Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

You know, for as much terrible anime as I’ve been watching recently, there’s something to be said about how much more those experiences make you appreciate fantastic shows like these! After going through the self-inflicted torture of watching such gems as KanoKari, Domestic Girlfriend and Tenkuu Danzai, the incredible night-and-day difference in quality here was enough to give me whiplash. Right out of the gate, Iron-Blooded Orphans comes in swinging hard, so hard that it has what is easily one of the best intros I’ve seen for any show; but let’s back up a bit. Iron-Blooded Orphans has a pretty important lead-in to its title—Mobile Suit Gundam. Even if you aren’t an anime or mecha anime fan, I’m sure you’re familiar with Gundam; it’s one of the most popular mecha anime franchises out there, and the one that essentially kickstarted the whole subgenre. Most importantly, it has a LOT of different anime shows that are attached to it, with Iron-Blooded Orphans being just one of nearly 50. Probably one of the biggest ramifications of this is that it is quite hard to properly get into the series; and I like to joke about the confusing nature of franchises like Fate and Magical Index, but they’ve got nothing on the sheer amount of separate shows running in different alternate timelines, canons and universes going on in Gundam. I was actually recommended Iron-Blooded Orphans specifically after vocalizing my desire to get into more mecha animes, something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. Aside from this show, the only other mecha anime that I’ve seen is a very odd one called Idolmaster Xenoglossia, a really weird spin-off anime adaptation of the Idolmaster games—which are idol management sims (think Love Live)—in which the mechas are called “Idols” and the girls piloting them (all of which are idols from the game series) are called “Idolmasters”. The concept is so absolutely ridiculous and fan-fiction-esque that I had to watch it, and surprisingly enough it’s actually pretty good! Definitely not amazing or anything, but decent and with a concept silly and campy enough that it’s just fun to watch—though my memory of it is admittedly lacking detail. But I’m getting off track here; the point I’m making is that the only mecha anime I’ve seen is not one that I would necessarily call a proper mecha anime, so I’ve always had the thought of watching something like Gundam in the back of my mind without any real idea of where to start. Thankfully, Iron-Blooded Orphans is set entirely within its own alternate version of the Gundam universe and doesn’t require any prior knowledge to get into, so it’s great for a first time viewer like myself. Better still is its tone. Before this, when I thought of Gundam, I thought of silly shit like “Shining Finger Sword” from G Gundam, which has a way lighter tone with an English dub/voice acting not unlike that of other incredibly cheesy shows like Yugioh and Pokemon. On the other hand, Iron-Blooded Orphans is actually incredibly dark and gritty, a story about children who have essentially been turned into super soldiers for a paramilitary organization through means of unethical and incredibly dangerous body modification, some of which fight for the sake of survival, and others who are forced to fight against their will. It’s violent, tense and incredibly engaging with very gripping writing and well-done characters. On the one hand, it’s rather space operatic with an overarching plot focused on interplanetary politics, but on the other it is also a very personal character-driven story about the strong familial bond of the aforementioned children, and how that familial bond is contrasted against the horrors of war they face. And boy howdy, Mikazuki Augus as the protagonist was so god-damn satisfying after suffering through one generic male anime protagonist after another throughout the last few shitshows I’ve watched; on top of being a stone cold badass, Mikazuki is a very interesting character with a lot of hidden depth. But all that aside, this is a mecha anime—how are the action scenes? Simply put, Iron-Blooded Orphans is incredibly well-animated, well-choreographed and intense with great sound design that makes all the fighting feel both fast-paced and impactful, with the grittier tone of the show lending both graphic violence and really harsh metal-on-metal to the action scenes—I absolutely loved it (and of course the mechas are very cool, I especially loved the protagonist’s Gundam, Barbatos). The aforementioned interplanetary politics and their background are explained to the viewer over time in a way that doesn’t slow things down or feel invasive, with lots of organic world building that makes you super interested to learn more as you go, as opposed to boring expository dialogue. Despite the obvious importance of action scenes in a show within the mecha subgenre, there is equal weight placed on the story and characters, which all of the action scenes are important to; never does the show feel like it breaks away from the story to spend an overly long time on just action sequences, and never do you feel bored waiting for an action scene to occur given how much the events of the story place weight on what happens during those fights. And it’s not just mechs hitting eachother, but people—children, no less—fucking killing eachother, something the show places emphasis on. And it’s not as though the story is completely, unrelentingly depressing; in fact, there’s lots