As a franchise, Gundam explores the meaning and effects of war. However, the quality of each series varies greatly with the premise being periodically undermined by immature attitudes and pseudo-intellectual exposition. Often the gains made by depicting senselessness on the battlefield are promptly countered by melodrama and sentimentality. True suffering gives way to teenage angst. Because of these tendencies, Gundam as a whole is shackled to its more adolescent underpinnings, with giant robots as nothing more than a proxy for having superpowers.
Iron-Blooded Orphans defies this trend and is one of the stronger submissions to the Gundam franchise. Driven more by the characters than the machines, IBO uses past suffering as a backdrop rather than a plot device. The story centers on Tekkadan, a mercenary band composed of child soldiers who have rebelled against their former overlords. Led by Orga Itsuka, this misfit collection of human debris must now face a society indifferent to their struggles. In the process, they discover a sense of belonging and camaraderie that they have never experienced.
With this as a backdrop, IBO is far grittier than most Gundam series. There is no glory in what the children of Tekkadan do; it is an act of survival, not honor. This can be seen most clearly in Mikazuki Argus, the ace pilot of the company. Unlike many protagonists he does not view his opponents as rivals. They are obstacles, nothing more, and he will crush them without hesitation or remorse. So it is with the rest of Tekkadan, desperately fighting to continue living in an apathetic world.
The inherent quality of the plot. Despite the inadequacies of the execution (more on that below), I would argue that IBO has one of the strongest Gundam stories to date. The essence of the series is anti-heroic. Combat is not admirable, idealism can be dangerous, and determination does not always win the day. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the ascension and demise of Tekkadan.
As the story begins, we are treated to a familiar narrative: a downtrodden group finds an inner strength, rebels against the established order, and will now change the world. However, Tekkadan is composed of uneducated children, wily in combat but inept at intrigue and politics. While early on their strengths are enough to carry the day, it was blind luck that led them to a kindly patron in the Turbines, a conscience in Kudelia, and diplomatic backing from Makanai. This sort of fortune does not continue forever, and soon Tekkadan found itself in over its head. Having risen into the ranks of power, they came into contact with those who knew how to wield it before they themselves were prepared. Their boldness was an unwitting challenge to the greater forces of the Earth sphere. Seeing this coming, Biscuit urged Orga to restraint. But with his unfortunate passing there was nobody left in Tekkadan to keep it from plunging forward into disaster.
It is in this final segment that IBO is at its strongest. The narrative is uncompromising: an intrepid spirit alone is not enough to overcome any obstacle. While we have come to believe in our heroes, as they have come to believe in themselves, there is no last-second miracle. The resources and planning of their enemies, as well as their willingness to use unscrupulous means, prove to be too much. And so ends Tekkadan, with a last stand of its greatest warriors, guarding the exodus of the rest as they seek asylum and anonymity on Earth.
But what threatens to be a dismal conclusion is ameliorated by the subsequent events. Although our heroes fell, it was not entirely in vain. Gjallarhorn was not defeated, but the strife caused by McGillis and Tekkadan did force it to restructure and become more accountable for its actions. Human debris, formerly a blind spot for most of society, was thrust into the limelight and abolished. Even though Tekkadan itself may have failed, it is not forgotten. This was a surprisingly satisfying end, offering hope while not betraying the ethos of the series.
In addition to the story, the depiction of combat adds weight to the view that strife is not glorious. In most mecha series the fights feel clean, antiseptic, distanced from the human element. In IBO the fights have a sense of dirty desperation. The fighting continues until the pilots are beaten and bloodied, their suits in shambles. The ragged edges, the dripping oils, and the shuddering half-functional maneuvers all contribute to the feeling that this is not merely for show, but an engagement of life and death. While there are many examples, several of Mikazuki's battles come to mind: his annihilation of Carta Issue, the dismantling of the Mobile Armor, and his last desperate stand all exemplify the merciless, animalistic scramble that is IBO's war.
This brings us back to Mikazuki Argus. Having seen multiple Gundam series, it becomes an expected trope that the top pilot is a cold and emotionally distant killing machine, with nothing but the mission on his mind. However, inevitably, it is discovered that he has a good heart underneath and it has only been repressed by his tragic past. An ideal vessel for the adolescent male viewers to self-insert and fantasize with. Mikazuki is nothing of the sort. A true case of emotional damage he is devoid of any internal moral compass, only beholden to Orga who acts as his anchor and handler. Mikazuki is composed but fanatical in his devotion and is unfazed even by his later progressive paralysis from excessive use of the Alaya-Vijnana system in combat. As he tells Orga: "Just tell me what to do and who to kill. I will remove all the obstacles before you." He is completely broken, but is a far more compelling character for it.
If I had to pinpoint one crucial failing of IBO, it is the lack of consistency and subtlety in storytelling and character development. My exposition of the themes and plot above come only after extensive review and contemplation; during the actual viewing of the series I was lost.
First, while IBO can boast many outstanding scenes, the bulk of the episodes between these moments were implemented poorly. The pattern was often the same: in preparation for a key situation we are suddenly introduced to characters, organizations, or technologies with which we had little or no previous awareness. Given a short run up, we have little time to incorporate them into our understanding. And once they had served their purpose, they are gone, never to be heard from again. Mobile Armor, Dainsleifs, the orbital Earth colonies, the separatist Mars groups, Makanai, and the elections of Arbrau just to name a few.
This weakness in storytelling also extends to the characters of the series. IBO has an ambitiously large cast, but is unable to adequately support them all. We hardly get to know most of them, good or bad. Take for instance Rustal Elion, commander of the Arianrhod fleet. As the primary antagonist of the end of the series, one would expect us to know more about him. Yet, he is only given a cursory introduction. With no prior development, we can only be left confused as he is first presented as a regressive-but-respectable member of Gjallarhorn, to an underhanded tactician willing to exploit banned technologies, to an effective leader that heads a reformed Gjallarhorn in wake of the events of the series. If the writers had been more skillful I would take these to be dynamic facets of a complicated character, but instead they feel disjointed and opportunistic.
Nowhere is this lack of development felt more strongly than with the members of Tekkadan itself. Despite having 50 episodes to work with, most of them still felt more like stand-ins. This is especially devastating when many of them begin to die in the final arc, and I did not know who some of them were. It is not enough to focus on a character for a scant few episodes while they are "important." Without the small touches that endear us, the non-essential points of development that remind us of who they are, we cannot invest in them as an audience.
As this two year saga comes to an end, I find myself both impressed at the scope of the narrative and frustrated by its inexpert execution. Its strong themes, battles, and death scenes (Lafter...) were often lost amid the disorganized wash of events. However, the series stayed true to itself and stuck the landing, being engaging up until the last scene. It is a worthy submission to the genre and I look forward to future Gundam series if they have as much heart as this one did.