So last night I ran across the news that Iron Blooded Orphans finally reached its finale sometime last month (#slowpoke). For me, that’s the cue to go find a stream and binge the bejeezus out of one of my favorite things in the entire world: gigantic animated robots beating the shit out of each other. It’s Anime Night, people. This is going to get a bit ranty.
For those of you who don’t know, Iron Blooded Orphans is the latest in the Gundam series of animated shows that have been declared one of Japan’s cultural treasures. The staying power of Gundam is partially its ability to move a whole lot of plastic on modelling sprues, a hobby that seems to connect nerds of every generation and serves as a benchmark for whatever is in vogue for anime through the years. Gundam is also a series with some great traditions that may seem confusing or pointless to a casual anime fan, of which I’ve compiled a bit of a list:
- Politics. A shitload of politics.
- Belongs to the “real” school of robot anime as opposed to the “super” version. That means robots are subject to limitations like fuel, or the tendency to burn up in the atmosphere, or pilots being crushed to death instead of fading into a shower of fairy dust.
- Bland, often repetitive visuals that more or less serve as backdrops to some amazing voice acting. This is almost always completely lost in a translation to English, even when you have spectacular actors. In latter series, this tendency is exacerbated by CG and the abuse of slightly modified stock footage.
- Different parallel universes that each encompass several series of Gundam, often with no obvious way of telling them apart from each other.
- most of all a tendency to jump from plot point to plot point with scene breaks that often ignore whole days between meaningful events. This is to speed things along and jump from the aforementioned political points to some mech on mech action. See: Reconguista in G, Z Gundam, and the original Mobile Suit Gundam, sometimes known as Gundam 0079.
But when all of these things work together, they deliver some of the most cutting, bleak, yet simultaneously hopeful stories of the lives of ordinary people in the most extraordinary times. Unfortunately for the last few series, Gundam has gone through some distinctly unsatisfying iterations, like the distinctly fan-service oriented Gundam Seed, the all-star but tragically hamstrung Reconguista, and the family-friendly Build Fighters franchise. They all capitalize on different aspects of the series, and they have been popular for various things. Build Fighters brings the modeler into the limelight and Seed opened up the series for teen viewers. But none of them have delivered the magic of the original: that journey of the hopeful young man who sets out to protect the people he loves, but discovers the world is a dark and treacherous place not easily changed, filled with both helpful mentors and backstabbing adults. In a good Gundam series, you’ll find love, rebellion, romance, symbolism, desperation, people being crushed underfoot by society’s casual cruelty, and most importantly: Hope.
Because the series’ primary funding is from model builders and various toy lines, there hasn’t been much of an impetus to return to the darker material that made the Gundam franchise such a memorable experience. Family friendly stories push aside shows like 8th MS Team and Stardust Memory into the OVA miniseries territory. Then there is the trove of tragically unmade manga and novels, like Crossbone Gundam and Gundam Sentinel. In 2010, Sunrise began releasing one of the best entries in that vein, titled Gundam Unicorn. An incredibly high quality production, it was released sporadically with months between installments, and was ironically a Gundam story with an incredibly hopeful ending. It actually gave fans of Char’s Counterattack a wonderfully cathartic ending to the original Gundam canon. If that sort of thing is important to you, by all means check it out. Marida Cruz is definitely my favorite Gundam character of all time.
What Gundam Unicorn did with its amazing visuals, gripping story, and hopeful ending was revitalize the more serious Gundam stories. In 2014 this materialized as Reconguista in G, with the character designer Kenichi Yoshida of Eureka Seven infamy and Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of the original Gundam. It was a recipe that could not go wrong… except it did, and horrifically. The first season is absolutely beautiful to watch, setting up character backstory and motivations, but the second season was horribly foreshortened, cramming the famously confusing Gundam franchise into the worst possible frame it could be in. All hope seemed lost…
Which brings us to Iron Blooded Orphans. Penned by Mari Okada and directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai, the series brings in themes of war, slavery, child soldiers, poverty, corruption and neo-colonialism. It takes the subject of rebellion and cranks it up to a million: a group of wage slave youths working for a military contractor take advantage of their oppressor’s foolishness, seize the very facility they are imprisoned in, and go to work for themselves trying to become the kings of Mars. If ever there was a timely metaphor for the millennial ennui, this is it. People die tragically, they live for the moment, and they humiliate themselves for the people they love. Not to mention, the Gundams in this series are all named for DEMONS OF THE ARS GOETIA. Eschewing the beautiful beams and starbursts of Seed and 00, Orphans gets brutally violent, with heavy, crushing weapons and buckets of blood. If you were waiting futilely for all the dumb people to die, Akihiro Atland has got a pair of building-sized scissors for you.
My favorite thing about Orphans is how relevant it is. In one series Okada explored polyamory, homosexuality, asexuality, family, brotherhood, and gang fraternity, in addition to the abuse of relationships in several forms. I love how disability is given the limelight at the end of season one, which I will not spoil for you. Suffice it to say it does credit to the courage and self-sufficiency of everyone who has ever lost their mobility. And, of course, it addressed the struggle of a younger generation desperately trying to live in a world that is scarred by elders who claimed to know better. It’s a beautiful return to what Gundam was and always should be.