of in-between sections filled with lighthearted character interactions and, admittedly, aspects of the show and its characters that are very silly and traditionally anime-esque, but at the end of the day that very thing is actually a huge part of why it works so well, really helping to drive home the heaviness of events that take place later on. Let’s quickly talk about the fantastic intro I mentioned earlier—Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans has what is easily one of the best intro episodes I have seen in a solid while. It immediately hooks you in, masterfully ingratiating you to its colorful cast of characters while setting up a super hype-filled and well-done action sequence, music dripping with style, focus on the cool and interesting parts of its really well-crafted universe, really gripping dialogue and the promise of a realistic, gritty tone. You get interested to see where it’s going, to learn more about the characters within it, to understand more about the universe in which it takes place—it’s a super well done positive tone-setter and got me super excited to watch the rest of the show, since those kinds of very strong opening episodes are more often than not a good indicator for the rest of the show’s quality. Of course, having a good opening doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the show will be amazing, but I think this one manages to live up to its fantastic opening pretty damn well. Despite what it might lead you to believe on its surface level, Iron-Blooded Orphans is not really a story about political intrigue or rising up to free the people from oppression. Rather, it’s a story about the price its characters pay to be free—about living and dying by the sword, about finding personal meaning in a conflict larger than yourself, and gambling your life on a better future for the people you love. It asks the question of what it truly means to carve out a path for yourself, tackling themes of meaning behind life and death and letting the viewer decide for themselves what they believe. Are the protagonists reckless, or brave and determined? Are their deaths heroic and meaningful, or the unfortunate byproduct of senseless violence? Did they live their lives to the fullest, or die before they had a chance? Ultimately, there is no right answer to any of those questions. It’s easy to talk about peace and unity while condemning violence, but somehow I doubt we’ll ever get so much as a whiff of true peace, not unless every human alive is robbed of their individual will. This is another theme the show explores; in the end, the so-called “villains” the heroes fight are just as human as we are, with realistic motivations and ways of thinking. War continues and people die so long as they can’t agree on what’s important to them, with the individuals of armies hating and dehumanizing one another to maintain their sanity and chase after what they perceive to be righteous vengeance. All-in-all, Iron-Blooded Orphans is a really well written personal story about its characters and their struggle to live life their way in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds, hidden behind the pretext of interplanetary political scheming. I could talk at great length about just how many layers of depth there are here to explore within the writing, but I’d probably be here all day philosophizing about life and death. As a viewer, what all that amounts to is a really brutally realistic, believable depiction of warfare that is sometimes action packed and exciting, and other times gut-wrenching and tragic. It’s violent and gritty and stays true to that same dark tone throughout its entire runtime, yet has bright spots of hope that keep you invested in the journey of its main cast. We’re at the point now in the modern era of anime in which we’ve been conditioned to expect stories focusing on young characters, which makes the focus on child soldiers here even more potent—a dark and brilliant twist on the age-old trope of teenagers saving the world. The difficult lives they’ve lived have matured them well beyond their physical ages, and their harsh realities are contrasted against the innocence of those privileged few who take upon themselves the responsibility to create a better world for the less fortunate, constantly challenging their mindset of idealism and romanticism. I mentioned earlier that Mikazuki is the protagonist, but to be honest Iron-Blooded Orphans is about and focuses on a whole lot more than just the personal story of Mikazuki himself. Everybody around Mikazuki is equally important; rather than being a charismatic and noble leader, Mikazuki is just one of the many pieces holding the team together, albeit an incredibly strong one. It’s easy to call him the “hero”, but he’s not really a hero at all. He certainly doesn’t see his own actions as being heroic—but I really need to talk about something else before I spoil the whole fuckin’ show for you (or at least the first season of it—I haven’t yet watched the second). The music is stellar and extremely memorable with a great motif, it oozes style and it’s utilized excellently here. The direction of Iron-Blooded Orphans is just really great in general, and considering that “Gundam” is a slightly altered portmanteau of “Gun” and “Freedom” (aka “Gundom”), they really nailed the execution of a serious, realistic narrative within its universe (even if that universe doesn’t necessarily line up with the series’ most well-established canon). Great action, great