Saturday 8 April 2017

Anime REVIEW: Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans Season 2

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans Season 2
Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans season 2 is available in streaming form via Daisuki

The past few years have seen Mobile Suit Gundam go from strength to strength, enjoying a steady flow of series, OVAs, blu-ray releases and of course model kits. Part of this recent success can of course be attributed to Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, the latest entry in the long-running mecha franchise which concluded its first 25-episode series mid-2016. The show’s dub also marked the first time in over a decade that Gundam aired in the US on Toonami – the programming block that helped popularise Gundam in the West back in the 90s with Gundam Wing. After a short break Iron-Blooded Orphans returned for a second season in October 2016, running for a further 25 episodes until April 2017. As before the series was helmed by Mari Okada and Tatsuyuki Nagai – a writer/director combination that had previously collaborated on AnoHana in addition to other popular works.

Mikazuki & OrgaMcGillis Fareed

Set some years after the conclusion of the first season, Tekkadan has established itself as a prominent military company while Kudelia has joined forces with Teiwaz to form the Admoss mining company while continue to improve the living and working conditions of Mars’ inhabitants. With his new position, McGillis Fareed continues his quest for the power to end the corruption within Gjallarhorn. However the Arianhod Fleet, a faction of Gjallarhorn opposing McGillis, begins working in the shadows to bring down both him and Tekkadan. Working under him is a masked figure named Vidar, appearing with his own grudge against McGillis.

As McGillis and Tekkadan join forces to bring down the Arianhod Fleet and its leader Rustal Elion, the secrets of the Calamity War are revealed as an ancient enemy is unearthed. Tekkadan become entwined in McGillis coup against Gjallarhorn, lured in by the promise of becoming the “Kings of Mars”. With their status crumbling and the battles taking heavy tolls, Orga, Mikazuki and the rest of Tekkadan continue to fight to find a place where they belong.

Rustal & VidarAtra & Kudelia

The balance of power has shifted considerably since Iron-Blooded Orphans’ first season. Whereas previously the show had Tekkadan fighting their oppressors as the constant underdogs, now they are in a position of both power and popularity. What season two tackles is how Tekkadan fares with this newfound power, still coming out as the underdogs as they are manipulated by the political machinations of those around them. The story is directly about their goal to find their place, and more about how they can accomplish this after being engulfed into Gjallarhorn’s in-fighting. The result is a much more twisted season, particularly nihilistic in its approach to warfare and politics. Iron-Blooded Orphans never truly loses sight of its endgame, but the message is a particularly stark one of how history is written by the winners.

In 25 episodes Iron-Blooded Orphans season two has a lot of ground to cover, powering its way through multiple developments all while juggling key background detail about both the characters and the lead up to the “Post Disaster” Age. When the Mobile Armour is unearthed midway through the series this at first feels like it's going to be the major story element going forward, but instead it's just another cog in Tekkadan being roped into McGillis' scheme to reform Gjallarhorn. The ramifications coming out of that small section of the story are less about the Mobile Armour and more the implications around defeating it. From there IBO fully launches into revealing McGillis' grand scheme, representing a more antiquated way of seizing and displaying power than the more corrupt methods Gjallarhorn have evolved into using. There's a lot of symbolism involved and while IBO certainly doesn't always get it right, very little can be taken at face value with this series.

Julieta JurisNaze Turbine

But if the likes of AnoHana or Kiznaiver have proved anything, when it comes to a Mari Okada series it’s all about the characters. IBO season one did a great job of setting up Tekkadan as a real “family” unit and the second half pushes that even further with a much greater focus on its wider members. Familiar faces like Akihiro, Ride, Shino, Naze and the Teiwaz girls are all built upon nicely, but the same also extends to characters like Aston, Takaki and newcomer Hush Middy. On the Gjallarhorn side of things, you also have Julieta Julis and Iok Kujan – the latter working wonderfully as the character the viewer is supposed to pour all their hatred into. The widened focus does mean that some characters are thrown slightly to the wayside, with this new set up particularly affecting Kudelia. Season one stayed strong in keeping the “Princess of Mars” as a key character, but here her role feels reduced to that of a figurehead – important in context and specific moments, but detached from any of the real drama. However Orga and Mikazuki are still very much at the forefront of this show, even if the latter's involvement in the actual drama feels most reactionary to what's happening around him. As Orga struggles with his place as Tekkadan's leader, Mikazuki is dealing with losing control of more and more of his body thanks to using the Barbatos. He deals with all of this in his usual "stone-dead eyes" kind of way, but through Atra there is at least some attempt at humanising him further. It's a pity we never really get to see a Mikazuki beyond that demeanour though, especially when certain events feel like they have the potential to push him into uncharted territory emotionally.

Shino & EugeneIok Kujan

Relationships is the key theme of the series, and is expressed in a number of different ways. Bound together by the familial bonds of Tekkadan, the show also tackles romance (hetero, homosexual and - rather haphazardly, polygamous), admiration, brotherhood, loyalty and betrayal. The complexities of these characters are where Iron-Blooded Orphans really shines though, illustrating in true Gundam fashion that not everything in conflict is black and white. Throughout the series all parties have either bloodied their hands or resorted to dirty tactics to get what they want, painting the battle in varying shades of grey. Few characters are truly good or truly evil, and while some get what they ultimately deserve others might not – something especially made clear by the time the final credits roll. While this brutally realistic approach certainly won’t strike many as an ideal ending, it’s undoubtedly the most fitting one.

Characters might be what make a Gundam series truly worth watching, it’s the mecha that are the face of the franchise and therefore action is a pretty important part of determining its success. Just like the story the scale of the battles has become much bigger, with IBO’s second season commanding plenty of explosive space battles as well as the more familiar desert skirmishes. The faceoff against the revived Mobile Armour is particularly impressive, with the machine zooming through a desert canyon while Tekkadan do everything that can to bring it down. The Barbatos is still at the forefront of the action, with each upgrade bringing more than just a progressively longer name.  Also leaving strong impressions are the Gundams Bael and Vidar, representing different sides of the Gjallarhorn conflict with similarly built mechanisms.  Season two boasts far more impressive mecha action than the first, but the problem here it quickly builds Mikazuki (and as an extension, Tekkadan) to be near unbeatable, leading to the opposition having to resort to cheap tactics just to keep things on an even footing. Enter the Dainsleif – a now-illegal long distance railgun that can successfully incapacitate both Mobile Armours and Gundam Frames. These weapons become particularly frequent in stopping any conflict dead in its tracks, effectively removing any sort of tension as Gjallarhorn immediately gain the upper hand.

The Mobile ArmourGundam Bael

In its second season not only does Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans greatly expand upon its characters and setting, it propels them forward to turn the show as a whole into one of the most interesting and thought-provoking Gundam entries in recent years. There may be a few missteps along the way, its story of a rag-tag bunch of child soldiers breaking free of their shackles was one fully realised – charting their rise and fall against a politically-charged backdrop where nothing should be taken at face value. Throw in some high-stakes mecha battles, the obligatory masked character and a whole bunch of model kits to sell you have the makings of a pretty great Gundam series.



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