Monday 18 April 2016

Anime Review: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

Though a constant influence and staple in the anime world for over 35 years, right now Mobile Suit Gundam seems to be enjoying quite a boom. Between the endless supply of model kits, multiple television series and OVAs mecha fans are in no short supply of new material from the genre-defining franchise. And although the Yoshiyuki Tomino-led Reconguista in G proved divisive among the fanbase, it wasn't long before Gundam was back for a brand new instalment in the form of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans (also abbreviated to simply G-Tekketsu from it's full Japanese title). Adding another alternate timeline into the franchise's long and varied chronology, Iron-Blooded Orphans comes from director and writer team Tatsuyuki Nagai and Mari Okada - the pair famously behind AnoHana as well as many other notable anime works of the past few years.

Mika & Orga
Like a homicidal Simon and Kamina

The year is Post Disaster 323, more than 300 years after the "Calamity War" - a great conflict between Earth and its outer colonies. Mars has been colonised by humanity, but as time has passed its impoverished people have begun to seek freedom from the planet they are reliant on for economic development. Leading the cry for independence is Kudelia Aina Bernstein, a Martian Princess who plans to travel to Earth to state her case. Also living in her nation of Chryse are the civilian security company Chryse Guard Security (CGS) - an organisation who employ disposable child soldiers that would be otherwise forgotten. Among them are orphans and childhood friends Mikazuki Augus and Orga Itsuka.

When Kudelia turns to CGS to work as her escort to Earth, the group are attacked by Gjallarhorn - the military organisation that brought an end to the Calamity War and now acts as a peacemaker for Earth's main power blocks. Using it as an opportunity to break free from their oppressive superiors, Orga leads a coup against CGS and forms the mercenary group Tekkadan. Tekkadan then take on Kudelia's request of safe passage to Earth, with their military strength led by the Gundam Barbatos - one of 72 unique Mobile Suits produced during the war.

Kudelia Aina Bernstein
Better than Relena Peacecraft

With a plot description that immediately delves into a civil war scenario between the Earth and its colonies, it doesn't take much to see how Iron-Blooded Orphans falls comfortably into all the usual Gundam conventions. Though it may have a new coat all the staple Gundam traditions are here, right down to the ambiguous villain playing both sides whilst wearing a mask. However the aspect of child soldiers is one that Iron-Blooded Orphans pushes to its natural limits, basing the series around a ragtag group of military orphans breaking away to find their place in the world. Gundam has always offered the viewpoint that there's no clear sense of good and evil on the battlefield when it comes to individuals, but here it's taken to the extremes as we see our supposed "heroes" out for blood and unwilling to take any prisoners. Though they may be childhood friends to call Mika and Orga's relationship unhealthy would be putting it lightly, with it also having a knock on-effect on the younger, more impressionable members of Tekkadan - particularly when lives are lost in the course of their journey. It's a nicely done dynamic which often shows how messed up their upbringing has left them, especially when other characters are later thrown in who have more balanced morals. Strong praise should also go to Kudelia, who despite achieving very little of her cliche goal within the course of the series (but hey, there's still a second season coming) visibly grows as character as she spends more time in Tekkadan's company.

McGillis and Gallajhorn

Unfortunately the same can't really be said for Gallajhorn, who aren't anywhere nearly as interesting or engaging as their opponents. McGillis Fareed's machinations and plot to purify the corrupted organisation only prove to be vaguely interesting as the series progresses, for now cementing as just a second-rate Char rather than putting a new spin on the tired concept. Some relief comes in the form of both fleet Commander Carta Issue and mobile suit pilot Ein Dalton, both of whom are more memorable for their own arcs even if they don't really amount to as much as they could (especially Ein, whose "rebirth" with the Alaya-Vijinana system offered huge potential but was utterly squandered on a final episode "boss" role). The rest of the time Gallajhorn simply come across as pathetically inept, particularly when a specific episode highlights the fact that they don't even know what Kudelia - the character they've spent the series trying to track down, even looks like.

McGillis posing as Montag
There comes a point where these characters stop being interesting

Of course the big offset of having a stronger character focus is that the mecha action can sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Iron-Blooded Orphans is a series that prefers memorable set pieces over a constant flow of robot action, so despite the ever-constant presence of Barbatos and various other Mobile Suit Frames flying around only a handful of episodes contain anything truly standout. The mecha design itself however doesn't disappoint, with the series offering a pretty wide variety of Mobile Suit designs and types while retaining many of the visual cues one would come to expect from a Gundam series. The Barbatos can sit comfortably with its peers thanks to its all too familiar blue, white and yellow colour scheme, but its spindly under frame and accentuated head crest also set it apart quite drastically. The others aren't quite as memorable as far as names go, but again there's a wide variety when it comes to colours and build. An especially nice addition are the spider-like Mobile Workers, which add an addition ground-level action dynamic to the clashing of giant metal titans.

It also comes at the cost of the setting, which currently feels like simply backdrop context rather than something suitably intertwined with the narrative. The Calamity War is long since over by the time Iron-Blooded Orphans begins, and Kudelia's cry for Martian independence is something that only really affects her. While that isn't to say Tekkadan don't have a stake in her mission, their involvement is consequential. Put simply - it's easy to forget that the show is trying to create some bigger political statement when it feels repeatedly lost in a "oppressed children taking on the world" narrative. Despite the constant references to its history, Iron-Blooded Orphans' world (or should that be solar system?) often feels disappointingly small.

Gundam Barbatos
You'd think that waist was a huge weak point

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is far from a perfect series, but still manages to carry the Gundam spirit forward by featuring all the themes and traditions fans have come to expect from the franchise while at the same time adding its own spin with interesting ideologies and a memorable main cast. What it lacks in regular mecha action it makes up for with the characters, offering a Gundam series that seems far less concerned with the bigger picture and blurs the line between hero and villain all the more. This first season has set some excellent groundwork for the series going forward, which should hopefully continue to gain momentum as it goes forward later this year.

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