characters, interesting plot with tons of really interesting philosophical themes, great music—what more could I ask for? A really damn good, believable and gritty mecha anime with brutally violent action both in space and on the ground about child soldiers and the horrors of war yet still retaining a strong element of hopefulness—Iron Blooded-Orphans was practically made for me, I swear. And you know, obviously it’s not perfect. It slows down a little bit during the second half, the political scheming stuff can be difficult to follow and is not always the most interesting, sometimes the epic orchestral music can be a little bit much and while the opening and ending songs are great during the first half they get more generic during the second, etc. The climax of season one is relatively open ended and clearly intended to set up the following season—I do have to commend them for managing to do so without it devolving into a complete cliffhanger or overly blatant sequel bait, kudos for that. It manages to be satisfying enough and I think its open-endedness—while surely off-putting for some—works in service to the concept of the show and the themes present within it. In terms of how this show has affected my perception of the Gundam franchise as a whole, I feel like it’s both a blessing and a curse. There really isn’t any other Gundam anime comparable to this one; all of the others are complete and utter tonal opposites to Iron-Blooded Orphans. I was watching a YouTube video of one of the Gundam video games a few months ago which features the characters from other Gundam shows alongside the cast of Iron-Blooded Orphans, and the contrast is so huge it’s distracting (particularly when directly comparing Mikazuki to other far more generic and over-the-top Gundam protagonists). For as much as I loved this show, I really can’t see myself truly getting into or being interested in the Gundam franchise as a whole. I think the mechas are cool, but Iron-Blooded Orphans doesn’t really attach you to the mechas themselves since that isn’t really the point of it—the mechs are just tools of war and not much else. In fact, early on it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between who is in what mech since a lot of them look very similar to one another with a few exceptions—this gets to be a bit less of an issue later on when the characters are piloting different mechs more easily distinguishable from one another. At the end of the day, it’s not about the mechs, but the people piloting them. It’s easy in these types of shows to feel as if the people inside the mechs are disconnected from the fighting itself, but Iron-Blooded Orphans does a really good job of making it feel real, showing the gruesome injuries and deaths of pilots impaled and crushed within their cockpits by the debris of their own Mobile Suits—it reminds me of the cool and thematic parts of the last Steel Battalion game! Actually, there are a lot of comparisons to be made here with Steel Battalion, but for the sake of our own sanity let’s not dredge up too many bad memories of how that franchise was murdered in cold blood by the godless abomination that was the Kinect. Getting back to my previous point, it’s just hard to rationalize a show like Iron-Blooded Orphans and a show like G Gundam being a part of the same franchise when they are polar opposites to one another in almost every way short of having mechas in them. But that fact doesn’t bring down either of those two shows at all—I just think it’s a shame there aren’t really any other Gundam animes to sink my teeth into which appeal to the audience this particular one is meant to appeal to. Even if I did want more though, I highly doubt I’d have the patience and time required to watch like 49 different Gundam animes—the fact a standalone serious one like this exists for newcomers like me searching for something believable and gritty is a blessing. If you’re at all interested in watching mecha anime, go and check this one out—while I have yet to watch the second season, the first is fantastic and well worth your time if you’re in the market for something a little dark, gritty and thoughtful. As usual, I’ll be back in due time to share my thoughts on the second season. By the way, I should mention that I watched the second half of season one after taking a break several months long—I took the time to catch myself up on what happened and got back into the swing of things pretty quickly once I started the show up again, which speaks to how memorable it is and reflects on it pretty positively. If there was any major negative to taking such an extended break from the show, it’d definitely be how difficult it became to keep up with all the space politics which may have colored my opinion of the show a bit but ultimately wasn’t a huge issue—at the end of the day, I think the only real thing I have to complain about with this show is the political shit they’re using as a pretext for the actual story, and that’s a very opinionated personal thing since I just don’t generally like political intrigue. Even still, it can be done plenty well and for the most part it is here—if you want an example of really good political intrigue, go and read Mistborn. Actually, just read Mistborn regardless of whether or not you’re looking for an example, it’s fucking amazing and Brandon Sanderson is a fuckin’ god among men (I personally recommend the GraphicAudio versions). Anyways, it’s like 7:30 AM and I need to sleep, goodbye.

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