. (There’s a whole bunch of other political stuff going on but you can watch the series to find out all the ins and outs).
So basic plot: Girl A wants to get to Earth and team of adolescent males with various machinery are going to beat up everything between Mars and Earth to get her there.
Let me make it clear before I review, while I have watched many shows featuring Gundams, I am not a fan of the franchise only really enjoying a handful of entries in the franchise, nor do I try to work out the relationships between series and events.
While I’ve previously expressed a general love/hate relationship with anything Gundam, Iron Blooded Orphans actually came as a pleasant surprise. I found it a really engaging watch and I actually would really recommend it to anyone.
Certainly it has some rough edges, and I’ll elaborate on those below, but it is a charming story with a group of characters that you can like, hate, laugh at, cry for, and generally believe they are real people. Sometimes they are clever, and sometimes they are sad, and sometimes they are just kids well out of their depth, but the whole time you can see them as being very human and that makes everything else in this show work.
While watching I had to ask myself the question, why did I like this when I usually have issues getting through any Gundam series? (Meaning, I normally love some elements of Gundam anime while other sections of the plot and characterisation just make me want to scream in frustration and whether I love or hate the series usually depends on how I’ve felt during the last few episodes.) I’ve mulled this over for awhile and finally come to a few conclusions.
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Firstly, Iron Blooded Orphans doesn’t character jump anywhere near as much as some Gundam stories. Yes there are different military, economic and political factions and we do see some characters from each of these, but the primary and fairly constant focus is on Tekkadan (the company Orga creates).
And, while the usual anti-war themes and conflicting ideas about the use of weapons and violence get thrown around, these seem more integrated into the plot and less in your face political statements throughout this series. Probably because at no point do these characters really get any other choice if the actually want to live and most of the members of Tekkadan aren’t really into musing about the why. They act because they have to. While there are one or two characters included who seem to only serve the purpose of raising the moral grey areas, they are in the minority which allows themes ideas to be expressed but not detract from the story.
Another reason I really enjoyed Iron Blooded Orphans is Orga’s character. Protagonists in Gundam seem to fall into the categories of extremist, cry-baby, or emotionless warrior and while Mikazuki is certainly the latter of these descriptions, Orga is quite an interesting individual. The play between the two is also quite interesting and allows us to see a whole and well developed persona (even if it is split between two characters). While some may question Orga’s overall strategy (because at times it is questionable as to whether there is a strategy), and he certainly at times fills the role of extremist, he feels to me like he grows up so much from when he initially seizes the company to the final episodes.
The fight sequences seemed really contained and focussed. Yes they were showcasing yet more robots and machines, but there weren’t three thousand side battles going on in every instance so you could see the conflict, deal with the events and then move the plot onward without tying the story up for whole episodes just showing off every single pilot’s special attack (and I know I am exaggerating the situation but sometimes it feels like battles are more in a story to show off the animation than to serve any particular plot purpose).
The story doesn’t feel needlessly rushed or drawn out at any point. Certainly there are parts where there could be more elaboration, and other parts (particularly the first period of mourning) are slow paced, but it feels right for what is happening and at no point did I just want everything to slow down so I could process events or speed up so that we could get on with things.
Other positives are the absence of bouncing Haru’s (I really find him irritating) and just the fact that I actually liked many of the main cast. Yes, they have flaws, but they aren’t trying to hard to make us see the monster lurking inside humanity that you end up despising each and every character. Lastly, the first theme song ‘Raise Your Flag‘ is brilliant. It totally fits the show and just works. The second opening, not so much, but that’s another story.
But, we do have to give this a fair review so let’s look at the issues with Iron Blooded Orphans.
Female character treatment would be a big one. Gundam has never been great at creating female characters. They are either tomboyish to the point that they may as well be males (except for their incessant need to fall in love), used entirely as a plot device, used to manipulate the males around them, are the relegated moral voice, or are a sex object. Very few actually get to be real characters. Kudelia and Futima are no exceptions in Iron Blooded Orphans (with one being the plot device and the other being used to show the moral conundrum faced by people). Atra get’s a little closer to true character status but the entire harem on board the other ship is kind of eye-roll worthy even if they try to make it sound like they all chose to be there. And just allowing girls to fly the giant robots is not allowing them to actually be characters. Seriously, they’d be better off not including females than including some of these characters. And just so we are clear, I am not anti-harem shows but when there are so few female characters to have the majority of them involved in the harem is a little disappointing.
But speaking of character development, Mikazuki does not develop as a character. He is interesting and he is a great pilot but he moves exactly no where in terms of character development from episode 1 to 25. His relationship with Orga stays the same as does his motivation throughout. He never questions what he does or why and simply asks Orga to direct him toward his next target. While this is what Orga needs at times, it does little to help his own character growth.
Then, there is little suspense in battles. You know who is going to win these fights from fairly early on. Other Gundam series actually allow the protagonists to get beaten (and beaten badly) early on and during large scale battles. Iron Blooded Orphans seemed to shy away from really inflicting pain upon their cast. Possibly because of their age, but it isn’t as though child/teen soldiers is a new concept to the franchise. But, then again, season two kind of tipped the scales in totally the other direction. But that also leads us onto the next issue with how character deaths are foreshadowed.
Seriously, the characters who will die in battles may as well wear that sign plastered to their foreheads as cliché last lines and promises are made directly before the fight. You just know they are going to their death so it robs the moment of any real emotional drama that you may have experienced. And all of the deaths seem to simply serve as plot points, like part of the road map to the final destination. Occasionally could a character be killed without warning and let us just deal with the senselessness of that death?
Finally, I have not touched on the villains of the piece at all or any of the schemes and counter schemes going on in the background because there is really no way to explain any of that without some major spoilers so I’ll just leave that to you guys. I did however, really respect the ‘mastermind’ by the end of the series if for no other reason than at least he plans ahead – and again, season two really undermines this impression so clearly the writers weren’t planning ahead.
Despite this, I’m sticking by my recommendation for Iron Blooded Orphans. It’s not too dark and heavy and it isn’t high school students bouncing around and joining clubs. It does deal with human drama but also offers some great action sequences.
However, if anyone who has watched it can figure out what either of those girls (and you know who I mean) sees in Mikazuki as a potential boyfriend, please let me know. I found him interesting as a character but other than the fact that he was handy with a gun there seemed little else to recommend him in that department.
Images from: Iron Blooded Orphans. Dir. T Nagai. Sunrise. 2015.
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