Leave the Gundam, Take the Cannoli
Have I mentioned how much I’m really digging the new Gundam show? Because I am really digging the new Gundam show. Recent iterations of the franchise have tried to aim at a younger audience with mixed results. I enjoyed the silliness of Build Fighters and disparaged AGE and G-Reco. Iron-Blooded Orphans takes the franchise back to a harder and grittier scene. The result is a more mature show, which is exactly what the franchise needs.
The gist is fairly simple. The story begins on a terraformed Mars in the far future. The period is set some three hundred odd years after a huge future war ravaged the solar system. Earth is divided into four economic blocks and has colonies on Mars. A military organization called Gjallarhorn enforces the peace on both planets.
The main characters a group of child soldiers who work for a PMC (Private Military Contractor) run by abusive adults on Chryse, a Martian city. They manage to create their own PMC, named Tekkadan, and strike out on their own. They are contracted to escort an aristocratic lady from Mars to Earth for political reasons. The odds are not in their favor but they do have a Gundam on their side, so that helps.
The plot is a little bare at this point. Tekkadan leaves Mars to take a politician to Earth to lobby for Matian rights and they all have issues along the way. They clash with the aristocratic Gjallarhorn, ally with an interplanetary mafia, and fight punk space pirates.
The main character is a boy named Mikazuki Argus. (Or Mika for short.) Most Gundam protagonists fall into the archetype of being a technical genius that happens to fall into the cockpit of a giant mecha in the middle of a war. A few are trained pilots enlisted in a military. Mika is a child soldier from Mars. He was drafted into a private military contractor called CGS from a very young age and given risky surgery that gives him a port in his spine that allows him to connect directly by wire to mobile suits to operate them.
Mika has a rather stoic personality. Not exactly anything new, as previous Gundam protagonists like Hiro and Setsuna had similar demeanors. But whereas Setsuna had the charm of a brick and Hrio’s characterization was too inconsistent, Mika feels more natural. We see him take pleasure in things. He enjoys snacks, for instance. And we see him take interest in other people.
The rest of the character roster is appropriately fleshed-out. The deuteragonist is another teen soldier named Orga Itsuki, who becomes the leader of the PMC and is the one to rename it Tekkadan (Iron Flower). If Mika is the muscle, then Orga is definitely the brains of the outfit. The two’s relationship is a little deeper than that, though. They grew up and fought together in the same company. Orga feels pressured by Mika to be a capable leader and to be inventive with their battle plans, (even though Mika does not appear to be aware that Orga feels this way). Mika also seems a little too compliant with carrying out Orga’s sometimes insane plans, including killing people in cold blood.
I’m interested in seeing how their relationship will change over the series. Is Orga going to abuse Mika’s trust? Is Mika going to gain more awareness?
I wish more could be done with the third main character, Kudelia. She is the lady to commissions Tekkadan to take her to Earth. She appears to be a very politically charged person but she has little to do with moving the plot along. She is not a fighter or a tactician but I thought that she could at least do something like negotiate with the mobsters they run into or be involved in some kind of decision making. Here’s hoping that she’ll have more importance in the future.
The rest of the cast is fleshed out with quirky sidekicks, shifty allies, aggressive yet honorable antagonists, and a few outright psycho antagonists. (I never feel right using the word ‘villian’ for a Gundam character.) And, of course, there are plenty of characters with ridiculous names. It would not be a Gundam show, otherwise. So far, we have names like Naze Turbine, Biscuit Griffon, and McGillis Fareed. Yes, McGillis is a personal name in this strange future world. I imagine that these sound foreign and exotic to a native Japanese speaker, but they are a little silly to an American English speaker like me.
Of course, every protagonist in a Gundam show needs a Gundam. This one is called Barbatos. It is one of seventy two unique Gundam frames that were produced in a war that takes place three hundred some odd years ago before the start of this series. The design is fairly typical for a Gundam. It has a primarily white and blue color scheme with smaller red and yellow parts. Barbatos is designed around a skeletal frame with armor plates over it. Its primary weapon is a huge honking mace / spear thing that is just brutal to see in action.
The other mobile suits are a little more varied than the standard Zaku-style mono-eye grunts that keep getting recycled. The Gjallarhorn mooks have a very boxy and angular design to them that is a little dull. The pirate mooks are bulky and almost turtle-esque. None of the designs are bad but none of them stand out, either. All are painstakingly hand-drawn as opposed to rendered with 3D models. And it looks great.
Interestingly, there are no glowing beam sabers or plasma cannons or anything of the sort to be seen in IBO. All of the fighting between the giant mecha is done with guns that fire solid bullets and melee weapons with solid blades. This adds to the grittier feel of the whole show.
Despite the bare plot, IBO is richer with themes. There is a strong children versus adults theme that permeates the story and character actions. The teen soldiers of Tekkadan were abused by the adults in their lives and forced to fight in adult’s wars. This is a theme that appears is some of the older Tomino-made Gundam shows but it is more fleshed-out here. Aside from children being pressured and forced to fight wars on Mars, we also see that the aristocracy on Earth practices arranged marriages with girls being assigned husbands as early as ten years old, although it appears that they wait until they are older to actually marry. A lot of this show looks to be about trying to grow up in a harsh world and trying not to become a sociopath along the way.
Thirteen episodes have aired as of this writing with twenty six scheduled. Already, I am hoping for a sequel.
A lot of the previous Gundam shows in the last decade and a half seem like they were made by a committee that was too focused on trying to figure out what would make the most money. SEED and 00 were retreads of previous series and had modest success. Gundam AGE was specifically designed to appeal to new and younger fans. When that failed, they tried to aim for older fans with G Reconguista, which was made to appear retro. And after that failed, we now have Iron-Blooded Orphans.
It’s clear that Sunrise really does not want to give up on Gundam. After some critical failures they’ve decided to hand the reins over to people who look like they actually want to do something interesting with the show. Mari Okada is the show runner and she has a rather diverse list of shows that she has worked on. She is probably best known for Lupin III: The Woman named Fujiko Mine.
The show has been critically lauded so far. At least it is on this side of the Pacific. I don’t know how it’s doing in Japan, either critic-wise or ratings-wise. I hope it’s doing well because I really want this show to succeed.
Ratings alone have never been enough to sustain a Gundam show. The franchise has always relied on merchandise to bring in the real money. Animation is expensive, after all. Of course, a merchandisable show does not always equate a show of quality and vice versa. And IBO does not appear to be the most merchandisable show. Sure, there are model kits on sale along with other merchandise, but I am not seeing a plethora of it like with most Gundam shows.
In any case, I cannot wait for the next episode.