FEATURE: Mobile Suit Gundam IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS (Season 1)
|Mobile Suit Gundam
The Gundam franchise has already endured more than 35 years of longevity but that doesn’t stop it from churning out more stories (and model kits) that are, in one way or another, a derivative of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. However, the audience can only take so much variations of the ‘Earth vs. Colonies’ setting and they’ll eventually get tired of it. Add to that the fast-changing trends in Japanese animation that production studios must catch up to remain relevant. This led to the recent Gundam series going out of the established mold and told a broader scope of stories while maintaining the key elements that constitute a Gundam series. Written by Mari Okada directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai the same tandem who worked previously on titles such as Anohana and Toradora!, Mobile Suit Gundam IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS promised to tell a fresh and different story with elements found in most modern animated series.
PLOT & PREMISE
IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is set in the year Post Disaster (P.D.) 323, more than 300 years after a great conflict known as the "Calamity War" that has caused widespread destruction to both the Earth and outer spheres. One of these outer spheres is the Mars Sphere where Chryse Guard Security (CGS), a private military company, operates and takes jobs from various clients. CGS employs a diverse roster of workers ranging from adults to children, or ‘orphans’. Overseeing activities in these various spheres of influence is Gjallarhorn, a peacekeeping military faction that has its roots tracing back to the Calamity War. What appears to be unrelated threads will soon intertwine when CGS accepts a mission to escort Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a figurehead for Martian independence, to Earth. Caught in all of this is Orga Itsuka and Mikazuki Augus, the latter being eventual pilot of Gundam Barbatos, whom at first accept the job out of necessity but will soon realize the bigger picture as they go along with this mission.
Right off the bat, a differentiator that IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS has over previous Gundam productions is that there’s no ongoing war when the story kicks in: it’s been 300 years after the fact. The audience is then introduced to the orphans of CGS, which will eventually become "Tekkadan". While the named protagonists are Mikasuki and Orga, the series is presented in a way that allows the audience to be immersed with the various personalities within the aforementioned group, whether it may be a major or minor character, similar to the approach that Attack on Titan had with its Survey Corps which worked very well. This setup allows for a very character-driven story that many considered to be the highlight for this series. There haven’t been that many similarly written Gundam series so it is interesting how IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS approached such a premise.
MECHANICS & ANIMATION
IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is a great example of how to perfectly tie-in merchandise gimmicks to the story without compromising one or the other. Backstory suggests that there were 72 Gundam frames made during the Calamity War, each named after a demon in Ars Goetia, though only 26 are functioning as of the series proper. For example, Gundam Barbatos is the 8th demon in Ars Goetia and as such, has the model number ASW-G-08. Likewise, Gundam Kimaris is given the model number ASW-G-66 as Kimaris is the 66th demon. Only those with Gundam frames are considered Gundams however they look, case in point being the Gundam Gusion. It doesn’t have the Gundam visual keys when compared to the Turn-A Gundam yet the latter received more flak. This allowed for more freedom on the mechanical designers’ part when they created these mobile suit designs. This freedom also carried to the other mobile suits like the Graze. Much of the model kits in the HG IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS line are either Gundams or a variation of the Graze with few exceptions. Another story point carried over excellently to the model kit line is the parts exchange between mobile suits which actually happen in the show. The gimmick is presented in a practical way that totally made sense within the fiction.
Admittedly, the animation for IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS isn’t a visual spectacle when compared to GUNDAM Reconguista in G but for a valid reason. In a first for a Gundam series, any form of beam weaponry is non-existent. Those who are tired of seeing Freedom Gundam-esque beam spamming will be quite delighted with the kind of mobile suit battles this series has. Furthermore, long-range weaponry are limited to mass-produced mobile suits with each Gundam wielding a unique melee weapon to represent its fighting style. And while there hasn’t been any large scale fleet-wide battles (at least for this season), the smaller fight sequences are more engaging thanks to the priority given to melee combat. With a few quality dips here and there, character animation is also decent. It might have helped that the episodes with battles are spaced apart and the animation budget was well distributed between episodes. Overall, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is your standard-looking series with great close combat sequences.
As mentioned earlier, the series has an atmosphere similar to Attack on Titan because IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS was set up to be a very character-driven series. However, it’s still a Gundam series at its core so, the production team has the task of telling this story as a fusion of the aforementioned story elements. Did it work? Absolutely. But it’s not perfect and it definitely has issues though not to the point that it detracts the overall experience.
Let’s first take the primary protagonist Mikazuki Augus. To be blunt, he’s probably one of the weaker characters in IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS. He’s not unlikable like Shinn Asuka from Mobile Suit Gundam SEED DESTINY, nor the embodiment of perfection like Kira Yamato from the same series. He’s very nonchalant but always gets the job done and has a strong affinity towards his comrades, sometimes manifested in bursts of ‘silent rage’ whenever their lives are at stake. His character’s weakness come from the fact that he doesn’t have the greatest motivations. He just follows Orga and always asks the question "What should we do next?". In contrast, Orga Itsuka is definitely one of the stronger characters. He’s a young leader who took the responsibility of fulfilling their mission and inevitably, has the lives of the whole team in his hands. This often leads to himself questioning his actions at crucial times, but surprisingly draws strength from Mikazuki and his endless wondering of what to do next. Their characters create a dichotomy when looked at individually, but as one, they become one of the more solid foundations of Tekkadan and IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS as a series.
The key element in this story, at least for the this season, is Kudelia Aina Bernstein. She has been compared to similar characters like Marina Ismail or Relena Peacecraft, all of which were promoting some ideal in one way or another. However, what makes Kudelia different is that she doesn’t remain as a beacon of an idea and doesn’t do anything about it. In fact, she instigates the whole chain of events that led to the formation of Tekkadan and everything that follows which in the process has exposed her to the harsher reality and strengthened her resolve. And of course, there’s Tekkadan itself. This group has enriched with personality that watching their antics weekly doesn’t get boring at all. Most notable here is Biscuit Griffon and while his character design can easily fool anyone, he serves as the primary voice of logic in the group. Won’t be going to the specifics of each Tekkadan member but the staff did an amazing job of immersing the audience to their plight, making them care for these colorful characters. Even their ship, Isarabi, has personality with all those graffiti in the walls. All in all, this is one bunch of orphans you’ll be rooting for all throughout.
The main antagonistic element in IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS comes from Gjallarhorn, the military organization that helped stop the Calamity War 300 years past. Two characters were presented to act as the faces of the organization though they don’t necessarily represent its values — McGillis Fareed and Gaelio Bauduin. There are also other named characters but these two matter the most. Given the role Gjallarhorn had during the previous war, they had the task of world-building during the first five episodes or so. What’s great with these two is that they’re not your run-of-the-mill military cogs and know that there’s something wrong with the organization, providing layers to their antagonistic role. While Gaelio is your typical Gjallarhorn soldier, McGillis acknowledges the corruption growing within the ranks and is willing to do everything to reform it, whatever it takes. McGillis takes it one step further when he donned this unnamed masked man identity and started helping Tekkadan, all to further his goals even if it meant eventually using Gaelio who’s clueless until the bitter end. The tragic end of their friendship is further reinforced by the fact that McGillis and Gaelio are really close friends with the former being adapted to the Bauduin family when they were children. This web of lies and deceit brought complexity to the antagonistic element of the story and further blurred the black-and-white difference between the opposing sides.
Before moving forward, someone to note here is Ein Dalton. He was introduced in the first episode as an idealistic, and quite loyal, soldier. He actually gave vibes akin to Saji Crossroad from Mobile Suit Gundam 00. He’s been given substantial attention for such a character, giving the impression that he might be a major player in the endgame. He’s probably supposed to represent the corruption with Gjallarhorn but instead ended up as a whiny, overzealous, soldier who can’t move on after the death of his superior officer Commander Crank. This is clearly reflected on what he eventually became towards the end.
IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS is not a perfect production and an issue that many would probably notice is the pacing. And no, it’s not awful like that of GUNDAM Reconguista in G though it could’ve been better. Plot wise, no major conflict or war is happening during the story so there are no major scale (i.e. fleet-wide) battles that take place. Consequently, there were fewer episodes with mobile suit battles (or rather skirmishes) when compared to previous Gundam series. That said, these encounters are on a much personal level and allow for more character interactions. It’s like the formula used here is to sandwich the mobile suit battle episodes between character ones when it’s usually more of the other way around. This might appear to be slow pacing to some but it definitely provides development and further deepens motivations. One specific example are the ones spent in the Dort Colonies and many point out how they could’ve spent an episode less there. Complementing this argument are the seemingly rushed last episodes though admittedly, they made it flow as seamless as possible. So while it’s not a perfect mix between action, development, and pacing, it is a well balanced one.
First and foremost, do take note that this feature only covers the first season of Mobile Suit Gundam IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS since it took the multiple season approach which allows the production staff to evaluate the series as it goes along, further improving on any missteps they had once the next season starts. It is very much possible that the points noted here would only be reflective of this season and may totally change when the next one arrives. That said, IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS isn’t the perfect Gundam series everybody wanted, but it’s certainly up there as one of the great ones. Sure it had some pacing issues but the overall narrative works and the way they built up the characters made the audience care for them a lot. It took the relatively simple premise of escorting someone from Mars to Earth into an endearing family story and the bonds they share. Here’s hoping that the next season would live up to the promises that these first 25 episodes has set up. Highly recommended!
Contributors: Elise Cruz